For decades, the Lonz Winery castle has stood watch over the Middle Bass Island shoreline. Visible from Lake Erie, and for many people the first thing they saw upon their arrival to the island, the turreted castle symbolized the prominence of Lake Erie winemaking – which dates back to the time before the Civil War.
But the Lonz family died out and the winery changed hands, more a party destination than a leading wine producer. The winery property was slated to close at the end of the 2000 season, but ended abruptly that July following a patio collapse that killed one and injured dozens.
The property reopened in 2017 as a waterfront state park, offering camping, a marina, walking trails and tours that show off the history of northern Ohio winemaking. It’s become a tourist destination – entirely different from the way it was in the 20th century – and plans are moving forward for restoration of the nearby Lonz mansion to become a museum of island history.
“There’s such a positive vibe on the island,” Jane Wolnik, who operates a bar and coffee shop on the Lonz property, said.
Very good in its way
Is the Verzenay,
Or the Sillery soft and creamy;
But Catawba wine
Has a taste more divine,
More dulcet, delicious, and dreamy.
In 1854, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote these words on the back of a receipt for Catawba wine. At that point, Ohio was a central winemaking state, producing 570,000 gallons of wine a year — a third of the total American output — by 1859. (This history lesson of the viability and promise of Lake Erie winemaking remains as relevant as ever as climate change threatens vineyard growing seasons worldwide and growers look to the Great Lakes region as a potential climate haven.)
Initially, the key area for grape growing and winemaking in Ohio was Southern Ohio. (Indeed, Longfellow’s ode to Catawba wine says it’s made on the banks of the beautiful river — referring to the Ohio River.) Nicholas Longworth came to Ohio the year it became a state, 1803, and started growing grapes and making them into table wines and sparkling wines. (Longworth’s great-grandson of the same name would become the Speaker of the U.S. House, the namesake for a Congressional office building and perhaps most notably, the husband of Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter Alice.)
Soon after Longworth planted vineyards in southern Ohio, grapes were grown in northern Ohio, on the Lake Erie shoreline and the islands that dotted the western basin. Gordon Barr, a longtime Middle Bass resident, explained that unlike Southern Ohio, the climate in Northern Ohio allowed for a more extended growing season.
“The lake is like a freezer in the spring, and there’s an extended fall to keep things from getting too cold,” he said.
Catawba grapes in Northern Ohio also benefited from the limestone base under topsoil on the islands and the mainland.
In 1863, Andrew Wehrle, a German immigrant, carved a 14-foot-deep wine cellar into the limestone on Middle Bass Island and started the Golden Eagle Winery. It was reputed to be the largest winery in America, making 500,000 gallons of wine annually, and had the two largest wine casks in the United States, with a capacity of 16,000 gallons each.
Among Wehrle’s employees was Peter Lonz, a Sandusky native born to German immigrants. Lonz came to the island at the age of 19, in 1876. After more than five years in Wehrle’s employ, he struck out on his own to make wine. In 1882, he married Margaret Siegrist, and the two had three children that reached adulthood: daughters Cora and Lulu, and a son George.
Wehrle’s fortunes started to fade, and Lonz Winery was in full ascent. Among the wines offered by Lonz was Ile de Fleurs, taking the name of the island supposedly given by Father Louis Hennepin on a voyage across Lake Erie with Robert La Salle. But that’s a story that’s probably more marketing than actual history, said Mike Gora, regarded by many as Middle Bass’ official historian.
George Lonz, who bought the winery from his father in 1922, knew a thing or two about a good story — even if it wasn’t always the truth. He was described in contemporary newspaper accounts as Falstaffian, a hail-fellow-well-met man with a booming voice who was always willing to be an engaging host.
“George Lonz was a showman,” Barr said. “Prohibition pretty much wiped out winemaking on North Bass, but by hustling, George Lonz was able to get through it.”
