Historically known as the "Grape belt of America", the shores of Lake Erie have grown grapes in abundance for more than 160 years.
There are over 42,000 acres of vines, most of which are the big-leafed Vitis labrusca, Concord. Though focused primarily on jellies and juices, there is also a thriving wine industry here.
Traditionally, the industry was based on both labrusca and hybrids. After Prohibition began, grape growing actually increased along the shores and on the Lake Erie islands. Many growers made wine illegally and sold it across the lake in Canada, or sold grapes legally to home winemakers. It would seem that with its infrastructure, Ohio’s wine industry would boom upon repeal. However, vintners mistakenly chose to compete with California’s bulk wine producers. At the same time, New York wineries established themselves as the east’s premier wine producers. In 1937, four years after repeal, there were 160 wineries in the Lake Erie region. Sadly, by 1967 there were fewer than 20 wineries left. Today, a number of ambitious vignerons are redefining the region’s wine characteristics with substantial amounts of vinifera plantings.
This unique agricultural heritage, starting with hay in the 1800’s and finishing with grapes and fruit by the end of that century, is the reason for the establishment of the quaint Victorian towns that line the shores of Lake Erie.
Whilst it is true that the majority of vineyards in this area are concord grape vineyards, many of the wineries were established by grape growers wishing to diversify – and the first of these in Western New York was Johnson Estate, founded in 1961 by Frederick Johnson. Over five decades ago, Johnson Estate Winery, Westfield, NY and Presque Isle, North East, PA, pioneered the planting of new French-hybrid and vinifera vineyards and the planting of these more specialized wine grapes has only accelerated.