Thursday, August 18, 2011


When temperatures are warm enough to be outside without an overcoat and the sunny sky is filled with big puffy clouds, our thoughts always turn to one thing: Wine. Yep, you read that right; for my husband Jack and me, not much is more relaxing than sitting in the great outdoors and sipping a glass or two of vino (generally speaking, red for him and white for me).

In the interests of full disclosure, though, I'm compelled to admit that neither of us makes any claim whatsoever of connoisseur status. For us, a $12 bottle of wine is a real splurge; you're far more likely to meet us scoping out the under $6 varieties at the local Giant Eagle than discussing the nuances of a 2002 Cabernet from Napa Valley at a wine shop.

Geography doesn't impress us much, either; we happen to think that wines from Lake Erie vineyards are every bit as good as those we've tried that
came from California, France, Chile or Argentina. So, the minute the snow melts, it's likely we'll be on the road visiting some of the many wineries along the Lake Erie shores.

One of our favorites is a happy combination of winery and restaurant -- the Old Firehouse Winery in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio. One of their sweet white wines -- Lighthouse Niagara -- is on my list of Top 5 all-time favorites. Throughout the off-season we drive up north two or three times to pick up a case two or three so I don't run out, but it's much more fun to go in the summer when the outdoor patio activity is in full swing.

This summer, the dining experience has been overhauled and improved significantly. The menu has far more to offer than the popular corn chips and salsa, there's much more and nicer seating that includes in a lovely, flower-filled gazebo. And did I mention the whole place sits right on the edge of Lake Erie?

Besides wine and food, the shop now sells an array of T-shirts and sweatshirts along with the wine and cordial glasses and other memorabilia they've been selling all along. Then too, in the summer you'll find "Old Betsy," a beautifully restored fire engine that once belonged to the town, and a fabulous Ferris wheel that was built in 1956 and operated at Erieview Park stands ready to take visitors up, up and away for even more spectacular views of the lake (it opens at noon, by the way).

Ah, but this blog is supposed to be about food, so let's get back to the
nitty gritty: Old Firehouse is first and foremost a winery and entertainment venue, and I'd never suggest that anyone drive that far just for the food alone. That said, the food's not at all bad -- and this season the the menu has been expanded so there's something to please most tastes. Everything we've tried has been quite good, and Lord willin' and the creek don't rise, we'll be back up there at least a couple more times before there's much of a chill in the air.

At our most recent visit, for instance, Jack tried the quesadilla appetizer, which can be ordered filled with chicken, steak or veggies (he chose the former) at $7.4
9. The decision was a no-brainer for me -- a fried perch sandwich for $7.99 -- this is Lake Erie, after all. Most sandwiches come with the salsa and corn chips, but you can pay extra for something different; I picked French fries instead. Everything here is served in unbreakable containers, including the wine, so there's no worry about breakage if one of those wonderful lake breezes blows something off the table. It's possible to eat indoors, I should note, but there are only a handful of tables and chairs; this place is geared for outdoor action of all kinds.

The quesadilla was quite good, stuffed with green onions, olives and shredded Colby Jack with sour cream and salsa on the side. The perch was fried a little crunchier than I like, but Lake Erie perch is Lake Erie perch and I'm not complaining. We've also tried the corned beef and swiss sandwich ($7.99), the burgers are great, and Jack is quite fond of the wraps as well. The expanded menu now includes signature dinners like Firehouse BBQ ribs, with a
whole slab going for $19.99.

Speaking of entertainment, it's live almost every night starting at 8 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day; in September, it's mostly Friday through Sunday. Check the Web site for a schedule. Other special events are scheduled throughout the season, and these, too, are posted online.

If you'v
e never tried the wines here, my suggestion is to buy a few samples at 50 cents each (Ohio law requires that wineries charge consumers even for tastings). If you're willing to rely on my opinion, I recommend the Lighthouse Niagara, a very sweet white (almost all wines are sold by the glass too, but it's much less expensive to order a bottle if you and your companions can agree on which one). Similarly, the Firehouse Red is semi-sweet and fruity. Two others I like quite well but aren't always in stock are the Lake Erie Riesling and Gewurztraminer; they're quite a bit pricier, but delicious. Still another that's wonderful warmed up for the holidays is the Spiced Apple -- it makes the house smell wonderful and tastes great as well.

When we go, I make it a point to bring home at least half a case (six bottles), for which I get a 5% discount; get 10% off if you take home a full case (and yes, you can mix and match). Another tip: Bottles purchased to consume on the premises cost a couple of dollars more than take-out, so we usually limit ourselves to one glass apiece while we eat and toast each other with our savings once we get back home.

If you're really serious about trying Ohio wines, here's still another tip: Consider doing all or part of the the drive-it-yourself Wine and Vine Trail, which includes 19 wineries (most in Ashtabula County), three covered bridges and a lift bridge, Amish country and the beautiful Geneva State Park Lodge that's just down the road from the Old Firehouse Winery.

If you go: Old Firehouse Winery
5499 Lake Road
Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio 44401
(800) UNCORK-1

From Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, the tasting room and patio are open from noon to 1 a.m. seven days a week (the kitchen closes at midnight). Check the Web site for other seasonal hours.