MADISON, Ohio — Wineries in the Grand River Valley are clustered almost as closely as a bunch of grapes. There are 31 wineries in the area, and about 16 of them are in the stretch between Route 534 and Route 528.
The wineries help bring tourists, other businesses, like hotels, and investments into the area. But all this wasn’t there in the early 1970s, when Tony Debevc established Debonné Vineyards, in Madison, Ohio.
Debonné Vineyards built on a farming legacy that started with Debevc’s grandfather in 1916. Debevc’s grandfather had a “typical small family farm” that specialized in fruit and grapes.
Debevc’s father followed in his footsteps, buying land next door and focusing on grapes as the demand for fresh fruit boomed around World War II.
In the early 1970s, after graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in horticulture, and after serving a few years in the military, Debevc came back to the family farm to build a winery, one of the first in the area since the Prohibition.
His vision has paid off, even as more wineries pop up. Debonné was recently recognized in the national San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, a second nod from that contest over the years.
Today, Debevc’s business has expanded to three wineries, including Grand River Cellars and Cask 307, and a brewery, Double Wing Brewery, run by his son, Tony Debevc, Jr. The 175-plus acres of grapes grown on Debevc Farm also supply a fourth winery and a distillery owned by Debevc’s vineyard manager, Gene Sigel.
Debevc sits at a table in Debonné Vineyards, the “mother ship,” as he calls it, wearing a vest with the winery’s name embroidered on it, on a recent morning, in late January.
Employees at the vineyards and Debevc Farm have been harvesting grapes for ice wine over night. At 10 a.m., Sigel is pressing the harvested grapes before they thaw at a nearby location.
The grape-growing and winemaking processes work together.
“Mother Nature provides us with a certain parameter of temperatures and conditions,” Debevc said. “And then once that comes to the cellar, then the winemaker has those, basically, colors on his plate.”
After the grapes are harvested, Michael Harris, winemaker for Debonné Vineyards, has options to blend different varieties and clones, and use different kinds of fermentation.
“Gene works more with Mother Nature, and Michael works more with the materials that he’s given. The Mother Nature part is usually more difficult, ’cause she’s pretty ruthless,” Debevc said.
Both processes came together well for the winery’s 2017 chardonnay, which recently received a Best in Class award at the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in the $10-13.99 class.
The majority of the best in class winners came from California, and there was only one other winner from Ohio. More than 6,000 wines from over 1,000 wineries were entered.
“It’s a nice pat on the back,” Harris said. “It just happened to be a nice year where everything lined up.”
Harris knew the wine was good. Customers told him when it first came out.
“It’s reward enough that people appreciate it and tell me,” Harris said.
But the significance of the award didn’t sink in right away for Harris.
“Tony called me, and I knew, because Tony never calls me unless there’s a problem,” Harris said.
Harris will go to San Francisco this month for the wine pouring and presentation.
In 1993, Debevc said, Debonné Vineyards won the white wine sweepstakes in the same competition, which is technically a higher award than this one. But now, he said, the market is more competitive.
“There’s just been a big expansion not only of wineries, breweries and distilleries, but of farm operations trying to make a profit,” Debevc said.
Debevc’s biggest accomplishment, however, isn’t any of the awards the vineyards has won along the way.
“I think one of the biggest things that happened to me is I got married,” he said.
Debevc’s wife, Beth, started working with him early on when they were dating and became his partner in the business when they married in 1975. She runs the financial books for all four of the Debevc’s operations.
He hired some key employees early on, some of whom stayed for up to 30 years. The business has grown to about 25 full-time workers, plus part-time and seasonal employees.
“I think hiring and getting involved with strong staff and the right key people was very, very important to us,” he said.
Debevc believes that promoting the Grand River Valley region, as opposed to just his own wineries, also has helped over the years.
“It brought lots of attention and investment to the area,” he said. “That’s why we got new hotels, the lodge … it’s the creation of an industry versus individual farms.”
The competition is good for customers, Debevc said, and has driven the winery to keep improving its products. It has also drawn other businesses, like limo services and hotels, to the area. But it also brings challenges.
“In the summer, there’s a lot of fish, so to speak, to catch in this area,” Debevc said.
By January, customers are mostly local, and business is slower.
“It’s like typical farming,” Debevc said. “You harvest your money in the six or nine months of the year, and you save a bunch of those chips for the winter. And if you don’t, you’re probably going to be somewhat in trouble.”
While seltzers and lighter alcoholic drinks are popular among young people, Debevc said, his main demographic is people who are “empty-nesters” or are close to being empty-nesters, with money to spend and time to travel.
Time will tell whether the younger generation starts to prefer wine too, but Debevc noted that preferences are always changing.
While he is exploring the idea of making seltzers, he said the tourism and entertainment side of the business is still going strong.
Debevc didn’t always want to come back to the farm. He has been a pilot since 1968.
“My passion has always been aviation,” he said.
Even now, he flies a private airplane. The same morning, as Sigel is pressing grapes for ice wine, Debevc has plans to leave before noon to fly a client to Washington, D.C. But with the farm, support from his parents, encouragement from Ohio State professors and the demand, the opportunities in the wine industry were too good to pass up.
“It just made a lot of sense,” Debevc said. “If I’ve ever learned anything in my life, it’s that I always listen to people with experience. Not always agree with them, but I always listen. That’s probably one of my biggest assets.”
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