August 30, 2014

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Aspiring Vermilion vintners have no time for sour grapes

VERMILION TWP. — On a 50-acre plot of land just off state Route 60, a lot of work is taking place.

The area, once densely wooded, has been cleared of hundreds of trees. A work barn has been erected and crews are getting the land ready for Vermilion Township’s next big thing.

CARL SULLENBERGER / CHRONICLE
Richard and Sheryl Cawrse stand in the field they hope to turn into a vineyard, just south of Vermilion.

“Let me quiet all the rumors now,” Sheryl Cawrse said. “It’s not Wal-Mart.”

At this point, that is the first response Sheryl gives inquiring minds when she and her husband, Richard, are asked what’s going on the land they purchased more than a year ago.

If you spend just a little time talking to the couple, you learn the location will soon be home to Lorain County’s newest winery.

“We look around this place and know it can give Vermilion a taste of Napa Valley or Sonoma Valley at a reasonable price,” Sheryl said Thursday, while standing in the middle of a rain-soaked muddy field that will, they hope, one day be full of thick grapevines. “It’s going to be a grown-up daycamp of sorts that provides an outlet for people’s creative energy and allows them to drink fabulous wine while they’re doing it.”

For now, the yet-to-open winery is being called Paper Moon Vineyard, in honor of the old jazz standard, “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”

But, as Sheryl has learned in her quest to find the perfect name, that is subject to change. Naming a business is as hard as operating one, she said.

“As soon as one name is decided upon, you learn that it’s already been copyrighted someplace else,” Sheryl said. “But we like it for the philosophy: Life is what you make it.”

That way of thinking can easily be transformed into a more suitable motto for the Huron couple. When life gave them sour grapes, they decided to make wine.

Sheryl and Richard said they both knew sooner rather than later they wanted to start a fun family business that could take them into retirement. What they didn’t realize was that reality would come to fruition sooner than they expected.

Sheryl, who will always consider herself a music teacher, was recently thrown a curveball when she was among more than 200 teachers laid off by the Lorain City Schools. While a hard pill to swallow for many, Sheryl counts herself as one of the lucky ones because she now has the time and the resources to pursue her dreams.

Richard is the former owner of Clovervale Foods of Amherst that after an August 2006 sale became Pierre Foods.

“I saw it as a sign to move ahead now,” Sheryl said. “We already had the land. We have the business background, plus we enjoy wine and entertaining. What can be better than to turn all that into a business?”

“I guess you can say this is our 50-acre retirement hobby — a hobby that makes a profit,” Richard added.

To get a clear picture of what Sheryl is talking about, she encourages traditional wine aficionados to toss aside every stuffy thing associated with wine. There will definitely be some fabulous wines — chardonnay, zinfandel, riesling and pinot — to taste, but a trip to Paper Moon will not stop there.

Visitors will be able to mix their own wine, design the bottle’s label, listen to live music at an amphitheater and work with local artists to create their own artistic masterpieces.

“Good wine is all about atmosphere,” Sheryl said. “And this atmosphere will not just be about the flavor, bouquet, brand or vintage. It will be about the people and the things you are doing when you are consuming the wine.”

Once opened, the Cawrses’ winery will be in good company.

Almost every region of Ohio is rich in wineries. There are 104, to be exact, including more than 60 in the northeast and northwest of the state. And, for good reason, said Donniella Winchell, executive director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association.

“We can grow grapes and produce amazing nationally recognized wines,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday, while taking a break from courting a winery group from California. “Knowing that is the bottom line for anyone wishing to open a winery.”

That, combined with a spirit of entrepreneurship and sound research at The Ohio State University’s Ohio Agriculture Research and Development Center in Wooster, is pushing Ohio’s wine production business into overdrive.

“It’s a very exciting time right now,” Winchell said. “The Ohio wine market is ripe with demand. Ninety-five percent of the wine produced in Ohio is sold in Ohio and 75 percent of Ohio wineries sell 90 percent of their products in out-the-door sales. Ohio wineries are doing a lot of good things with pinot gris, rieslings and pinot noir.”

A successful winery with a supporting vineyard can be situated on as little as 20 to 30 acres of land.

However, such a business venture is a long, labor-intensive one that is not for the faint of heart, Winchell said.

“It takes staying power and commitment to survive while your grapes are growing and before you can produce the kind of wine you want,” she said. “I tell people all the time that they have to remember in France they have been growing grapes since the time of Caesar.”

While many of Ohio wineries are not also vineyards, Winchell said those that are didn’t begin producing their own wine for many years. It takes a year or two to get the soil prepared for a vineyard, another three to five years before the vines yield good fruit and another nine months to a year before the fruit juices turn into really good wine.

Still, the extensive time commitment will not stop the Cawrses.

They already are hooked up with some great juice producers in Ohio, California and as far away as Chile. They know they want to make wine and in the meantime will bring in the juice to allow visitors to do so with ease.

Contact Lisa Roberson at 653-6268 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.