Donniella Winchell puts Ohio wine on the world stage

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(Editor’s note: We continue our eight-week series profiling some of the women who play key roles in the region’s agriculture. We’re proud to salute them — and others — who illustrate the diversity of farmers and farm leaders today.)

GENEVA, Ohio — Donniella Winchell’s credentials when she helped form the Ohio Wine Producers Association in the mid-1970s were rather limited.

“I was a middle school teacher and I could type,” Winchell said.

But she grew up among a family of wine-making aficionados. Her father, Tony Debevc, was a founding member of the Tri-County Grape Growers Association, and her parents had opened the Chalet Debonne vineyard in 1971.

“I was fascinated by the business,” Winchell said, “but there was not enough room in the business for another family member.”

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By that time, Winchell was also well on her way to a successful career in education, which would eventually lead to her being named the first female superintendent of her home school district.

But the grape, as it were, didn’t fall too far from the vine.

Humble beginning

In 1975, five Ohio wine makers — Winchell’s brother, Tony Debevc, from Chalet Debonne Vineyards in Madison; Lou Heineman from Put-in-Bay; Ken Schuchter from Valley Vineyards in Morrow; Arnie Esterer, from Markko Vineyard in Conneaut; and Harry Sonneman, from Meiers Wine Cellars in Cincinnati — met at Valley Vineyards with the idea of forming a statewide wine producers’ association.

“They put $20 on the table and organized an association,” Winchell said. “There were 13 wineries in the whole state. In 1978, they put another $20 on the table and hired me.”

With a $750 annual budget and an ancient, absconded copy machine, Winchell went to work, at her kitchen table, growing the Ohio wine brand.

Winchell said she saw the opportunity as a way to not only help her father’s business, but the entire industry.

Brand building begins

The nascent association’s goal, Winchell said, was to develop more — and better — wine producers.

Winchell knew instinctively, though, that the primary focus had to be on the customer.

She embraced the promotion strategies of famed Napa Valley vineyard operator Robert Mondavi — namely, labeling and marketing wines varietally rather than generically, with the long-range goal of reestablishing the Lake Erie shoreline as an internationally recognized wine producing region.

Storied wine tradition

Ohio has a long grape growing history. By the 1860s, in fact, it led the nation in wine production.

”It was only after the Gold Rush in 1848 that California discovered vineyards,” Winchell said.

Beginning in the early 1800s, with Nicholas Longworth’s sweet Catawba grapes planted in Cincinnati above the Ohio River, Ohio became known for such semi-sweet varieties. By 1859, the state had more than 3,000 acres of grapes along the Ohio River, between Cincinnati and Ripley, Ohio.

Crop disease in the 1860s, along with a reduced labor force following the Civil War, decimated the industry, although German immigrants brought wine-making traditions to the Lake Erie Islands around the turn of the 20th century. The area eventually became known as the “Lake Erie Grape Belt.”

“But after Prohibition, Ohio’s leaders stopped looking at what was possible and protected what was — the sweet varieties,” Winchell said.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, with Ohio State University’s grape-growing research and with vineyards like Debonne experimenting with winter-hardy Rieslings, that the atmosphere was ripe for an Ohio wine-making resurgence.

Culture comes home

The first phase of Winchell’s marketing efforts for the newly formed Ohio Wine Producers Association was to bring the wine-tasting concept to the everyday consumer, she said.

With store shelf space at a premium and largely locked up by large producers, Winchell turned to avenues such as local public radio, libraries, and not-for-profits, along with tapping Ohio-born celebrity endorsements, in an effort to create third-party validation and “influence the influencers,” she said.

By now, the wine association had a $16,000 annual budget and the Ohio Grape Industries Committee — which is administered by the Ohio Department of Agriculture and devotes $400,000 to research, $300,000 to promotion, and $100,000 to production for every $1 million generated through a wine sales tax — had been formed.

The creation of the Ohio Wine Producers Association “wine trail” tours was also instrumental in fostering a wine culture, and making the varieties grown in Ohio more palatable to the less traditional wine buyer.

A watershed moment came in the early 1980s, with the creation of Ohio Wine Week. The Vintage Ohio wine festival expanded the concept, taking award-winning Ohio wines to the world market, Winchell said.

“There are two ways to sell wine,” Winchell said, “with lots of money, a big distributor, and a huge advertising budget for shelf space. Or you can ‘push’ it through the market.”

The future

The last week of March marked the opening of Ohio’s 217th winery. The opening of Pairings wine bar and tasting room in Geneva last year is the Ohio wine industry’s latest — and boldest, Winchell says — marketing venture to date.

Several years in the making, Winchell said, Pairings is a non-profit established to act as a center to spotlight Ohio wine and agricultural commerce through wine tasting, Ohio Proud dining, cooking classes and healthy living seminars, and business development classes.

On a more personal note, Winchell said she feels more women need to be involved in the business as a whole.

“At Kent State, they now offer two-year viticulture and enology degrees, but we need more grapes in the ground and more women in the industry. Women take a different perspective to wine making.”

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Donnie Winchell is the real life Wonder Woman! Her innovative and creative approach to challenges and her natural tendency to work collaboratively are examples for all to follow. Her leadership extends well beyond the Ohio industry and I am happy to be able to say I know such a great force in the US wine industry. Well done on recognizing this spectacular woman!

  2. I would like to reinforce Susan Spence’s great commendations of Donnie Winchell. She was very involved in development of the Winegrape Growers of America, and she has unselfishly shared her expertise and experiences in other grape growing regions beside Ohio. She has been to our area, Lodi, and discussed marketing ideas. Donnie is a very dynamic and great leader, as well as a wonderful person. It’s great you have made so many more people aware of Donnie’s accomplishments.

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