In June 1986 I first tasted my first Grand River Valley wines … wines from Debonne Vineyards, Ferrante Winery and Grand River Cellars. Over the past 34 years, the local wine industry has grown and changed considerably.

In the 1980s, roughly half-dozen wineries served wines dominated by native and hybrid varietals with some vinifera  grapes. Today, depending on how you count them, almost three dozen wineries dot the appellation in Ohio’s northeast corner. The bulk are near the Grand River. And while many still use native grapes to make wine – think Catawba — ever more vintages are vinifera.

On the snowy second Saturday in February, my friend and I joined seven strangers for a wine immersion tour in the region. One 50-something couple was celebrating a birthday. And, a group of three friends (and two husbands), who’d scattered around the state after high school, were reunited for wine tasting.  

Grapes in winter at South River Winery.

Led by Certified Wine Specialist Lauren Fiala, a shuttle ferried us to three of the “newer” wineries in the Grand River Valley appellation for experiences in wine pairing, barrel tasting and sparkling wines.

I chose the tour to learn from Fiala, who works for The Lodge at Geneva on the Lake and has one of the most advanced certifications in the industry. In January she received the esteemed Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 4 Diploma in Wines.

For Fiala it all started with a love of wine, a degree from The Ohio State University in agriculture and vineyard/cellar experiences. An Ohio-native, she cultivated her experience as a traveling winemaker in South Australia and the North Island, New Zealand. She also spent three years in the Finger Lakes region, working in the vineyard and cellar at Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards on Seneca Lake.  To be closer to family, she returned to Ohio as an assistant winemaker at Debonne Vineyards.  Fiala is also an adjunct professor at Kent State University’s Ashtabula branch.

Needless to say, this woman knows her stuff. On the tour, Fiala can sniff the aroma coming from a glass and tell you what’s inside. Curious about the Traminette wine offered at Hundley Cellars? She shares the viticultural origin … as the name suggests it’s a hybrid of the Gewürztraminer grape. And, in the tasting room at M Cellars she demonstrates the RIGHT way to pop a sparkling wine cork. Turn the bottle, not the cork.

Even if you know a lot about wine, there’s something new to learn about the local industry and something new to pour in a glass.

The shuttle among wineries and Lauren’s narration is truly an immersion in wine education. At least until the shuttle ride back to the Lodge. That’s when it turns into a social event with oversharing and laughter.

Our experience included visits to

  • Hundley Cellars – we tasted six wines paired with three appetizer courses. While Gary and I opted for the drier wines – Pinot Grigio, Merlot — others in our group chose sweeter options.  Both were a win. The chef-inspired food went beyond cheese and crackers. The second course was two handmade chicken-lemon grass pots tickers in a soy-ponzu sauce with house-marinated cucumbers paired with oaked and unoaked Chardonnays. Winemaker/owner Tracy Hundley narrated the tasting, so we learned as we nibbled.

South River Vineyards – here we had the rare opportunity to enter the barrel room where 2019 Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignons were being transformed by American oak barrels. Fiala talked about how toasting the barrels affects flavor. Then she popped the bung out of a Cabernet Sauvignon barrel and “thieved” the somewhat fruity, young 2019 vintage for a barrel tasting. After tasting we retired to the 100-year-old, converted church for additional tastings – Riesling and Pinot Noir, please — with bread, cheese and assorted olives. Another group in our tour enjoyed two bottles of the Concord ice wine.

M Cellars – Our tour gave us VIP status, so we descended into the cellar for an exclusive tasting of sparkling wines – the traditional method 2017 Brut Rose and the 2018 Madelyn (Sparkling Riesling named after the owners’ daughter).  We sampled a few additional wines at the bar. The dry, red Meritage, a Bordeaux blend, is an award winner.  The surprise of the day – for this dry wine drinker—was an M Royale. For that our bartender dosed a flute of Madelyn sparkling wine with a tablespoon of Dolce Razz, a fortified, port-style wine made from Cabernet Franc and raspberry juice. A variation on the classic Kir Royale, this has raspberry accents instead of the traditional currant. We brought home the ingredients so we can share the cocktail with friends.

Building block of M Royale

Some of our wine samples were amazing, some good and some didn’t suit my palate. And, that’s expected. Ohio wineries have deep and broad selections. The fun is searching for your personal favorite.

While we spent time in cellars and tasting rooms, Fiala takes tourists into vineyards during warmer months.

Despite her depth of experience in the vineyard, cellar and tasting room, Fiala is not a wine snob. Ask her favorite varietal and she give more than one answer. And, Ohio wines are among them.

“I like my whites better … and they like me better,” she says. “Our culture tells you you’re supposed to like reds when you have more experience with wine. I like what I like. I will drink sweet wines. If its 90 degrees out I will drink a semi-sweet Riesling from the Mosel region [in Germany].”

“If you’re eating the proper things a dry red is fantastic,” she continues. “And, I’d drink sparkling wine any day of the week. I think it should be the right wine for the right occasion. I love wine and to me if it’s a good wine I will drink it … especially if I’m going to learn something.”

“What makes a good wine, depends on who you are …I think it should be the right wine for the right occasion.”

Lauren Fiala, Certified Wine Specialist

Pushed to define good, Fiala reflects, “What makes a good wine depends on who you are. It doesn’t have to be dry. It should have balance. I don’t want a flabby wine, one that is sweet without acid. Unless it’s a fortified wine I don’t want super-high alcohol for no reasons. A nice balance of fruit to other aromas is important. It must have complexity and layers.

The Signature Immersion Tour experience, which departs every Saturday at noon and returns to The Lodge before 5 p.m., is $75 per person. Fiala is currently developing a second tour experience with different wineries for Sunday visitors. That will be announced in the future.

The folks on our tour stayed overnight at The Lodge – a couple had a room; the group rented a cabin. Either is a good idea following an afternoon of wine tasting. The group made reservations at two different wineries for dinner. Sunset Taxi is available, so no one must be a designated driver.

Located at 4888 North Broadway (State Highway 534) in Geneva-on-the-Lake, The Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake features 109 finely appointed guest rooms (most with lake views) and 25 two-bedroom cottages. Their upscale eatery, Horizons Restaurant, offers a breathtaking view of Lake Erie. For room reservations, call 866-442-9765 or visit