Five vintages of Meranda-Nixon’s Norton wines.
Our summer travel this year has been hit hard by the pandemic. Traveling on a plane is not the safest place to be and many states have issued travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines to Ohioans who travel. So as we try to understand our temporary and maybe our new normals, road trips are the best way to get in those summer breaks and vacations.
The Meranda family
One great local day trip is a trip to Meranda-Nixon Winery in Ripley, Ohio. Here you can live their mission – to sip, relax, and repeat – while also taking in some phenomenal local historical sites. I visited Seth and Maura Meranda this past Saturday to taste their four years of Norton grape wines. They are an estate winery and one of the few in Ohio who grow the Norton. They’re totally family run and operated, with help from their four children and several classmates of theirs.
You’re greeted by their oldest Norton vineyard as you pull into their tasting room and restaurant on Laycock Road in Ripley, Ohio. It’s under an hour drive, which can be done going out Routes 32 to 68 – which allows you a stop at Jungle Jim’s Market in Eastgate. That’s the route I took to pick up some Moxie cola and Pickapeppa Hot Sauce. There are also several farmers markets along 32. Or, you can go Route 52 along the scenic Ohio River, which will take you past some of the wine mansions and cellars from Clermont and Brown Counties’ moment in our local wine industry.
Meranda-Nixon’s newest Norton vineyard.
The Norton is a special grape. It was one of the native varieties in the 1860s proven to be more hardy to black rot, mildew and phyloxera, than our beloved Catawba. It’s a native American grape cultivated and brought to the market in the 1840s by a Virginian, Dr. Daniel Drake Norton. He had lost his second wife and nearly suicidal, took to grape growing to pull him out of his depression. And it makes one of the most unique and deeply flavored red wines to this day – giving dark fruits like blackberry, plum, black cherry, cranberry, with subtle spiciness and other notes like tobacoo, leather, and coffee. Unlike the Catawba and Concord, which are now largely grown north in the shorter growing season regions of the Lake Eire Islands, lakefronted Pennsylvania, and upper New York, the Norton only grows well down here in the Ohio River Valley and near St. Louis, Missouri.
Many local growers raised Norton grapes and proved its good wines, but Longworth bad mouthed it, saying it was not as prolific as his one-hit-wonder Catawba, and doubted it would make a good wine. Longworth and George Husmann of Hermann, Missouri, had a bitter argument in all the horticultural journals over the value of the Norton. Husmann made fun of Longworth’s modus of putting all his eggs in the Catawba basket, and that he didn’t have an open mind to test other more hardy grapes. Longworth passed away, but Husmann was recruited out to California to Talcoa Vineyards and laid the groundwork for the California Wine Industry.
The immense variety of estate wines of Meranda-Nixon.
Seth, who graduated from Ohio State’s College of Agriculture, says the Norton takes longer to establish -5-7 years versus the 3-4 years of most varietals – either native Labrusca or European Viniferas. He began planting his now 12 plus acres of vineyards in 2006 on his grandfather’s historic tobacco farm. But once the Norton is established, it requires little maintenance and it makes a fabulously unique wine. Norton grapes, which have a smaller bunch than Catawbas and other varietals, are planted in north-south rows, and leaf-pruned on the east side, which is a milder sun than the evening west side. Nortons, for their berry size, have a lot of seeds, and if picked too early, the seeds will impart a bell pepper flavor to the wine.
Modern vineyard problems are Japanese beetles, which oddly love eating Norton leaves, are a recent pest, but Seth can solve that problem. The Norton is also sensitive to herbicide drift from GMO farmers who spray the neighboring corn or soybeans. The three night hunting dogs – who greeted me when I pulled into the vineyard – guard against coons, possums and deer from eating the ripe grapes. And laser technology, which replaced neighbor-unfriendly CO2 cannons, keeps away the birds.
Seth and I walked the vineyards as Maura let the Nortons breathe for my tasting. He showed the high cordon position of the Norton and the Cawtawba grapes, and the lower V.S.P (vine shoot position) orientation of the European varietals they grow – Traminette, Chardonnay, Cab Franc and Cab Sauvignon. He works with his alma mater, Ohio State and keeps up with Cornell research on experimental grapes and says the once popular Traminette grape is being replaced by its new diva, the Pinotage, a South African native.
