Chuck and Nina Harris like Champagne, really good Champagne.
“The reason we’re here is that I married a woman who liked to drink Champagne. That is how we met, over Champagne. We promised one another we’d learn more about it. She is a chemist and I am a chef so we looked at it in completely different ways,” said Chuck Harris, the winemaker and owner of Ravenhurst Champagne Cellars in Union County. “We are both originally from Van Wert. We went to high school together. We got together later in life after we’d tried a few careers and we started a pursuit of Champagne. Could we do this in Ohio? We looked all over the country and decided Ohio would be the best place, all things considered. We were pioneering here, especially with vinifera grapes. All of the other places we’d be just another face in the crowd.”
Along with being unique to the area, Harris picked a very specific location for very specific reasons.
“We looked at the Ohio River and Lake Erie in Ohio and there were problems with both of those locations. When we looked at weather maps of Ohio, the rainfall would hit the hill at Bellefontaine and go south and north and reconvene around Marion. It would be a blue sky here when it was raining everywhere else. Sometimes my last summer rain will be July 4 and the next rain won’t be until Oct. 15. That is rough for row crop farmers but it is great for grapes. It really concentrates the sweetness and flavor of the grapes. The flavor from wine is from the skin of the grapes and the dry weather concentrates that,” Harris said. “This span is about 11 miles wide and we started looking for agricultural land in that area. We got five acres initially in 1980 and we started putting in grapes. Years later we bought more land for about 10 acres total and we more recently added six more acres here.”
Once a location was established, Chuck then set to work on his quest to produce top-notch wines.
“This little vineyard had 16 different types of grapes to experiment with. We didn’t know what we could grow here and if it would make good wine. We now have it narrowed down to four: Cab. Sauvignon, Cab. Franc, Chardonnay, and Pinot noir. That is all we grow now and we only make wine with what we grow. I could buy grapes to make more wine but I can’t buy these grapes from this soil. I have three different vineyards and even though I have the same grapes growing in all the vineyards, they all make different wines. They have different soils, different sun exposure and different weather and they make different wines,” Harris said. “The wine started out being for ourselves. But then some wine aficionados tried our wine and they thought our wine could compete on a national scale. We planted grapes in 1980 and we opened the winery in 1999. For a couple of years we bottled for Double Eagle Club near Delaware and the Refectory, a French restaurant in Columbus, before we ever opened to the public. We started making commercial Champagne and wine in 1997.”
“Before our grand opening there was a competition in Los Angeles to find the ‘Champagne of the millennium’ comparing 265 bottles of who’s-who of Champagne in the world. Nina and I finished second. There has never been a competition like that since then,” Harris said. “We’d been in amateur competitions before that but that was the first professional competition we entered.”
The secret to making really good wine is really bad soil.
“The soil makes all wine different and that is what influences the wine more than anything, including the winemaker. At the time there was no one doing anything like this with vinifera grapes on the heavy clay soils in Ohio. On this clay, you get a lot more fruit in the wine. Good wine soil is bad soil. Around here they call it death valley. It is tough growing corn and beans around here, but it is great for growing grapes,” Harris said. “I’d love for you to glorify me, but a good winemaker just ushers great grapes through a winery. To make great wine, you need great grapes. The object is getting them perfect in the vineyard and that is where the accolades should go.”
Ravenhurst grapes are planted with care to give the plants a good start.
“Most people buy a $10 vine and dig a 50-cent hole. Then they’ll be doing it again the next year. We auger holes with a 12-inch auger four feet deep, below the clay layer. Grape vines are lazy, they go to the bottom of that hole and spread out,” Harris said. “Those deep roots can survive our cold winters. Our vines might be killed to the ground but they come back the next year. I have not had a grape crop only two years since 1980: one was a late spring frost and the other was an ice storm. That clay is a nice blanket. What is really detrimental in these heavy clay soils is an asset for us because we get underneath it.”
The soil fertility is actually depleted before planting.
“We try to grow sweet corn for two or three years before grapes to deplete the soil nutrients in the top layers. We don’t add any fertility,” Harris said. “If you have chosen your site well, that is what you want to work with. With too much fertility you get a lot of green growth and you lose it in the winter and then you have to trim it off anyway.”
Once the vines are in the ground, the waiting begins.
“Pray for a good spring. There is not much you do for the first spring except we put blue tubes around them that make a sort of greenhouse and it lets us till or spray without hitting the vines. We let them grow a couple of seasons with that to get a good root system,” he said. “We’ll take off the sleeve after that and stake them and after four or five years we’ll put a trellis up in late winter or early spring. When we trellis we are ready to start harvesting the crop that fall.”
The trellis system features a double fruiting wire.
“We have two wires for the grapes hang on. We have three sets of wires to contain the shoots and keep them positioned vertically,” Harris said. “It is around $10,000 to put a good acre of grapes in correctly.”
Fungicide applications are critical for grape production.
“The most important sprays are your first three. We start spraying in the doeskin stage of the bud then spray every 10 day with fungicides,” Harris said. “After three sprays, applications are based on rains.”
Harris employs a crew of 75 ducks and geese to wander his vineyards to eat pests and thin the lower grapes and vegetative growth that would otherwise have to be pruned.
“We rotate the birds around the vineyard. They are pretty easy to manage,” Harris said. “If you have everything set up there is not much work. I spray Roundup under the trellis and mow the middle aisles.”
After years of investment, grapes are finally ready for harvest and making wine.
“Harvest is fun. We use Amish to harvest. They show up before dawn and we only pick until 10 in the morning,” he said. “We want to get the grapes picked in cool weather and we only pick as many as we can process in that day — three tons in a day gives me about 450 gallons to work with. It is all hand harvested by 10 to 15 Amish women who live within three miles of here. We harvest over about 10 days or so for around 30 tons total.”
Harvest typically begins in late September.
“When green grapes turn golden or blue, you harvest 45 days later,” Harris said. “Chardonnay is our first grape in late September. Cab. Sauvignon is more like Nov. 10 and that is our last grape.”
Then the wine making can begin.
“You have to deal with what you are given. A good chef doesn’t go to the grocery to buy a certain thing. He goes to see what is the best thing to buy that day. That is how I make wine. We throw half of our grapes on the ground. We could use them and make twice as much wine, but I couldn’t make the quality of wine Ravenhurst is known for. The juice goes into tanks, then barrels then bottles. We make 4,000 to 5,000 bottles a year,” he said. “This is a selfish hobby that does OK financially. I’m really in it for the medals. In a three-year period we pretty much won everything there was to be won here in the U.S. I’m here to make the best wine.
“Most of my winery friends have a guy with a guitar, pizza and a lake to sit beside. They are an adult entertainment facility. I don’t have sushi or pony rides, we are just about the wine. The thing about Ravenhurst is that we can show the potential Ohio has to really make great wine and I do feel like I make some of the best wine in Ohio.”