FAIRPORT HARBOR — Walking across chalky ground on a hot day at a large industrial brownfield, grape researcher Imed Dami points with pride to rows of green, leafy vines at a small, experimental vineyard.
Can this brownfield — monitored by environmental regulators due to a history of chemical hazards — really produce potable red (Cabernet Franc) and white (Riesling) varieties?
“You know what? That’s a good question,” says Dami, an Ohio State University horticulture professor. “That’s a perception. We try to do our research as objectively as possible, and we haven’t seen anything for the public to worry about.”
Dangerous chemicals still underground at the bleak, 1,100-acre Diamond Shamrock brownfield site near the Lake Erie shoreline aren’t standing in the way of ambitious plans to transform the land into a vineyard, restaurants and a golf course. The grand plan is named Lakeview Bluffs.
|Grapes grow in an experimental vineyard in an industrial brownfield site.|
The test vineyard — believed to be the nation’s first on a brownfield — does not sit on the contaminated area, said Dami, a faculty member at OSU’s Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center in Wooster.
“I don’t know of any other brownfield converted into a vineyard,” said Robert Colangelo, executive director of Chicago-based National Brownfield Association. “There may be something I’m not aware of, but the thing people need to realize with a brownfield is that rarely is a whole site impacted, so there may be areas with little to no environmental damage.”
Todd Davis, an environmental lawyer who sought Ohio State’s help in figuring out if a brownfield vineyard was possible, said he’s enthused enough now to take it from an experimental phase to a full-fledged wine business.
“We’re expanding. We’ve cleared an additional 15 acres for it,” Davis said.
Five acres capable of producing wine that can be bottled and sold could exist a year from now, he said. A cooking school is also planned near the expanded vineyard.
Davis, author of a book on redeveloping brownfields, is chief executive officer of suburban Cleveland-based Hemisphere Development LLC, which, in partnership with the sports and entertainment marketing firm IMG, seeks to build a golf course, restaurants, a sports training center and residential structures on grounds where factories spewed smoke and chemicals through much of the last century.
The vineyard under Dami’s control covers only a quarter-acre and is protected by a 12-foot high chain-link fence. All around it thus far is a lot of tall grass, weeds and rocks.
Odd looking white soil at the vineyard is a mix of soda ash and lime, safe residue of a factory that had made raw materials for glass manufacturing. About 150 grape vines are constantly examined and tested, Dami said. The vines first produced grapes in 2003.
“I think it’s a decent wine. We did a tasting last year. This year will probably be our best year for fruit,” Dami said. “We didn’t plant the vines unless we found no contaminants.”
Dami said he uses vine care strategies similar to that of growers in France who deal successfully with chalky conditions.
Hal Huffsmith, chairman of Napa, Calif.-based American Vineyard Foundation, said the attempt to turn a part of a brownfield into a vineyard should not be surprising.
“I don’t think it’s unusual that viticulturists (experts in grapes and wine) might attempt to produce grapes at unfavorable sites. Grapes normally can do well in challenging soils,” he said.
Both the U.S. and Ohio environmental protection agencies had been finding ways to clean up chemical contamination at the brownfield, especially hexavalent chromium compounds. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health considers says the compounds can cause an increased risk of lung cancer, skin ulcers, asthma and liver damage.
Teri Heer, Ohio EPA site coordinator for the brownfield cleanup involving a group of businesses, said the dangerous chemicals exist now mainly in a clay capped landfill on the site. The landfill is separate from present or planned vineyard ground.
Davis said that any wine marketed may have to overcome a perception of being tainted. Even so, Davis was surprised when asked if any wine from the site would carry a warning label, or perhaps an explanation.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it,” he said. “I don’t know. We haven’t thought it through that far. I’d dare say we will have tested this wine more than any other wine has been tested,” he said. “We’re proud of the creativity that went into this."