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Ashtabula Revisted.

IMG_20170723_103922I took a day off to head out Jefferson, Ohio home of a subject of a piece on this blog a few years back; the Jefferson Diner.  There, while having lunch, I chatted with State Representative John Patterson about politics with a small “p” and what we need to expect next year.  We were completely unaware of the upcoming news about Sean Spicer re-signing and the rest of the stuff that hit the cable news networks this evening.  However, I did learn a few things today over a wing-ding lunch.  For starters, despite the heavy turn-out Ashtabula had for Trump in November, most county-wide offices are still held by Democrats.  I also saw first hand that, at least on a local level, Democrats and Republicans still work together because a local official out there thanked my lunch mate for all his help on a situation regarding a local organization out there.

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Kosicek Vineyards

Another thing he mentioned to me was that, on the way back home, I should stop at a family owned winery that to be honest I never saw before.   Having done a piece on Grand River Wine Country for this blog, naturally I was curious and drove down Route 534 further than I usually do to see Kosicek Vineyards.   Only four years old, it has a very nice wine tasking room and a deck overlooking the vines.  One wine I tasted was a Cabernet Sauvignon ice wine which I never saw before but later learned is also produced in some Canadian wineries.  This place is one of many new establishments that have popped up in the Grand River Wine Country to the delight of local day-trippers and of course local officials.

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Photograph by James Valentino.

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Out in the Boonies; a trip to the Jefferson Diner.

Considering the fact that some of my relatives think I’m only into haute cuisine, I sure hang out at a lot of diners.

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                                                          The Jefferson Diner in downtown Jefferson, Ohio.

Speaking of diners, there happens to be one called the Jefferson Diner in, believe it or not, Jefferson Ohio. It is the county seat of Ashtabula County which is the largest county in Ohio and located in the NE corner of the state and people are more familiar driving though it to get to other places than actually stopping there.

The thing about Jefferson Ohio is that, it is so easy to overlook. The two major highways, 1-90 and 1-11, are miles away to the north and east and I actually took route 307 to get into town. It was far more better connected to the world in the age of railroad and, in fact, it’s one of the few places where today there is still a track and not a bike path in its’ place. When I drove out there last fall, I parked almost exactly where I did today and for the life of me didn’t pay attention to the place.

One of my colleagues at work stumbled onto the place with her boyfriend last year when they attended the Ashtabula County Covered Bridges Festival. She liked it so much that she posted a review on TripAdvisor saying how much she enjoyed it. In fact, from what I’ve seen on the web, many people have written good things about it and I was determined to head back out there and find out for myself.

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The cafe at lunchtime.

It’s really a nondescript little place on the main drag through town right across from the Court House. The interior looks like something out of a 1950’s T.V. show; wood paneling on the walls and a blue and white tile ceiling that complemented the same colored curtains on the windows. The long counter and the stools reminded me of what one would see at a soda fountain at Woolworth’s.

Inside a glass case they had an assortment of pies, blueberry, peach, cherry, coconut cream, but no chocolate, and they did appear homemade.
I must admit that my coworker was right; the place was clean and the service excellent. Their menu did look quite reasonable.   According to what my coworker heard when she was there, the breakfasts are supposed to be wonderful.  However, it was lunch going on dinner so I looked at the other side of the menu.  They had a steak and shrimp dinner for $9.95 but I settled for the ham steak for $8.25 which included a salad, potato, and vegetable; pretty standard for such establishments. It was very good I must say.   I must also add that they make one heck of a milk shake.

0829132338The Jefferson Diner seems like the place someone running for a state-wide office would stop in on a campaign swing through Ashtabula.  Actually, this would be a good place to chat with State Representative John Patterson (Dist. 99) about the state of his county and the efforts locals are trying to do to turn it around.  While there are bright spots for sure, such as Grand River Wine Country, the Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake, and of course now the Jefferson Diner, the county as a whole still hasn’t recovered from the economic doldrums it has experienced in the past four decades.  Just to the north of Jefferson, the cities of Ashtabula and Conneaut, once the main ports for Lake Superior iron ore heading by rail to Youngstown, and even Pittsburgh, have never truly recovered from the collapse of the steel industry.  Yet, for such a large county, there is so much potential.

As I was leaving a woman at the next booth asked where I was from and I said Cleveland Ohio, which kind of interested her and I told her and we talked a little more.  Then, as I paid at the register, I asked the server if it was a lot busier the week before with the Ashtabula County Fair going on. It turns out, the vendors and cooks who sold things at the fairgrounds wound of eating in that diner which is not a kind of endorsement of the place I don’t know what is.

