By Matt Reese
The drought and heat were tough on the endless fields of corn and soybeans and the countless livestock and poultry facilities in the heart of western Ohio farm country. But nestled in between the row crops,
pigs, cows and chickens of Darke County sits a small vineyard that was thriving in the tough conditions this year.
“Grape vines are not the typical crop around here, but they naturally handle drought conditions with their deep roots,” said Errol Threewits, the vineyard manager for the Winery at Versailles. “The grapes really like the heat and the dry conditions that reduce the diseases and the need for applications of fungicides. Normally we spray every seven to 10 days, but this year we were spraying every two or three weeks. And, dry years produce fruit that has more concentrated sugar and higher acid, which really helps fermentation.”
The heat did push the harvest earlier this year.
“We’re probably a month ahead on harvest this year. We started pressing in mid-August,” Threewits said. “The harvest is up from last year, but last year was wet and that is a lot tougher.”
Another challenge for grape production amid the row-crop fields is the herbicide drift that is an annual struggle. The more vigorous varieties handle it better, but grapes varieties that are struggling really suffer from the drift.
“Our vineyard is smack dab in the middle of a bean field and 2,4-D and dicamba drift is a real problem for us. Roundup is less volatile and not as big of a problem,” he said. “Our neighbors are aware of our concerns and they are really careful, but it can drift in from somewhere else and still be a problem. Then, it is really hard to tell if the problem really is herbicide drift or if there is some other problem.”
The flat terrain doesn’t help the drift problem or the potential damage from frost in the spring. Many vineyards are located on hilltops so the cool air settles in the surrounding valleys to buffer against late frosts. There is no such luxury at this vineyard.
“The early spring and late frost was a concern, and we had some damage on the earlier varieties, but the grapes have done well this summer,” Threewits said.
As more of the grapes were approaching harvest in mid-September, the birds were taking a keen interest.
“The birds prefer the sweeter grapes, and, as they get close to harvest, we put netting up to protect them,” he said. “I don’t know how the birds know which varieties are sweeter, but they do.”
Threewits grew up on an area grain and turkey farm and gradually learned about grape production working summers here. Now full time at the vineyard, when Threewits is not busy battling birds, thwarting spray drift, treating for diseases, or harvesting during the summer and fall, he is busy out in the cold pruning back the vines during the winter months.
“Grape vines are naturally wild and you have to constantly retrain them,” he said. “It is very labor intensive. We’re pruning in January and February to cut out the previous year’s growth, control the size and improve the fruit quality the following year.”
The Winery at Versailles produces 40,000 to 50,000 gallons of wine a year from the four varieties on two acres grown on site and from contracted grapes produced at other vineyards (most of which are in Ohio). The winery was the second started by Mike and Carol Williams, who had already established a successful winery in Pennsylvania when the allure of proximity to grandchildren brought them to Darke County. It only seemed natural to start another winery.
“They wanted to be close to us, but they also wanted something on a main route and easy to get to where there was potential for growth,” said Lisa Heidenreich, the Williams’ daughter who serves at the winery’s retail sales manager. “They looked at a couple of sites and this one was perfect. It had just enough acreage, an old farmhouse and an old tobacco barn. If you saw pictures of the before and after you’d wonder, ‘How did that happen?’ Most of the work was done by my dad, my uncles and the boys.”
The Winery is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month after explosive growth in popularity right from the beginning.
“This area really welcomed us. The Inn at Versailles sends us customers and carries our wines. A couple of other business really were very interested in us right off the bat,” Heidenreich said. “The thing we had to overcome was making people realize that wine is not a scary thing. It should be fun and taste good and
you should drink what you like. Our No. 1 seller is Rodeo Red. You can’t get more unpretentious than Rodeo Red — it’s sweet, it’s grapey and it’s $9.99 a bottle. It sells 10 to one over everything else.”
The staff also really works to make customers comfortable.
“Customer service is really important for us. Whatever you are doing when that customer walks in, you drop it because that is important. You have to make people feel comfortable,” she said. “We are not an upscale place. It is homey. It’s comfortable. If you make people comfortable, they buy wine. But it has to be a fun place to be. We’re the only winery within 50 miles so we offer something different.”
The old tobacco barn was revamped and has since expanded several times to keep up with demand. A kitchen was added last year to attract another group of customers.
“We added a kitchen last year in October and we got our food license,” she said. “Now, even on a weekday, we have three or four girls working here to keep up with lunches. The kitchen has been really instrumental in bringing new people in. They come in to eat lunch and the next thing they are buying a bottle of wine. And, our cook is outstanding. I’ll never be able to stay on a diet.”
The events at the winery are a real highlight for Heidenreich, and a boon for the business. Events include a Valentine’s dinner, a dinner where guests grill their own steak, chicken or seafood, the western-themed “Wine, Wine West!,” and the very popular Winee Women series.
There are several other keys to the success behind the Winery at Versailles.
“The success is due to, No. 1, my dad makes great wines, and No. 2, great pre-planning,” she said. “And, when we created Rodeo Red 16 or 18 years ago, my brother helped invent it. My dad’s words were, ‘Nobody will drink that,’ because my brother and my dad are both very dry, red cabernet drinkers. Now it is our best seller by far. They understood that it doesn’t have to be what you like. It is what everybody else likes that is important. If everybody else likes it, by golly that is dad’s favorite wine because that is what keeps the lights on. That is why we are so successful.”