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A Wine Snob’s Favorite New City Scene

It’s not in New York, London or Paris: It’s in Cleveland. Lettie Teague makes wine discoveries everywhere she goes—from an Hermès boutique to a pizza party.
Cleveland’s Top Wine Spots

Plus: Cleveland’s Top Wine Spots

A fair number of readers send me e-mails and letters, and sometimes the readers are even people I know. One day, for example, I received a large postcard. On the front was a picture of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the most famous building in Cleveland (some might say the only famous building in Cleveland). On the back was a note from my old college pal Jeff Ehrbar. Jeff had become interested in wine and even read my column. But he took issue with what he perceived to be my New York bias: “You New Yorkers think the only people who drink wine live in New York or California. You know, we drink wine in Cleveland, too.” Jeff is a fourth-generation Clevelander (“on both sides”) and a magistrate in the Cuyahoga County courts. His wife, Diane, is from a prominent Cleveland family, and their son, Eli, is also Cleveland-born. In other words, Jeff has real Cleveland bona fides. So when he challenged me to come to Cleveland “and see a real American wine city,” I had to accept.

There were other reasons, beyond Jeff’s civic-mindedness, to consider Cleveland as a possible great wine city. It has culture (the Cleveland Museum of Art, the famed Cleveland Orchestra) and excellent hospitals that attract people from all over the world (the Cleveland Clinic, Case Medical Center). Most directly, over the past few years, several area restaurants have won F&W’s Best New Wine List awards.

But one possible downside to a visit to Cleveland was the weather. It snows in Cleveland five months out of the year—sometimes well into the spring. In other words, if I arrived before April, there might be snow. (One of Jeff’s friends said to me that although he loved living in Cleveland, he missed “seeing the ground.”)

Still, I booked a plane ticket. I put Jeff in charge of the itinerary, and he took to the task with alacrity. “I’ll work on a schedule this week,” he said, when my trip was still months away. There was one person Jeff really wanted me to meet: his father-in-law, Ed Singer. According to Jeff, Singer was “a real player in the Cleveland wine scene.”

A few weeks before I was scheduled to arrive, Jeff sent me a list of films he thought I should see. These included The Deer Hunter, which had been mostly shot in Cleveland, and Stranger Than Paradise, which at one point leaves its three main characters stranded on a Cleveland pier, desperately trying to see Lake Erie, all but invisible through the snow. “These movies will get you in a Cleveland frame of mind,” Jeff said—an unsettling thought.

Sure enough, it was snowing the day I arrived. I checked into the Glidden House hotel, where I met up with another old college friend, Nina Klein. Nina, now Dr. Klein, wanted me to visit her favorite wine shop, the Grapevine, which she said had a great, reasonably priced selection (but alas, short hours; both times I visited, the store was closed). Nina wanted to make sure that I didn’t get the wrong impression of Cleveland. “Cleveland is a sophisticated city,” she insisted. “And, although a lot of people think it’s in the Midwest, it’s not; the Midwest starts in Toledo.”

When Jeff and Diane picked me up for dinner, Jeff had some bad news. Ed Singer was still vacationing in Florida and wouldn’t be back in time for my visit. Diane, a tall and slender woman, smiled nervously. What did I think of Cleveland so far? she asked. Like Nina, she seemed anxious that I be impressed.

Jeff and I had agreed that my trip should begin at Lola, Cleveland’s most acclaimed restaurant. It’s owned by Michael Symon—an F&W Best New Chef 1998, an Iron Chef on TV and a kind of local cross between Anthony Bourdain and Daniel Boulud . “My sister used to be a lifeguard at the pool where Michael Symon swam,” Jeff said. (I wondered if the residents of Boulud’s home town just outside of Lyon told similar stories about the famous French chef.)

At dinner, Diane’s anxiety only seemed to grow. When our waiter described certain dishes on the menu as “eating well,” Diane openly fretted. “Nobody talks that way in Cleveland,” she said. When we found out Symon wasn’t in the kitchen that night (“He never does the cooking anyway,” said our waiter), Diane went pale. How could Cleveland’s most celebrated chef be missing at such a critical time? Nevertheless, Symon seemed to have trained his staff well: The food was good, and the pierogi (a Cleveland staple) filled with beef cheek were great.