Lonz continued to sell some sacramental wine, but mostly sold grape juice, with directions on how to ferment it into vinegar. The directions, Barr noted, include a special warning about halfway through: “Don’t stop here,” he said, “Or you’ll end up with wine, not vinegar.”
After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, wine production picked up again for Lonz, but at 50,000 gallons annually, it was just a fraction of what was made in the island’s 19th-century winemaking heyday. A fire destroyed the Lonz Winery in 1942, and the Lonz family built the familiar Gothic castle afterward.
Also following repeal, upstate New York and California started to supplant Ohio as the major winemaking states. California benefited from an even longer growing season than Ohio, and was able to import grapes from Mexico and South America, Barr said.
In 1937, there were 161 wineries in Ohio. Thirty years later, it was down to 25, only 15 of which used Ohio grapes. But Lonz was still a tourist destination. Indeed, the area along the shore in Northwest Ohio and the Lake Erie Islands was starting to bill itself as Vacationland, with motor lodges, tourist attractions like Prehistoric Forest and a revitalized Cedar Point – saved from the brink of demolition in the late 1950s.
“From the 1940s or 1950s through to 2000, the Lonz Winery was the biggest public attraction on the island,” Gora says. “People would come into the marina, and there was even an airstrip. People would fly in, pitch a tent by plane and stay at the Lonz Winery. They’d drink and listen to music.”
George Lonz died in 1969. His death pretty much ended winemaking on the island, and the winery property changed hands several times in the 1970s. By the 1980s, Lonz Wines (and wine coolers, capitalizing on a national trend) were being sold, but the products were no longer made on the island.
The winery had become a party destination – more subdued than Put-in-Bay on nearby South Bass Island, but still “a haven for bacchanalian festivity since the repeal of Prohibition,” as a 1973 Cleveland Plain Dealer Magazine article described it.
But the islands had a limited season, and Paramount Distilleries, the winery’s owners, put the property up for sale in 1999. Negotiations were ongoing, and the winery opened for the season that spring. A deal was reached for the state to buy the property.
On July 1, a crowd was gathered on the winery’s patio, listening to a band and sampling some local refreshments. Suddenly, the 20-by-25-foot concrete patio gave way, dropping the revelers some 18 feet.
Patrons — including pro football players Steve Zahursky of the Browns and Joe Jurevicius of the Giants, both Cleveland area natives — tried to pull people from the rubble. Doors were pulled off hinges to use as stretchers. Helicopters streamed overhead, delivering the injured to hospitals in Toledo and Cleveland. A line of ambulances awaited at the ferry docks on the mainland.
A total of 75 people were injured; one, Mark Reighard, 29, a Toledo native who had moved to Columbus, was killed. The Lonz Winery was scheduled to close after the season, but the accident spelled an early end.
Following the closure, the state planned to redevelop the property, but was unable to find a private partner. So nothing really happened.
“We just watched it sit,” said Wolnik, who has been visiting the island since the 1990s, and had a home on the island since 2010.
A newly expanded marina opened in 2010, leading to concerns that the island would be little more than a commuter lot for people visiting Put-in-Bay. But work continued, and in 2017, the winery reopened as a recreational area. The façade and tower still greet boaters, but there’s also a picnic patio and campground. The former wine cellars — dating back more than 150 years — offer glimpses at the history of winemaking on the island.
In 2019, a restoration was completed of the old press house. Wolnik moved in two years later, with Island Grind, a coffeehouse, and Prohibition, a speakeasy-type bar. (All the Lake Erie islands were rumored to be hotbeds of alcohol smuggling from Canada during Prohibition.)
And the state’s not done yet. In the fall of 2022, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources announced plans for a $5 million renovation of the mansion adjacent to the winery property. Built by the Lonz family in the 1930s, the mansion will become a museum. Renovations are expected to be done by 2026, at which point it’ll become one more attraction on an island that’s getting more popular.
“Everybody who comes to the island finds something to like about the winery,” Gora said. “Be it the wine cellar, be it the coffee shop, the picnic grounds.”
“It really is a grand thing,” Barr said.