Interview: Winemaker Kate MacDonald, Skeleton Root Winery

Reviving America's native grapes and the country's first commercial wine region in Cincinnati

One way to entertain yourself during the more sobering moments of a “dry January” is to study up on the very stuff from which you’re abstaining. Oenophiles should start with Skeleton Root, a small-scale Cincinnati winery helmed by aviation engineer-turned-winemaker Kate MacDonald. The Ohioan’s approach to wine is as exceptional as its surprising backstory, a lesson in American history we wish wouldn’t have escaped our textbooks. Young and industrious, MacDonald is dedicated to showcasing the potential for native wine grapes that were all-but-forgotten after years of prohibition. Read on to learn more about how she’s bringing American wine back to its roots, in its purest form.

How’d you get into wine?

I was living outside northeastern Pennsylvania and spending most of my weekends in the Finger Lakes area where they work primarily with Riesling, a grape that tells the story of terroir very eloquently. What was mystifying to me was how you could have the same vineyard, but different walks in the vineyard, and a totally different expression in the glass based on their growing conditions. Being the engineer that I am, it was cool to see the whole picture—of agriculture coming together with the art and science of winemaking. At that point I really fell in love with wine and started seeing what options there were to learn how to make it, or even raise wine grapes.

Did you go back to school?

I found an extension program through Missouri State University that you could do remotely. Then I ended up relocating back to Cincinnati and hooked up with Valley Vineyards in Morrow, Ohio. I became close with the grower as well as their winemaker, and got my first practical experiences of how to use a press, how to use a pump, the hands-on things. Even though in winemaking you spend most of your time doing janitorial work—cleaning and sanitizing—I just loved it. I learned a ton at Valley about our growing conditions here in Ohio and what unique wine expressions come through that. We’re in a spot where we’re cool enough to raise cooler climate grapes but we’re warm enough to raise vinifera, the traditional European varieties.

I decided that if I was going to make the leap into wine I had to do it soon; it’s the hardest work you’ll ever do, and I wanted to be able to do it when I had the capability. I came across an opportunity at Lewis Cellars in Napa Valley. The climate in Napa is totally opposite of southwest Ohio, and with that, winemaking and viticultural practices are totally different, and I wanted to have that experience and see it through that lens.

What are the differences between Ohio River Valley and California wines?

The climate here is variant but it lends itself to really beautiful wine grapes and really food-focused wines. A cooler climate region has a tendency to preserve more acidity naturally in the fruit, and cooler nights which start to concentrate and develop flavors that you just can’t get in warm regions. California’s growing degree season tends to be longer, so they’re able to concentrate higher amounts of sugar but they also lose a lot of natural acidity in the fruit itself.

Because it is so hot, you’re adding things back to the wine that the fruit lost, or you just have a low-acid wine, which is easier to drink but can’t stand up next to food. The wine is looser on the palate. When you look at food pairings, acidity, tannins and how dry or sweet some of the components of the fruit are, are what lend wines to be food-friendly or not. We make harvest decisions based on a balanced wine in the glass and we don’t, generally speaking, ever have to add or subtract anything. It is just an expression of fruit and nothing else. I think that that, in the most basic sense, is the more pure representation.

How did you discover Ohio’s winemaking legacy?

The West Coast is very forward about wine heritage, particularly in Sonoma where they have a lot of pre-prohibition wineries. I became really interested in the heritage of American wine; I knew a little bit about it but had no sense of what the Ohio River Valley meant to the whole picture. I became obsessed once I learned about Cincinnati’s wine heritage. The impact [Ohioan] Nicholas Longworth had on American wine and this being the first true commercial wine region, standing in Napa Valley where everybody thinks, “This is American wine,” was crazy. Present day, most of the wine is coming out of California, but back in the 1840s, it was Cincinnati.

Back then there was international recognition around native fruit. Sparkling Catawba and dry white Catawba were the two wines that Longworth made famous around Cincinnati, and they were massively exported. There were things going on with Champagne being passed off as Catawba and vice versa. Because of prohibition that legacy was lost.

Grapes like Concord and Niagara grow well here therefore they’re still raised, but they’re made into wines that are known to be sweet. That’s not a true representation of that fruit—we’ve made them sweet. Native grapes have far different grape chemistries than vitis vinifera, in that they tend to have higher acidity levels and lower sugar. They also have distinct flavor components. But we haven’t, since the mid-1800s, experimented with making classic wines from them. Our vision is to explore the possibilities with those grapes in a pure form and see if there’s an opportunity to produce a wine that’s uniquely American and uniquely Cincinnati. We can do that with very little spray; these grapes require less intervention in the vineyard and they require no intervention in the winery.

As a winery, where do you source your grapes?

We source as much as we can throughout the Ohio River Valley. There aren’t vineyards running rampant so we do work on a regional level as well as a little bit on the West Coast. Most of our wine grapes are coming from northern Kentucky all the way down to Lexington. And we work a lot in Grand River, the northern part of Ohio, and in the Lake Erie area, which borders Pennsylvania and New York. We have a grower in the Wahluke Slope of Washington that we work with on some of our Bordeaux grape varieties. All of the grapes we work with could be raised here, so once we have more growers come on we can transition anything that is regional or West Coast into this area.

What’s your process like in working with the vineyards?

Wine grapes are different than raising corn or soy, in that they’re going into something that is uniquely an expression of the growing conditions in that season and things that were or weren’t done in the vineyard. We go and do all the fruit sampling and we’ll advise on harvest decisions, so it is very much a collaborative effort. My entire life I was in love with farming, so to be able to work with those folks directly has been amazing. That being said, it’s a journey and we’ve taken the time to figure out which ones work best for what we’re trying to produce. And hopefully have a long-term relationship.

Something that I’m trying to change is that growers right now are paid based on yield—price per ton. That’s not great for wine grapes, because you may need to drop some fruit to concentrate quality or full maturity in the vineyard. If they see weight going away, their check is going down. There’s got to be a new thought process around how growers are compensated; if our vineyards can’t sustain long-term because of the economics of grape-growing it does nothing for us as an industry. We’re trying to transition to a model where we’re all in this together, in a sense.

How did you decide on the name?

The Skeleton Root pays homage to the roots that were here—which very few people know about. The logo, which looks like a hand, is actually grape vine canes and tendrils. Most of the vines that would have been raised here during the 1800s were not raised with conventional trellis systems, they would have been raised in what’s called head training capacity, so they almost look like a hand or a small shrub coming up from the ground. That’s my favorite form of raising grapes because I like no intervention whenever you can.

Venue exterior, interior and winemaker portrait images by Karen Day, all other images courtesy of Skeleton Root