The wine list featured lots of domestic wines; there were good bottles at good prices as well as overpriced, obvious choices. I selected a delicious 2007 Domaine de la Grivelière Côtes du Rhône ($35) and a 2007 Soave Classico from Pieropan ($38). How would I rate the Lola wine list? Diane wanted to know. “I guess on a scale of one to 10, I’d give it a six,” I replied. “A six? Six? I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight,” said Diane.

The next day began at nine in the morning; Jeff picked me up, since it was (still) snowing. Our first stop was in Chagrin Falls, a Cleveland suburb that looks a lot like Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. Jeff had heard about a shop called Cuffs that was said to have an outstanding wine selection. “The store has an Hermès boutique too,” he explained a bit dubiously. (Jeff isn’t an Hermès kind of guy.) I mentioned how sorry I was not to get to meet Ed Singer. “I forgot to tell you—he left some wine for the dinner party we’re having tomorrow night,” Jeff told me. That sounded promising: I was eager to see what a top Cleveland wine aficionado might contribute. I already knew Ed Singer was a particular sort: Jeff had told me he once gave Singer a bottle of Beaujolais that Singer—swiftly—regifted back to him.

Cuffs proved to be a remarkable place. Located in a town house that’s more than a century old, it sells Hermès clothing, accessories and leather goods as well as wine; there’s a wine bar in the converted horse barn out back. Thanks to the vinous passion of Cuffs owner Rodger Kowall, the wines are every bit as impressive as the ties. Bottles of Sauternes and Chablis spilled out of drawers that might have otherwise held shirts or socks. I saw Yquem and Bollinger Champagne; Cuffs even received several bottles of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti every year, one of Ohio’s largest allotments of the top Burgundy domaine. “Our suppliers treat us like a restaurant, not a wine shop,” Kowall explained.

Jeff called Diane as soon as we left the store. “Lettie liked Cuffs,” he reported. “She gave it a nine.”

Our next stop was Pat O’Brien’s of Landerwood, a small wine shop in a strip mall on Cleveland’s east side. The manager, Bret Schwarzman, offered us coffee. I looked around the rather tired-looking room; Cuffs seemed like a world away. But the wines were well-chosen, with California bottlings the clear favorites, particularly Cabernet Sauvignons. There was a small but good selection of imported wines with famous names (Ornellaia, Sassicaia, Pesquera), as well as a large sampling of coffee and cheese and some birthday-party supplies. Wasn’t anyone in Cleveland content just to sell wine?

I soon found out why. When I noted the Spottswoode Cabernet at O’Brien’s was the same price as it had been at Cuffs ($146), Bret explained, “Ohio has minimum pricing.” That meant a wine cost the same everywhere in the state. Didn’t wine merchants mind? Bret only smiled, “That’s the nice thing about Ohio,” he replied. “The price is the same for everyone.” I couldn’t imagine a New York wine merchant saying this with such equanimity. But it did help to explain the coffee and cheese and birthday supplies—stores needed some kind of competitive edge.

“Do you know Ed Singer?” Jeff asked. Bret nodded. “Of course. Mr. Singer is a very good customer.” Jeff was a regular customer, too. “But they don’t know me. I’m no Ed Singer,” he said. “I’m more of an expert in the $20-and-under range.” Jeff showed me some labels he liked: Joel Gott, Saintsbury and Seghesio. These were the wines that he drank with his friends.

We stopped for lunch at Sokolowski’s University Inn, a popular local spot where the specialty is pierogi. The Sokolowskis, who own the place, are friends of Jeff’s. They sent over two glasses of wine with their compliments: the La Storia Merlot-Cabernet blend from Sonoma. “Mike Sokolowski is just getting into wine; he likes California Cabernet,” said Jeff, examining the wine list. It was actually more of a flyer, with 16 bottles and five $5 wines by the glass.

After lunch, we drove eastward to visit a few wineries. Jeff particularly wanted to visit South River Vineyard, a winery in a former church. “I’ve heard they make a pretty good Riesling,” he said. But the people at South River had just refinished their floor, and the wines smelled like varnish (and tasted quite sweet).

