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Published: Tuesday, 11/7/2000

There's a little old winemaker next door

BY ROBERT KIRTLAND
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

If you've actually paid attention to cocktail-table books, you know that wine comes from beautiful parts of the world. Grapes thrive in forever-sunny California, on the steep, sun-washed slopes of the icy, swift-flowing Rhine River, where the rolling hills of Burgundy and northern Italy rise toward the snow-capped Alps. But did you know that there's a real, honest-to-goodness, bonded commercial winery, more than a century old, right next door?

Well, not exactly next door. It's in Oregon. If you want to see this winery for yourself, head out Consaul Street past Tony Packo's corner, bumping over three sets of railroad tracks, and keep going beyond where the street becomes Corduroy Road. After a while, you'll notice that you've left the city behind, and just when you're beginning to think that you've somehow gotten onto the wrong road or gone too far, you'll see two signs on the left marking the Johlin Century Winery.

It began when Jacob Johlin came to what is now Oregon in the 1860s from Freiburg-im-Breisgau, in the German wine district of Baden. When he arrived, he found prosperous vineyards and wineries flourishing along the shores of Lake Erie and Maumee Bay; they may have been why he settled here. Quite naturally, he soon planted grapes and equipped his own small winery.

His is a long-lived family. Over a span of 130 years, just three men have farmed this land and made wine: Jacob, who lived long enough to see the advent of Prohibition; Edward, his son; and Richard, the present proprietor, Edward's nephew. Now it looks as if Richard's two grandsons, Jarrod and Bolan Muchewicz, are getting ready to carry the family tradition on into yet a fourth generation.

Over the years the Johlin winery has had its ups and downs. The biggest dip, of course, was Prohibition, when many winemakers, large and small, once numerous in the area, shut down for good, pulled up the vines, and planted corn. After Repeal, however, Edward picked up what his father had started 64 years before, and once again began making Johlin wines.

Later, a herbicide applied to weeds along the road and in neighboring fields proved lethal to the family's vines. Since then, the Johlins have relied on grapes and other fruit purchased from growers in the area and farther east along the south shore of Lake Erie. That's why you won't see neat rows of vines marching out across the fields.

An even greater disappointment, if coffee-table books have kindled expectations of what's to see, is that the winemaking area, largely below ground level under the old barn, is simply not adequate to accommodate visitors. A crusher-stemmer, a press, filters, and tanks for fermentation and aging take up what little space there is. Despite cramped quarters, however, the room and equipment are scrupulously clean, not only out of concern for the purity of the product, but because even slight contamination spoils wine in the making.

Actually, many small wineries - and Johlin's is among the smallest of the small - have neither the staff nor the facilities to give visitors tours that explain the process by which grapes become wine. There are Ohio wineries which do so regularly, such as Fireland in Sandusky and Chalet Debonne in Madison, easy day-trip destinations for the family.

What an invitation to the Johlin Winery, at the end of a farm lane behind their landmark brick family home, offers in common with even the largest wineries is an opportunity to sample their wines and to talk with the winemakers, something that rarely happens in big establishments. As on any farm the rhythm of the seasons dictates busy and less busy times. So once the vintage has been laid down before being bottled, to rest from the ferment of its making, the winemaker has leisure to do long-range work. Jarrod and Bolan are talking about replanting vines on the farm, at first samples of several varieties and clones, to see what might hold the greatest promise of flourishing where their great-grandfather's vines once flourished.

In the meantime, marketing their wines more widely than just in the neighborhood, and listening carefully to customer response, gets attention from Richard and his grandsons. “Our customers, especially women,” Richard says, “are turning away from labruscas to dryer Franco-American wines,” as he points to two of their big sellers, Maumee Bay White and DeChaunac.

Franco-American wines are hybrids, nursery crossings of European grapes for flavor with native American varieties hardy enough to survive Midwest winters. As winemakers learn to cultivate and vinify the juice of these grapes, they are developing ever more attractive and significantly less expensive light wines alongside such classic European varietals as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, and merlot.

The Johlins are not unusual in making their wines from fruit grown by others, from juice produced and sold by others, and even from concentrates. Very few California wines are made of estate-grown grapes, and some highly regarded boutique wineries outsource all their grapes.

Depending on the market and the success of the vintage, the Johlins yearly produce anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 gallons of grape wine, and a mere 1,500 gallons of blackberry, strawberry, and raspberry fruit wines. Translate those numbers into cases produced - roughly 2,000 to 4,000 grape wines, 625 fruit wines - compare them with, for example, the 7,850 million-case production facilities the Sebastiani Winery recently sold, and you will appreciate that the Johlin Century Winery is small but admirably tenacious, looking ahead to a growing presence in a growing world.



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