For four decades, David Benzing worked as a biology professor at Oberlin College. But when he retired from the college in 2005, he turned to another love.
“I’ve been interested in wine making since I was a kid,” Benzing says. “I had a friend whose father made wine, like a lot of people did in the old days, from Concord grapes, in their basement.”
Throughout graduate school at the University of Michigan, Benzing was an amateur wine maker, experimenting on a small scale with growing and fermenting his own grapes. For most of his life, he considered wine little more than a hobby — one he was passionate about.
After retiring he talked to his friends Larry and Mary Gibson, of Westlake, and Fran and Jack Baumann, of Oberlin, about the possibility of going into the wine-making business together. In 2006, they started laying the groundwork for what would become Vermilion Valley Vineyards in Wakeman.
“For me [opening the winery] was something to get myself active and physically involved, professionalizing something I had been doing all these years,” Benzing says.
The group selected a 23-acre site off Gore Orphanage Road and planted seven-and-a-half acres of grapes. They hired Ferut Architects of Elyria to design an environmentally friendly, modern and inviting 4,000-plus-square-foot winery and tasting room, which features double-wall construction, and floors and trim made from locally harvested and recycled wood. A pond on the property is used for irrigation, storm water management, and an energy-efficient ground-source heating and cooling system.
Vermilion Valley Vineyards, which opened to the public in 2009, specializes in growing vinifera grapes, which are native to the Mediterranean region, central Europe and southwestern Asia. These include Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Gewurtztraminer gwerapes — all of which are more challenging to grow in Northeast Ohio than, say, Napa Valley, thanks to Ohio’s cold winters and humid summers, Benzing says.
Modern technology, however, has made it possible for such grapes to survive, even thrive, in Lorain County.
“Ohio and even the whole eastern part of the U.S. has a reputation for producing low-quality wines,” Benzig explains. “That dates back to pre-Prohibition days, when the only grapes grown here successfully were Concord and Niagara grapes. The technology for growing vinifera, or European grapes, in this part of the world didn’t develop until after World War II.”
Vermilion Valley Vineyard is considered a boutique winery, meaning it is a purposefully small operation that will never produce more than 15,000 gallons of wine a year, says Benzing’s assistant, Joe Fowler, who works closely with Benzing in the fields every day and in producing and bottling, the wine.
Benzing and his team strive to be “an example for the local area of how to manage land sustainably,” he adds. Commodity grain production — animal feed, sweeteners for soft drinks — uses a lot of energy and fertilizer and, over the long run, is not sustainable, he says.
In addition to grapes, the property is home to about an acre of orchards, where strawberries, blueberries, peaches and even persimmons are grown and then made into unique and very popular fruit wines.
Running a winery is labor-intensive, and Benzing is known to put in as many hours working at Vermilion Valley Vineyards as he did as a full-time professor — perhaps even more — to make his dream of producing the finest (and most environmentally friendly) wines in the state come true.
“You have to love it, or it will kill you,” he says.