Down the road at Debonné Vineyards (“Ohio’s largest estate winery”) it was much the same story: Though the air was clearer, the wines were as sweet. “Ohio has a history of sweet wines,” said Debonné’s winemaker, Ed Trebets, a native Clevelander (who turned out to create the wines at South River, too). Debonné makes a wide range of wines and even brews its own beer. The simple, clean and not-sweet 2007 Grand River Chardonnay was my favorite by far, though Jeff liked the (very sweet) Vidal ice wine best. Neither one of us was keen on the red wines, especially the Pinot Noir and Syrah blend—a combination that would make a Burgundian blanch.

“Why do Ohio reds taste so bad?” Jeff asked as we drove away. (He actually used a stronger phrase.) There were many possible reasons, I said, ticking them off: bad winemaking, the wrong grapes, the wrong soil, the wrong vineyard techniques. I was still enumerating them when Jeff stopped at Marathon gas to fill up the tank. Inside the station were bottles of Ohio ice wine, wedged between the candy and the motor oil. “I could have bought my wine here,” Jeff exclaimed.

Or he could have purchased his wine at the Cleveland Wine School, which I visited the following day. When I noted that the school sold the same Ohio wine as Marathon gas, its proprietor, Marianne Frantz, wasn’t amused. “It’s a good wine,” she replied, a touch icily. “Have you tried it?”

The Cleveland Wine School—a large open room with long wooden tables and metal chairs—is in a strip mall just a few doors down from Red the Steakhouse (a favorite restaurant of Jeff’s where we’d had a glass of California Cabernet the night before). According to Frantz, the Cleveland Wine School is the only institution of its kind in Ohio, and her students come from all over the state—some of them from as far away as Cincinnati.

Frantz founded the school seven years ago. She includes on its schedule what she calls “leisure classes” in wine, perhaps thinking that the name sounded less threatening than “wine education.” In these classes she talked about wine only in terms of grapes, not regions—apparently, many Clevelanders were as unnerved by geography as they were by the prospect of a non-leisure pursuit. But what happened, I asked, when she got to a wine like Châteauneuf-du-Pape? After all, it can be comprised of 13 different grapes. Frantz shook her head but didn’t reply. Instead, she described the attitude of her pupils: “In Cleveland, people are eager to learn. They’re not crossing their arms and saying ‘Show me what you’ve got,’ like they do in New York.”

After a brief tour of the school, Frantz and I drove to Vue in Hudson, Ohio, for lunch. Hudson is a Cleveland suburb of sorts, and according to Frantz, it’s an affluent town full of “lifestyle centers” (which looked like strip malls and corporate parks to me). Vue is in one of these. The winner of an F&W Best New Wine List award in 2006, the restaurant is a handsome, high-ceilinged place. Its original wine director, Mike Tomaselli, had recently left (he was starting a new wine bar, Grotto, in Shaker Heights), but the new wine director and general manager, Shawn Tatarowicz, was on hand. Looking over the list, I was once more struck by its breadth and diversity, as well as its very fair pricing. Even the wines sold by the glass were both daring (such as a 10-year-old Grüner Veltliner from Anton Bauer) and cheap ($8).

But Tatarowicz pronounced the list “overwhelming.” In fact, he intended to reduce it from 700 to between 400 or 500 labels. When I expressed disappointment at the idea, he assured me he intended to make the list more wide-ranging. “Even though people in Cleveland are in love with California Cabernet, I’m going to take some of those Cabs off the list,” he said. “We have 110—that’s just too many.” And he’ll reduce the amount of rosé as well. “Rosés don’t sell in Cleveland,” he said. But rosés are popular everywhere, I couldn’t help exclaiming. Everyone in America is drinking rosé. What didn’t Clevelanders like about it? Tatarowicz shrugged. “I couldn’t sell Domaines Ott for $38,” he said, naming the most famous rosé. “And that’s only $10 above wholesale.”

I wondered if Clevelanders’ lack of interest in rosé was due to the climate—perhaps the city was never quite warm enough to warrant drinking rosé. Was that why Clevelanders drank so much Cabernet? Or was it because they’d learned about the grape in a leisure class?

