Cleveland is not a wine town. Not historically, anyway. Recently, though, the city has given rise to a thriving, albeit small, wine scene — for those who know how to find it.
Although beer still reigns king in Northeast Ohio, the wine industry has a larger presence than one might think. Ohio, despite being the 34th largest state, was the sixth-largest wine producer in the United States in 2016, according to an Ohio Grape Industries Committee economic impact report.
“The Cleveland wine scene is getting bigger and better,” Elan Hoenig, general manager of The Wine Spot, a wine retailer in Cleveland Heights, said. “I think there’s definitely more interest coming to the city in all aspects of wine.”
The first stop on your Cleveland wine tour should be the Balcony Bar at Heinen’s, a hybrid grocery store and bar open seven days a week on the corner of Euclid Avenue and East Ninth Street. Heinen’s offers a selection of 40 fine wines available on an automated wine system, and, using a unique prepaid card system, customers can serve themselves a one-ounce taste, a three-ounce sampler, or a five-ounce glass of wine.
Not enough options for you? The tasting menu is merely a small subset of the over 1,000 wines sold in the historic grocery store’s wine department.
Those who want a more intimate setting can try the Market Avenue Wine Bar on 2521 Market Avenue or Toast Wine Bar on West 65th street, which boasts an owner-curated wine list updated seasonally.
While Toast doesn’t currently feature any local wines, their rotation frequently highlights Northeast Ohio-produced wine, such as vinifera wines like that of M Cellars, on the menu.
“There are some people are doing some really cool stuff,” Jill Davis, owner of Toast Wine Bar, said. “Matt Meineke [of M Cellars] is a great friend of ours. We pour his wines whenever we can.”
Although “your palette is going to tell you what she likes,” according to Hoenig, must-tries for a Cleveland wine tour include cooler-climate wines that have long flourished in the hot, humid summers and cold winters of Northeastern Ohio, such as Catawba, Frontenac, and other French hybrid varietals.
“Those particular grapes have the tendency to make rather sweet style wines,” Peter Badal, wine consultant and beer specialist at Heinen’s, said. “But vinifera wines have really come to the forefront, and there are [also] people making great Cabernets, great Chardonnay, [and] some really delicious Pinot Noir.”
Cleveland wine experts note that younger customers are most interested in the natural wine trend.
“I’m finding that our younger customers are very interested in this idea of low-intervention wines, which really just means winemaking with as little intervention as possible, meaning minimal additives, no added colors, no added flavorings, no added sugars,” Hoening said.
However, this trend is not just for younger connoisseurs — some wine experts claim that all sorts of Cleveland residents have garnered interest in unexpectedly-flavored natural wines.
“[Natural wines are] not the easiest sell,” Davis said. “The wine is a little different, [but] I think people are getting a little more immersed and trusting about it. They try it and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, can I actually kind of like that.’”
Cleveland’s unpretentious identity is the perfect spot to experiment and explore what wine is right for you.
“What is my favorite wine?” Badal posited. “My immediate answer is the one that’s in front of me. When I think about it, it’s an unfair question because it’s like asking me which one of my grandchildren I like the best.”
Still, the most compelling aspect of the Cleveland wine scene is its heart. Wine isn’t snobby here — it’s as hardworking and spirited as the city itself.
“Cleveland feels — most of the time — like an open-minded city,” Hoening said. “It allows us to be open-minded in recommending [wines] and allows people to explore new things.”