A local history teacher came in to the winery enjoy a froze on the patio, while Seth and I were talking wine history, and she added to the discussion. She lived not far away on her husband’s family’s farm, which three generations ago was also a winery, growing native grapes. Maura says froze – frozen rose – and their wine slushies are the gateway for younger non-wine drinkers to start a foray into wine drinking. Their evening dinners, which integrate veggies grown on their farm, are a great way to enjoy their wines and take in the vineyard lifestyle.
I started my education on Meranda-Nixon’s Nortons with the 2014 I bought at Market Wines at Findlay Market in OTR. I’ve shared it with friends used to the California fruit bomb reds and they loved it. Maura says Europeans who visit always go away with their Nortons – because they’re a unique American wine that is unlike any European red. The 2014 Norton to me has a blackberry and cranberry forward flavor, with slight elements of leather and a citrusy, lemongrass finish. The 2015 Norton is full bodied with dark fruit and oak flavors. I got a more jammy flavor with a more tart finish than the 2014. The 2016 to me was more oak-forward than any of the others. They describe it as deep red with raspberry aromas and hints of coffee and bittersweet chocolate. The 2017 – for which they won a Gold Medal at the Mid America Wine Competition – has a plum flavor to me, while they describe it as a spicy black cherry. I even got to taste their unreleased 2019 Norton, which is the same dark fruit flavor, but is smooth and light. I love them all for different reasons – they all have subtle but noticeable flavor differences. Seth says this year’s Norton crop is not as prolific as years past because of our droughty summer, so I look forward to seeing what unique wine it makes.
They make a wonderful estate Sparkling Catawba that is better than any prosecco I have tasted. It’s not as sweet as a prosecco, nor as dry as most brut sparkling wines, which makes it a refreshing summer sparkling wine. The also say it makes an amazing breakfast mimosa. Sign me up please, along with maybe some crab eggs benedict.
There are few others around Cincinnati who make Norton wines. Joe at Henke Winery in Westwood makes a fabulous Norton from grapes grown in Adams County. And Kate McDonald of Skeleton Root in OTR makes a Norton that is currently aging. The Merandas have sold their grapes and juice to neighboring Valley Vineyards and the Verona Vineyards Winery near Rabbit Hash, Kentucky. But Meranda-Nixon is one of the only estate Norton’s made in Ohio. The other is made in Vinton County, Ohio, past Portsmouth, Ohio, by La Petit Chevalier Vineyards.
The Norton was local boy, President Ulysses S. Grant’s favorite red wine. He bought cases of it from Missouri vineyards to stock the White House cellars. And he grew up in the area of the Meranda-Nixon winery. The small cabin of his birthplace is on 52 in nearby Point Pleasant. And his boyhood home is in Georgetown, only about 15 minutes away. The house of the Doctor who delivered Grant is in downtown New Richmond, Ohio. Grant’s parents, Jesse and Hannah Grant are buried in Spring Grove Cemetery back in Cincinnati.
If you want to enjoy the river recreation, there are about 3000 units for camping in and around Ripley, Ohio. If you’re a fan of abolitionist history, there is the Rankin House Museum above the hill that overlooks the Ohio, and the John Parker House Museum, a free African-American who along with the Rankins provided assistance on the Underground Railroad. There’s even a tobacco museum in Ripley in the 1850s Espey House, highlighting the variety of tobacco first cultivated there.
Just across the river by ferry is Augusta, Kentucky, which houses the historic and delicious Bee Hive Tavern – if you’re not eating the delicious steaks and salmon served by the Merandas at their inside or patio dining overlooking the vineyard. There’s also the Rosemary Clooney Museum in Augusta, which houses nearly the entire cast wardrobe of the holiday classic, A White Christmas. And, if you’re a fan of bourbon you can taste a $100 bottle at the Old Pogue distillery.
So making a trip to Meranda-Nixon can be made into an amazing and delicious one day or overnight stay to take in the Ohio River and the historic sites in and around Ripley, Ohio.