I put the question to Mike Tomaselli, whom Frantz and I visited after lunch. Tomaselli was putting the final touches on the Grotto wine list; the grand opening was taking place later that day. “Well, let’s just say Cleveland is five or eight years behind everyone else,” Tomaselli replied, adding, “You can’t talk Clevelanders out of Silver Oak Cabernet or Cabs like Cakebread Cellars and Far Niente.” Nevertheless, he was going to try.

Like Frantz, Tomaselli believed Clevelanders were ready for new experiences. And the wine list he’d put together reflected that fact; there were many non-Cabernet choices, including lots of imported wines for under $40. That was another thing I’d noticed about Clevelanders: Though they favored fancy Cabernets, they also seemed to like a good deal—even if they had to shop in strip malls or gas stations in order to find them.

“Gas stations? Do you mean Wet Your Whistle?” asked Tomaselli. “There is this guy, Ken Bement, who owns a former gas station in Madison called Wet Your Whistle. He sells cigarettes and lottery tickets in the front and first-growth Bordeaux and Barolo in the back. And they’re all at great prices. I once got a bottle of Scavino Barolo for $42.” I wondered if Ed Singer was a customer and made a mental note to ask Jeff at dinner.

Jeff and Diane were holding a “pizza night” in my honor at their house. These dinners, Jeff explained, were devoted to eating pizza and drinking red wine, usually bottles under $20. “But we always try something different,” Jeff told me. “Everyone’s always looking for new wines.”

I accompanied Jeff when he picked up the pies from two places he called “Cleveland’s best pizzerias” (Marotta’s and Geraci’s). On the way, Jeff told me about his friends: “They’re nice, not pretentious. They’re not like New Yorkers.” They were all looking forward to meeting me, he said, though Jeff and Diane’s nine-year-old son, Eli, was slightly concerned that my wine book (Educating Peter) “didn’t sell as well” as his favorite read, Diary of a Wimpy Kid.

Jeff’s friends, Dawn and David Emerson and Kris and Scott Gillespie, were every bit as nice as Jeff said they would be—and none of them uttered a word about my book sales. “Pizza night is really laid-back,” explained Dawn. But everyone was expected to bring an interesting wine, albeit one that wasn’t too expensive. By the time Jeff and I arrived with the pizzas, the guests had put their bottles in the dining room. I placed my two (a 2005 Le Volte from Ornellaia and a 2006 Domaine de la Grivelière Côtes du Rhône) alongside them. But where were the wines Ed Singer had left?

“Right over there,” Jeff replied, pointing to several bottles of Marietta Old Vine Red Lot Number 47 on the sideboard. “Ed thought it would be a good pizza wine,” he explained. A $12 Zinfandel blend? Was that the wine Ed had chosen for us? I imagined what my New York wine-collector friends might say. I tasted the wine. It was soft and simple and completely pleasant—perfect for pizza, and admittedly a pretty good buy.

Just then, Dawn produced a bottle. “David and I wanted to bring something special from a Napa winery we visited,” she said. “We loved this wine and bought four bottles. We wanted to share one of them with you.” It was the 2003 Shafer Vineyards Firebreak, a Sangiovese blend that the winery has since discontinued (they ripped up their Sangiovese and replanted to Cabernet). The wine was dark, rich and concentrated—easily the best bottle of the evening. I was touched by the generosity of David and Dawn’s gesture.

Cleveland was certainly an unpredictable place. Its famous wine aficionados drank $12 Zinfandel blends, and its gas stations trafficked in first-growth Bordeaux. Its citizens favored fancy Cabernets with everything, including pierogi, and yet if they wanted to, they could buy good Grüner Veltliner for $8 a glass. The best wine shops were in strip malls and corporate parks, but also in boutiques that sold Hermès scarves and shirts. The city was in Ohio, but not the Midwest. I wanted to come back sometime—to eat pizza again with Jeff and Diane, to finally meet Ed Singer and perhaps to take a “leisure” wine class. In a city as surprising as Cleveland, who knew what might happen next?

Published April 2009
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