PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — Dustin Heineman gently cradled a tiny bunch of young grapes, examining a cluster that months from now will be harvested for one of his family’s 25 varieties of wine.
That’s assuming, of course, that the fruit thrives.
“Grapes are very temperamental,” said Mr. Heineman, a fifth-generation winemaker.
There’s a saying that it’s not the winemakers who make the wine — it’s the grapes. Each year’s rainfall and temperatures can greatly change the quality and sweetness of grapes. Grapes are very delicate at the start of growing season, making a late frost a serious threat.
So far this year, things are looking good, Mr. Heineman said. But there will be plenty of work put in in the coming months to make sure things stay that way.
“It is a 365-day-a-year job. It never ends,” Mr. Heineman said. “I’m here doing things in the middle of the night. It is a lot of work. It’s a work that we all enjoy, but it’s a lot.”
The Heineman family has been growing grapes and making wine on South Bass Island for 125 years. Founded in 1888 by Gustav Heineman, Heineman’s Winery is the oldest winery in Ohio that has stayed in one family.
Gustav Heineman was one of many German immigrants who came to the area around Sandusky and the Lake Erie islands in the late 1800s. There they found an ideal area for growing grapes.
“Being near the lake was such a big help in grape growing, and it still is right now,” said Claudio Salvador, part owner of Firelands Winery in Sandusky and Mon Ami Winery in Port Clinton. “The lake has a tendency to delay the bud breaking, and when it warms up during the summertime, has a tendency to prolong the growing season. It’s an ally to the winemaking industry.”
Firelands, founded in 1880, has about 37 acres of vineyards on North Bass Island, Mr. Salvador said.
Ohio had a significant wine industry in the late 1800s, particularly along the Lake Erie coast. South Bass Island at one point was home to 17 wineries.
Prohibition changed that, however. Blessed with a diversified business, Heineman’s was one of the few that lasted through to the other side.
“We were lucky with the grape juice, the cave, and the taxi service,” Mr. Heineman said. “Big factors that helped us survive.”
Heineman’s no longer runs a taxi service, but the winery still draws in visitors with its Crystal Cave, billed as the world’s largest geode.
The wine industry in Ohio and Michigan stagnated even after Prohibition was lifted in 1933. However, in recent years there has been a renaissance for wineries and vineyards.
As of the end of May, Ohio had 182 licensed wineries in the state, up from 124 in 2008. Christy Eckstein, the executive director of the Ohio Grape Industries Committee, said the state has been adding an average of two new wineries a month for almost three years now.
Michigan counts 101 wine producers, up from 19 in 1998.
Linda Jones, director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, said sales of Michigan-produced wines have grown by an average of 10 percent per year for the last decade.
Officials in both states say they expect the growth to continue.
Ms. Eckstein said the recession seemed to help boost Ohio’s wine industry, as more people sought to find new careers or were pushed toward retirement plans sooner than expected.
Winemakers in both states have been helped by new hybrid grape varieties that are hardier and better suited to survive cold winters. Consumers also have begun to view Ohio and Michigan wines as good, high-quality wines.
“The whole local-foods movement added fuel to that fire in the early 2000s, and we’ve just seen a surge since then in people having a confidence in the quality and the strong desire to support local business,” Ms. Jones said.
Bob and Mary Tebeau are riding that surge. The Helena, Ohio, couple began Chateau Tebeau Winery in 2008.
After selling a family-owned nursing-home business, the Tebeaus weighed what they could to do make an income in their retirement years.
An avid home winemaker for decades, Mr. Tebeau decided to turn their 36-acre farm into a vineyard and winery. Last year, they produced about 6,000 gallons of wine, or about 40,000 bottles. They say their production has been consistently growing.
That’s not to say it’s an easy job.
“You look at it as a very romantic business to get into,” Mr. Tebeau said. “When you actually get into the business, you find the only glamour in winemaking is when you get to drink it. The rest of it’s just a bunch of hard work.”
The Tebeaus grow six grape varieties, producing about 20 percent of the grapes they use. They also buy grapes from other Ohio growers and purchase some juices from New York for some of their Concord and Niagara wines.
Located about 35 miles southeast of Toledo, the winery is too far south to get much help from the lake, but Mr. Tebeau said the winery is still in a good area for growing grapes.
The Tebeaus planted 600 more vines this spring and say their existing vines are in good shape.
“It’s been a cold spring, but we kind of dodged a bullet on the frost again,” Mr. Tebeau said. “Our grapes are doing very well. Right now the vineyards look very good. We hope we dodge the rest of the bullets for the rest of year.”
Though the number of wineries in Ohio has exploded, the number of vineyards hasn’t kept pace.
Ms. Eckstein said Ohio has about 1,800 acres of vineyards, not nearly enough to supply Ohio’s winemakers.
She said about two-thirds of the 1.1 million gallons of wine produced in Ohio last year came from grapes grown elsewhere.
But those who do grow in Ohio have enjoyed good years recently.
“The 2012 vintages are phenomenal,” Ms. Eckstein said. “We’ve had some vintners say it’s going to be their best year yet.”
Of the 180-plus wineries in Ohio, most are boutique businesses that produce small amounts primarily for sale on-site.
Officials say only 10 to 15 wineries are making significant volumes to sell on a retail basis. They estimate 65 to 70 percent of Ohio wines are sold on-site.
Firelands, the state’s second-largest producer, is one of the few exceptions to that rule. Mr. Salvador said 80 percent of their sales are through retail channels.
Firelands sells its wine across Ohio and in Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois.
Heineman’s is distributed throughout Ohio, though at 100 cases a week, retail sales make up only 15 to 20 percent of the 45,000 to 50,000 gallons of wine Heineman’s produce annually. The winery also makes 5,000 to 6,000 gallons of grape juice every year.
The winery also takes direct orders online but can sell only in Ohio.
Mr. Heineman said he would like to get the necessary permits to sell in other states, though he’s more interested in growing the winery and on-site sales than he is in growing retail.
In a way, that may go back to his appreciation for the history of Heineman’s Winery and of Put-in-Bay itself.
Many of the vines date back to the 1920s, and the Heinemans still hand-pick all their grapes.
“When you hand-pick, it’s a more personal thing,” Mr. Heineman said. “It’s more close to home. it’s more personal.”
Mr. Heineman recently had a son, Eli, who is the first person born on the island in 34 years.
Mr. Heineman said he hopes his son also will grow to love the business and become the sixth generation to work the vineyards.
“My personal hope is that someday he will feel as strong as I do about our family and our family’s past and Put-in-Bay's past,” he said.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at email@example.com or 419-724-6134.