Walking along rows of freshly hedged grapevines on a warm fall day, Imed Dami stops to pluck some of the smaller Riesling grapes from the vine. He pops one of the grapes into his mouth, demonstrating that the sweet white grapes are good to eat even though they are used for making wine. He drops the cluster of grapes into a yellow bin while explaining that the smaller, or secondary, grapes need to be removed from the vine so the larger grapes can get more energy during their final weeks of growing.
With harvest rapidly approaching (usually early- to mid-October), the grapes growing near Lake Erie this year are smaller than normal. An unusually cold winter and frost in May damaged the crop of grapes growing in Lake and Ashtabula counties. But Dami, assistant professor of horticulture and crop science at Ohio State University, doesn’t mind. He’s happy the grapes are not only growing but thriving in an area that was once considered a polluted wasteland. Dami chuckles as he talks about how people react when he tells him that the grapes are growing in the middle of a massive brownfield, an old industrial site, that is being cleaned up.
“They are surprised, interested and excited to hear about the vineyard. It’s not every day that you hear about a vineyard growing in a brownfield,” he said.
The idea of putting in a vineyard came during discussions about what to do with a 300-acre man-made lake that Diamond Shamrock Painesville Works used for making soda ash, a chemical needed for glass manufacturing. The lake is in the middle of 1,100 acres that were used for 64 years by Diamond until the company closed in 1976. In the 1980s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put a 120-acre clay cap over a contaminated area of the site, and the land sat idle for more than two decades. During that time, plants started to grow on the dried-up lake. As they did, they formed a layer of topsoil.
Recognizing that the land located along the Lake Erie shore was prime real estate, a Cleveland-based development company, Hemisphere Development LLC, became interested in the site. Funds from the Clean Ohio Fund, a statewide bond initiative approved by voters in 2000, helped kick-start redevelopment of the property. The bond initiative, renewed by voters last year, has provided more than $400 million for farmland preservation, green space conservation, brownfield revitalization and recreational trails. Hemisphere came up with an elaborate multiuse plan for the old Diamond property – residential housing, a hotel, golf course, nature trails and sports center – and called it Lakeview Bluffs. The developers and scientists weren’t sure, however, what to do with the lake, which was too unstable for housing.
That’s when Bill Rish, a risk-assessment expert with Hull & Associates Inc., came up with an unusual, if not crazy sounding, idea. During the process of making soda ash, millions of gallons of Lake Erie water were used, and the water and remnants of crushed calcium and limestone were pumped out to the man-made lake, known by locals as the “soup pond” for its white consistency. When the lake dried up, it contained several feet deep of Solvay material, which is essentially pure baking soda.
“Bill Rish took a look at the chalk-like material and said `I bet you can do a vineyard here.’ He said some of the best grapes in the world were grown in France and Italy in pure chalk. He said that this portion of Ohio supports the best vineyards in the state because of its proximity to Lake Erie,” said Todd Davis, chief executive officer of Hemisphere. “We thought he was crazy.”
The two contacted David Ferree, a wine-grape expert and then head of viticulture at Ohio State University’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC), and asked him to test the chalky, noncontaminated material to see if it was safe for growing grapes. Calling his findings “fascinating,” Ferree said he believed the grapes would thrive in the material and asked Hemisphere to help fund a scientific study.
Ferree did experiments at OARDC on the leaves and juice from the grapes. When the rigorous scientific studies showed no traces of contaminants, the research was moved to the brownfield. Vine stock that thrives in chalky terrain was imported from France and planted in a one-acre test plot in the middle of the brownfield in 2003. Tiling was put in under the vines to help with drainage. Four varieties of wine grapes were planted: Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Chambourcin and Traminette.
“Not only did it work, but the grapes turned out to be fabulous,” Davis said.
During this time, Dami came to Ohio State University as the state viticulturist and took over the project. Because it takes about three years for the grapes to become established, the researchers weren’t able to evaluate the quality of the wine until 2007. Each variety of the grapes made about 10 gallons of wine. The results surprised everybody.
“(The Ohio State researchers) entered the wine at a blind taste test at the Ohio Wine Competition at OSU, and our Hemisphere Riesling took bronze place. And we haven’t even had time to do any polishing of the wine,” Davis said.
Every year Dami and his assistants take tissue samples of the plants to determine their pH levels and soil samples to look at the nutrient levels. When the experiment first started, the pH level was very high – around 10. Today it is at a more desirable level of 5 or 6. Dami has found that adding sulphur to the soil helps bring the pH level down. The researchers are constantly trying different root stocks to see which ones thrive in the white chalky material, which looks like sand.
The next step is to put in a five-acre vineyard about half a mile away on a bluff overlooking the Grand River, a state-designated Wild and Scenic River that is renowned for its steelhead trout and rare plant species. If the grapes and scientific experiments continue to be positive, Davis would like to have 100 acres cleared for a vineyard with a winery next to it.
“I think we could become a major part of Ohio’s wine industry and help bring more people into looking at Ohio’s wineries,” Davis said.
About 70 percent of Ohio’s wine grapes are grown in Lake and Ashtabula counties where nearby Lake Erie helps extend the growing season, said Dave Scurlock, an Ohio State viticulture outreach specialist. The winds off the lake help cool the vineyards in the summer, and the warmer lake winds in the fall insulate them from colder temperatures, giving them more frost-free days.
“The grapes are definitely improving. The second year that we made wine it was much better. That’s a really good sign,” Scurlock said, noting that it will take about three more years of research to reach a final conclusion about the project. “There’s not enough (wine) grapes in Ohio, and this should help the industry a lot.”
Amy Beth Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.