KILLBUCK, Ohio — “Welcome to Holmes County’s only and most remote winery,” says Scott Buente, who, along with wife, Kathy, opened French Ridge Vineyards and Winery to the public in May.
It’s a true greeting — his winery is not only the first in the county, but is located back a series of windy, scenic roadways that make it uniquely secluded.
Buente is no stranger to grapes and wine making. He grew up on a 200-acre vineyard in Lewiston, N.Y., near Niagara Falls.
“I left there when I was 15 and swore I would never see another grape vine in my life,” he said.
But he was wrong.
He’s lived on his current property since 1991, where he and his wife once raised some Scottish Highland cattle. But he got tired of handling the hay and getting up early in the morning to do the feeding, so in 2000 he had some of his woods cleared and excavated and the following year, he planted 3,000 grape vines.
Today, he’s growing more than 6,000 vines and nine varieties — spread across 23 rolling acres.
It’s been a learning process and he credits area wineries like Rainbow Hills Vineyards of Newcomerstown, for helping him get started.
Lee Wise, the 72-year-old who owns Rainbow Hills in Newcomerstown, said Scott visits his winery various times throughout the year and the two have worked together to supply grapes and make better wines.
Wise said it’s a big task what Buente is doing, from raising his own grapes to processing them and making and selling his own wine. But, Wise said he’s confident Buente is capable.
“First of all, he knows how to raise grapes. He’s already solved that problem as a young man in New York,” Wise said. “He’s no slouch when it comes to growing grapes.”
A walk through Buente’s vineyard quickly shows why the ground is not being tilled for conventional crops. The topsoil is shallow and the ground is exceptionally gravely with some large rocks, as well. It dries up too soon for most crops, and it’s steep. But Scott said it’s nearly perfect for growing grapes.
“In vineyards, we spend a lot of time getting water away from the grapes,” he said. “They like dry, arid soil.”
If the ground were more fertile, he said the plants would produce a larger leaf canopy and block out the grapes. The way it is, the ground is well drained and grapes thrive.
The view is hard to beat and you can see large stretches of the orchard from any one place. An especially good view is from the winery’s tasting room — where visitors can see the vineyards through the windows or from the front porch.
In the fall, as the grapes mature, the sweet scent carries across the valley and often attracts deer as well as people.
“You’d swear you just stuck your head in a jar of Welch’s grape jelly,” Buente said. “It can be smelled for miles. And the deer can smell that and they’re like ‘hey hey.’”
Buente said he likes the deer and they’re scenic, but he encourages hunting to help control crop damage. Otherwise, he would lose a large portion of his crop just to wildlife.
He has all the permitting he needs through the Ohio Liquor Control Division, and with federal standards, to grow, produce, bottle and serve his own wines. The paperwork was extensive, he said, but now that it’s all done, he’s ready for business.
He continues to supply grapes to other wineries in Ohio — but this is the first year he’s sold his own product. Although he sells alcohol, heavy drinking is discouraged.
”This is a winery. We’re here to sit down and relax,” he said. “That’s why it’s 9 at night (closing). I don’t want the 2 a.m. crowd in here.”
Growing grapes takes work and lots of practice. Buente is a regular at wine conferences and educational events, but he also spends a lot of time perfecting things in the vineyard.
Wise said he shares production results with other growers like Buente, and they do the same with him. As more wineries have opened over the years, Wise said it’s actually benefited them to work together and even advertise together.
“We sell more wine because of it,” he said. When you’re all alone, people don’t wake up at East Liverpool (eastern Ohio) on Saturday and go Rainbow Hills and go home. It’s not like a grocery store; it’s a different ball game.”
Planning ahead. Buente said it takes four years for a grape vine to come into full production. And there’s the regular chores like applying herbicides and fungicides to ensure a quality grape.
He and his wife both work full-time jobs away from the farm and share the vineyard work together. He works at Westside Auto in Millersburg and Kathy works at Guggisberg Cheese.
They strive for 50 pounds of grapes per plant and about a ton of grapes per row of plants. Last year, they produced 36 tons of grapes, and hope to get up to 100 tons per year.
Many Ohio grape growers are experiencing a bad year this year due to the early spring, followed by cold spells. But Buente said his own vineyards look to be on track for a record production, partly because they were protected in the hills from damaging weather.
Buente said Ohio has a lot of opportunity with grape production and wines, and currently is among the top in the nation, along with California and New York.