Mahoning County wineries prepare for holiday business

In the winter, area wineries shift gears

By Jamison Cocklin

Lake milton

When Ron and Mike Birchak decided to buy an old church adjacent to their Olde Dutch Mill Golf Course here in 2007, they probably didn’t know they were paving the way for a new destination on the lake.

Initially, they thought the building might make a good addition to entertainment offerings at the golf course by opening it as a banquet center of sorts, and to a certain extent that’s what they’ve done.

But at the urging of some in the community, they opted to open as a winery with an option to rent space in the building’s downstairs for wedding receptions, graduation parties and other social gatherings.

When Halliday’s Winery officially opened in September, it joined Mastropietro Winery and Myrddin Winery, both nearby in Berlin Center, to tempt those across the Mahoning Valley to make an impromptu getaway for culture that’s closer than the Great Lakes region.

“We’re just starting out,” said Ron Birchak. “But word has been getting out. With Myrddin, Mastro-pietro and Halliday’s, it’s become a little resort area that folks can come and tour.”

Kristofer Sperry, who along with his wife, Evelyn, owns and operates Myrddin’s, agrees. His winery first opened in 2005, one year after a dry strawberry wine he made won gold at the Indianapolis International Wine Competition, spurring him to take his hobby to the next level.

“I wanted a change of pace from what I was doing,” Sperry said. “Wineries around Lake Milton go strong through December. I’m not speaking for anyone but us, but I know Mastropietro does a better business. It’s January, February and March when things really slow down.”

Spring and summer are the wineries’ peak seasons, a trend that holds true for the industry statewide, but before the winter lull fully sets in, there will be one more seasonal push before things grow truly quiet.

According to data collected by the Nielsen Company, retail-wine sales across the country are expected to be a leader among shoppers this holiday season, projected to increase by 6 percent in both the number of bottles sold and the money vendors collect from those sales.

“It’s a fun culture. Customers at wineries are more like friends than they are customers,” Sperry said. “It’s a common thing at our holiday party for them to bring food in. It becomes more of a gathering than a customer-relations thing.”

Saturday will mark Myrddin’s holiday party and its seventh anniversary. Sperry makes the wine himself, turning out about 16 different varieties for his customers, among them an assortment of dry red and white, port and fruit wines.

Myrddin’s has about a half-acre where it grows Vidal grapes, known for their tough outer skin capable of adapting to colder climates such as those in Canada and Ohio.

Depending on the wine, it can take anywhere from a few months to more than two years to complete a batch, Sperry said.

“At this time of year, our cranberry wine goes fast. I didn’t make enough,” he said. “It sold out in less than five weeks. Customers would get a taste and they’d head home with several bottles.”

Myrddin’s also hosts a series of murder-mystery dinners and participates in charitable activities that help keep business going during the colder months, Sperry added.

At Halliday’s, Birchak is still trying to get a feel for the annual business cycle of a winery. Though he has plans to open a small vineyard behind a dam near No. 15 on the Olde Dutch Golf Course, Halliday’s wine was conceived at Debonne Vineyards in Madison, where it is made and delivered to the Lake Milton location.

“It was important to us — our No. 1 concern was having good product,” Birchak said. “We offer six varieties, three whites and three reds. With that range, about 95 percent of our customers will find something they like.”

Birchak chose the name for his winery after Lake Milton’s founder, Jesse Halliday, who, as an early entrepreneur, owned several taverns and operated a gristmill for helping those in Lake Milton to grind grains into flour.

The winery is a bit of a history lesson, with Birchak striking a deal with the local historical society to display pictures and other items at the winery.

Many of Halliday’s wines are named after prominent local figures and food is also served on site. Saturday, the winery will have its Christmas dinner, when the owners are trying to schedule carriage rides or sleigh rides if the weather permits.

Birchak said the winery hosts live music every Friday and Saturday night, while he also expects the catering area downstairs to draw holiday parties and other events through New Year’s Day.

“A lot of people say our clubhouse at the golf course is a lot like ‘Cheers,’” Birchak said. “I agree with Kris. The winery business is very similar. When people feel welcome, it’s one of the best compliments I can get as an owner. There’s not a lot of places like that out there, and that’s why you’re seeing more popularity with wineries — folks like that.”

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