How’d you get into wine farming?
I grew up on a vineyard. My dad was a grape farmer in the Niagara [Escarpment] AVA in New York.
Was French Ridge already a vineyard?
It was all woods. We had it cleared, and that first weekend my wife and I and her parents planted 3,000 grape vines. We now have 23 acres in production.
What did your neighbors think?
People would say, “You can’t grow grapes here. We grow corn, soybeans and hay.” I said, “You watch me.” I mean, I put a winery in the heart of Natty Light, Busch Light central. And 33 percent of sales are from return customers. Tells me I’m doing something right.
What varieties did you first plant?
At first, sweet was my priority. Now we’ve branched out into the dry side with De Chaunac, Cab Franc, Frontenac, Marechal Foch and Teroldego.
Does it bug you that sweet and semi-sweet wine has a bad rep?
I’m not embarrassed to make sweet wine. Ohio makes quality sweet wine. It’s the right climate, right soil and what my customers prefer—it’s 80 percent of sales.
So you make wine true to Killbuck, Ohio’s terroir. Does it drive you nuts to be compared to California?
At local association meetings, people say we have to match California wines. I’m like, screw California wines. I don’t want to get California mad at me, but I’m not California. I’m Ohio. Let’s make the best Ohio wines we can and be proud of that.
Do you urge people to try sweeter stuff?
I urge them to try new things. That’s part of my job. You drove into the middle of nowhere to see me. Now open your taste buds and open your mind and try something different. I’m selling an experience, not just a bottle.
How else do you sell people an experience?
My first goal is teaching them where they’re wine came from. So I’ll take them through the vineyard. Most don’t even know every grape has different flavors.
Any other customer goals?
Somehow wine got this persona that it’s an upper class thing. I explain to people wine is made for everyone. Keep an open mind, but drink what you like.
What do you like?
It depends on what I’m eating and what kind of mood I’m in. If I’m sitting on the deck enjoying the sun, I like a sweet wine. If I’m eating a steak, I prefer a dry wine.