Holiday vintage

Tannenbaum Trail offers unique wine experience

Tannenbaum Trail wineries such as Laurello Vineyards and Tarsitano Winery & Café offer visitors a warm and inviting setting to catch up with friends or take in the scenery.

Tannenbaum Trail wineries such as Laurello Vineyards and Tarsitano Winery & Café offer visitors a warm and inviting setting to catch up with friends or take in the scenery.

Story & photography by Michael C. Butz

While “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” grow in popularity during the holiday season, there are other – often more delectable and pleasurable – options. Perhaps it’s sharing a bottle of white wine with friends while catching up with one another and watching snowflakes softly fall on the open countryside outside a frosty window. Or it could be enjoying a glass of red wine while wrapped up in your favorite sweater and seated close to your significant other in front of a crackling fireplace.

Luckily for area residents and visitors, Northeast Ohio offers both of those options and many more as part of the Tannenbaum Trail, a wine-themed event held over three weekends in late November and early December involving many of the wineries in Ashtabula, Lake and Geauga counties.

“People just enjoy the idea of it,” says Larry Laurello, owner of one of the wineries on the trail, Laurello Vineyards & Winery in Geneva.

“It’s really nice this time of year because we get a lull between the harvest and the holiday season,” he says. “It’s really nice for the people coming out because it gives them something to do late in the year when all the other events in Northeast Ohio have finished for the season.”

The Tannenbaum Trail is an enjoyable way for longtime wine enthusiasts and newcomers alike to enjoy what Northeast Ohio wineries have to offer, says Ken Tarsitano, owner of Tarsitano Winery & Café in Conneaut.

“We’re excited to be back on the trail this year,” Tarsitano says.

Oftentimes, the wineries use the trail to introduce new wines – much to the delight of trail goers, says Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.

“A lot of 2010s will be ready for this holiday season,” she says, characterizing that as a good year for local wineries due to the mild temperatures late into the growing season.

“There was a long enough season to have the vine mature and the fruit come off before the heavy frost,” Winchell says. “Northeast Ohio is a cool-climate region, and because of our severe winters, we’re limited in some of the cool-climate varieties we can grow.”

The region produces everything from Syrah to cabernet on the red side to pinot grigio and Vidal blanc on the white, she says. While Ohio has been known for its sweeter varietals, like Catawba, in the past several decades it’s developed vintages more in line with and of a quality rivaling major wine-producing states like California and Washington.

That Tarsitano’s winery is certified organic offers visitors a “unique experience,” he says. “We’re maybe more of a mom-and-pop winery. We make our own food and grow our own grapes.”

That experience also includes the acres of scenic farmland and rolling hills that can be seen from every window of Tarsitano’s Café, a barn converted from the days when the winery was his great-grandfather’s dairy farm.

While Laurello hasn’t yet decided what wines will be highlighted for the Tannenbaum Trail, trail goers can expect an inviting and vibrant atmosphere inside.

Visitors to Laurello Vineyards can also expect a one-on-one tasting experience, he says.

“We like to have two girls sit there and do the tasting with (trail goers),” Laurello says. “We like to talk one-on-one about the vintages, the grapes and what’s coming out of the vineyard year after year.”

How it all started

The Tannenbaum Trail has been held for the last 12 years, Winchell says.

“It started based on some ideas we literally stole from our friends on the Finger Lakes,” Winchell adds. “They host a huge event that attracts 1,500 people every year called Deck the Halls.”

From 1,200 to 1,300 people are expected to participate in this year’s Tannenbaum Trail.

“We usually don’t sell out until a weekend or two before, but we usually do sell out,” says Winchell, adding that “each of the wineries tries to put something special together for the event.”

In part, that includes providing unique, collectable items – like wine corks – at each winery along the trail that can be added to a 15-inch table-top Christmas tree that trail goers will receive at their first stop – along with a Schott Zwiesel crystal wine glass.

“(The Tannenbaum Trail) was designed to celebrate the holiday season, but more than that, to provide a season extension for the wineries,” Winchell says, explaining that the end of the calendar year is typically a slower time for wineries.

“In the Finger Lakes, they were just looking to drive traffic when no one was coming,” she says. “We’re trying to build awareness of wines around the state, but certainly in Northeast Ohio, the wineries are interesting and fun.”

Oftentimes it works, Winchell says, noting that over the years she’s heard reactions from trail goers that range from delight to surprise to planning a return trip.

“‘I don’t believe Ohio wines are this good,’ ‘It really wasn’t that far from Cleveland,’ or ‘I’m going to go back and sit on the patio this summer and watch the stars,’” she says, recounting some of the feedback she’s received.

In addition to enjoying the wineries, trail goers are sometimes inspired to search for gifts at some of the nearby shops or take in some of the area’s scenic countryside.

“Lots of times, they take an entire weekend,” she says. “There are lots of antique shops and lots of covered bridges that are beautiful, so there are lots of places to visit.”

Winchell emphasizes that “access to quality wines … at a time when local food is so much a part of the trend” in Northeast Ohio is something that a growing number of people who visit area wineries are recognizing, and, she adds, those who take part in the Tannenbaum Trail will get a firsthand look at – or taste of – the trend.

“It’s nice to see the wines keeping up with the food,” she says. “It’s very exciting to be part of Northeast Ohio’s food scene, which is very vibrant, and it’s exciting to see the quality of wine being recognized for what it is.” js


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