PROGRESS: Winery is pot of gold at end of rainbow

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NEWCOMERSTOWN, Ohio – Fifteen years ago, Lee and Joy Wyse cried as they drove 350 miles across the Australian outback toward Sydney.

There they would board a plane for the United States and leave their small town, dear friends and everything they knew for six years.

But one thing made the couple smile: Across the flat countryside, they could see distinct rainbows. As they traveled, they drove their car right through the end of one arch.

The vivid colors brought a bit of joy to counter the bittersweet feeling in their hearts.

“We didn’t know what we were going back to, but we agreed on one thing – wherever we ended up, it would have a rainbow in it,” Joy Wyse said.

Today, the couple owns and operates Rainbow Hills Winery and vineyard near Newcomerstown in eastern Coshocton County.

Another world. The Wyses’ 82 acres blanket steep, forested hills and a flat, grassy bottomland that’s worlds away from Lee Wyse’s boyhood home near Archbold, Ohio.

The northwestern Ohio agriculture he knew was row crops road ditch to road ditch. The only areas not in crops were roadways and farm buildings, he said.

But here in Coshocton County, it’s a different story.

The area is plagued with marginal farmland – acres that could produce crops and money but aren’t the best to travel with the tractors and discs and planters needed to sow row crops.

Down a gravel road off the state route, the Wyses’ once-deserted farm has been converted to a vineyard, winery and tourist destination.

A new home. When Lee and Joy returned from Down Under, they didn’t have a home. Instead, they had a checklist of qualities they wanted their new home to have.

It had to be 20 to 30 miles from a decent-sized town. It had to be far enough north to have four seasons, but far enough south to be “not too rough,” Joy said.

Only six or seven places east of the Mississippi met their criteria. They found and purchased their dream location in mid-Ohio around Christmas 1980.

Still, they weren’t exactly sure what they’d do here. But Lee already had grapes in mind. Their vines could easily replace the briers and wild apples rampant on the property.

Rebuilding. A log cabin built around 1831 stood near the back of their overgrown property. It was so decrepit it wasn’t listed on the property deed. An old barn had fallen into a nearby creek.

The lane from the road to the house had disappeared, leaving Lee and Joy mucking through a creek bottom to get to their property.

They invested time. They rebuilt the lane. They repaired fences.

One day, as he cleared briers, Lee used the backhoe to dig a basement for the house he knew he’d one day build there.

He and Joy moved a house trailer to tide them over, and put up a metal building for shelter for their equipment.

It took them five or six years to clean up the property, described as “solid jungle,” Lee Wyse said.

The rest, he says, is history.

Adding on. The winery opened for business in March 1989.

Today, the old log cabin is being refurbished as a four-bedroom bed and breakfast. The metal building in the bottomground serves as the winemaking and bottling facility.

The three-level winery encompasses 3,000 square feet, which includes the couple’s living quarters, a fireplace party room, and a wine-tasting bar.

Outdoors, visitors can relax on a multi-level deck in a perfectly landscaped area. The Wyses even serve steak-on-the-grill dinners and host other events there.

Local demand. The farm and its smaller-acreage neighbors grow 80 percent of the grapes used in the winery’s Ohio wines, the Wyses said.

“From here south, down along the river, farmers need more land to raise more crops. There’s a lot of pressure to expand. But why sacrifice [a hilly 30-acre field] to try to get 70 bushels of corn when you could use flatter land and get 150 [bushels per acre]?” he asks.

Lee Wyse wants to see local farmers use their land in a better way, for crops more suitable for their terrain. He says grapes fit the bill.

“Grapes are real good for marginal farmland that’s relatively steep,” Lee Wyse said, noting the fruit likes well-drained, rocky soils and moisture, but won’t grow “if its feet are wet.”

“You’ll get good grapes if you plant and pick at the right time. They’re a good cash crop. It’s the same growing and marketing game as with soybeans,” he says, pointing to his one-year record crop: 17 tons from an itty-bitty 4-acre parcel.

Neighbors help. He said newcomers to the area can use extra acres on their property to grow grapes for the wine market.

“I’ve got people come and say to me, ‘I’m going to put 2 acres of grapes in. What kind will you buy from me?'” he said.

On 2 or 3 acres, a vineyard owner can expect about a 6-7 ton return, depending on the year, Wyse said.

“At an average $900 per ton, that’s nice [money] while you’re working” away from home, he said.

Varieties. The Wyses plant French hybrids and other varieties, including Gewurztraminer, Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Chardonelle.

However, the area’s climate keeps them from growing less hardy varieties for Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignon and other burgundies. The area’s rough winters can kill those vines back all the way to the ground, Lee Wyse said.

An art. Friends and neighbors help hand-harvest from late August through early October. The fruits of their labor are washed, stemmed, crushed and pressed before the juice is pumped to the 9,000-gallon cellar.

After fermenting, the wine is piped to the bottling room where it fills more than 35,000 bottles a year. Each bottle is labeled and corked by hand, finishing the handmade cycle from grape to bottle.

For the Wyses, making wine isn’t just a hobby or the means to their farm’s end. Their winery, no matter how small, is their full-time passion.

“Anyone can follow a recipe to make wine in a large winery. But here, wine is chemistry and art,” Joy Wyse said.

Explosion. The winemaking trend is exploding in Ohio.

When Rainbow Hills started 15 years ago, there were no other wineries from here to Wheeling, W.Va., Lee Wyse said.

Today, he uses his fingers to count the number within a few hours’ drive: two in Coshocton County, some in Harrison County, others here and there.

Judging by the growth, it’s easy to believe that Ohio is the No. 1 wine grape state in the country, according to the Wyses.

They also touted Ohio’s No. 5 spot on the nation’s gallons produced and sold rankings.

Some of the 84 licensed wineries in the state are original from the Civil War era, when the Buckeye State had more than 300 wineries, Lee Wyse said.

When Rainbow Hills got its license 15 years ago, they were number 35 or 36, he said. Since then, around 50 more have popped up across the state.

“This winery business is a nationwide phenomenon,” Joy Wyse said.

“Ohio doesn’t have to take a backseat to other states,” Lee Wyse added.

Under the rainbow. Drawn by her vow to always have a rainbow with her, Joy Wyse names wines after rainbows – Rainbow Rosé, a sweet red table wine – and the Ohio Valley land and its occupants that captured her heart.

One of the winery’s best sellers is Drumming Grouse, named after the grouse that flitted through the underbrush as the couple developed their business.

Shortly after they opened their business, Lee and Joy stood on the winery’s balcony overlooking the land they had cleared.

They smiled when they noticed a rainbow overhead, but were spellbound when they followed the arch’s curve. The rainbow ended on their lawn.

They say the colors were as bright and as vivid as the rainbow they saw in Australia. It faded, but then came back in the exact same spot it had stood moments earlier.

For them, it was a sign.

There really is a pot of gold at the end of their rainbow.

(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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