 

 

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                                                                                 Is this really a milk shake?

Photographs by James Valentino

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Adventures in Grand River Wine Country.

Grapes ripened on the vine.

Grapes ripened on the vine.

The Grand River wine country to the east of Cleveland Ohio is a well-kept secret for the rest of the nation. Straddling the Lake and Ashtabula county borders it’s a truly enjoyable day trip on a weekend afternoon. While it is a far cry from the world renown wine areas of the nation, Grand River is coming into it’s own and, these roads get quite busy with traffic from the nearby cities.  Route 307 and Doty Road are lined with fields of grape vines interspersed with woods, houses, bed and breakfasts like the Polly Harper Inn, and the occasional corn field. In the fall, air is heavy with the scent of grapes still on the vine.

Created in 1983, there are about 13-22 wineries in the Grand River Appellation. They include such local favorites as Chalet Debonne Vineyards, Ferrante Winery and Ristorante, St. Joseph Vineyard and M Cellars. Surprisingly, more than a few have won awards for the quality of their wines.

French-American hybrids such as vidal blanc naturally thrive in this area but also original grape varietals including pinot noir and chardonnay which benefit from the area’s proximity to Lake Erie to the North.  Many vintners have taken a cue from those on the other side of Lake Erie and produce ice wines which have a strong local following.

Chalet Debonne Vinyards

Chalet Debonne Vinyards

Chalet Debonne on Doty Road in Madison, Ohio, has been producing award-winning ice wines for years, including this year. “It has been busier this year than last because the economy was still slow,” an employee of Debonne told me recently when I went there. Her comment bore her out because, as I was leaving, two busloads of people were coming in.  It is well known locally for their special events, and hot air balloons taking off from its grounds.

Ferrante's on a Summer Weekend.

Ferrante’s on a Summer Weekend.

Ferrante’s Winery and Ristorante on Route 307 is another well known establishment to Clevelanders.  It too has won numerous awards for it’s wines such as gold medals for it’s Grand River Valley Vidal Blanc Ice Wine and Cabernet Franc.  However, it is the restaurant that really fills up the parking lot; especially since they have live bands performing on the spacious patio in the summer.

M Cellars Winery and  South River Vineyard (located in an old church) are the newer kids on the block, so to speak.   On my recent drive down South Ridge Road, it was encouraging to see that such new establishments, only created within the last decade, were doing excellent business.  M Cellars parking lot was filled when I stopped in their driveway and, from their website, seems to be getting pretty good local press.

This stretch of land south of Lake Erie has been known as a grape growing region since the 19th century. Geneva Ohio, is home of the annual Grape Jamboree which has been running strong for 51 years. However, it was table grapes or those destined for the jar of jam that historically predominated. It was only after 1970 that some grape growers, such as Debonne, began to seriously invest in commercial wine-making and in the past few decades it has taken off.

M Cellars Winery, South Ridge Road.

M Cellars Winery, South Ridge Road

According to Donniella Winchell of the Ohio Wine Growers Association in a recent phone conversation, things have been “crazy, busy out here, it’s insane,” but bears out her strong belief that the wineries such as Debonne’s are an economic engine for the county. The Summer Season, which has on average 10,000 to 12,000 people visiting the wineries daily, has extended to March to take in the enormously popular Ice Wine Festival with larger crowds arriving in the Fall Harvest season. Even on the coldest days of Winter, some 5,000 people head out there on a given weekend. This not bad for a an area running ten miles north and south of a small river.

Inside the Chalet

Inside the Chalet

Grand River Wine Country’s easy access to the Cleveland area via I-90, which is a boon to the wineries, also puts it directly in the path of development. Already Eastern Lake County has experienced a building boom as woodland and nurseries have been replaced by subdivisions, big boxes, and signs along the road selling fallow acreage. Will this area be able to withstand the onslaught of urban sprawl that relentlessly moves eastward?  It’s hard to tell the Grand River Wine area will be like a decade from now.  With the growing investment in wineries, and conservation easement programs offered by such groups as the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, a Home Depot may never be built next to Ferrante’s.  What I would like see is it evolving into what a traveler encounters on the Niagara Peninsula.  Will St. Joseph’s ice wine be as well known as Inniskillin’s?  Will there be a summer stock theater in Geneva or nearby Unionville?  How about more boutique lodgings like the Polly Harper Inn?  That, I believe, would be an amazing view for the future.

Wine County September 27, 2014 Ashtabula

One last look.

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