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Published: Tuesday, 3/15/2005

Lake Erie region tour boosts grasp of grapes

Spring break may be a family's best opportunity to take an overnight or two away from the daily routine. One trip of about the right distance would be a swing along the islands and shores of Lake Erie from Toledo to Niagara Falls (and around the end of the lake into Canada). The journey can be a rich learning experience for the kids, and maybe for mom and dad as well.

Along the way, a visit to any one of several wineries - "see one and you've seen them all" is not quite right, but close - shows how grapes carefully cultivated on the vine become wine in the bottle.

Though refinements have been introduced along the way, what happens in a modern winery is essentially the same as in the distant past. In a very real sense, nature, not man, is the winemaker, and nature sets the terms from year to year. It's a kind of farming people have been doing for thousands of years, and today is a major component of the Great Lakes economy.

What has science added and/or altered? There is the selection, planting, and cultivation of the right varieties on appropriate settings. When the crop reaches the proper maturity, the grapes must be harvested within hours; grape harvesters, awkward-looking tractors six or eight feet tall, even have headlights.

Newly harvested grapes are gently crushed, and the juice, called "must," is poured into one of several large tanks. Yeast added to the must starts fermentation, which goes bubbling off in its tank, turning the natural sugar in the must into beverage alcohol.

At this point, what happens is largely beyond the winemaker's control. Controlling temperature - fermentation generates heat - has been a critical problem in the past, and to solve it, modern tanks have cooling equipment to slow the process.

All that newly fermented wine needs is rest and aging, and it is drawn off to a fresh tank, or barrels, leaving the stems, leaves, and seeds in the bottom of the first tank.

You might suppose that a barrel is a barrel. Not quite so. Hand made of carefully selected oak, it reaches the final stage in its making when a fire is kindled inside, called toasting. The inside char adds tannin and a hint of vanilla to the wine. Many wineries use barrels for only three or four years at most, which is why your winery visit may include the sight of half-barrel flower beds. The $600 to $700 cost of a barrel suggests why wines are fairly costly.

Most wineries offer a tasting to adult visitors (and fresh nonalcoholic grape juice to kids) and some have wine-related gift shops as well.

Call 800-227-6972 toll free for a list and locations of Ohio wineries.

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