Have you ever been to Cincinnati? If so, hopefully this travelogue brings back a lot of fond memories and tempts you for a return visit. If not, let’s see if we can entice you! Nestled along the Ohio River in the southwest corner of Ohio, Cincinnati is a diverse energetic city complete with unique geographical features and a burgeoning wine culture.
But before we help you discover all that’s great about Cincinnati, let’s take a higher level view. Ohio, the Buckeye State, has long been part of America’s wine culture. In fact, we were interested to learn that Ohio has numerous micro climates, with grapes grown all over the state.
Ohio is much like many other north central states. It’s a cool climate state, and the positive effects on grape crops is notable. There are five separate wine appelations in Ohio, producing a wide variety of interesting and award winning wines.
Known as a wine producing state since the mid 1800’s, Ohio now boasts over 80 wineries. We’ve had the pleasure to sample wines from several Ohio wineries, and have noticed the wines tend to be crisp, fruity, and tangy. While we lean toward Ohio white wines, it’s merely a personal preference and not intended as a slight to Ohio winemakers many fine red offerings.
You’ll find many grape and wine varieties in Ohio. Some of the more commonly grown grapes are Riesling, Cabernet France, Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Catawba. No matter what part of the state you visit, you’ll find dedicated winemakers producing wines in every style imaginable.
The Queen City
Ever since we discovered Cincinnati almost 30 years ago, we’ve kept coming back for more. Maybe because it’s a city of unique local specialties, like Cincinnati chili and charming, vibrant neighborhoods. Maybe because it’s a gateway city to the South, with Kentucky’s rolling hills beckoning just across the Ohio River. Or maybe it’s because Cincinnati is a compact, friendly city that blends urban sophistication with an open, honest vibe that’s prevalent among Cincinnatians.
If you drive into Cincinnati, the first thing you’ll notice is the hilly terrain. Cincinnati is actually built on seven hills, each with a distinct name, like Mt. Healthy and Mt. Adams. You’ll descend from these hills off Interstates I-74 or I-71 as you make your way into the city’s heart.
An Insider’s Tour Of Cincinnati
No matter your sightseeing preferences, there’s plenty to do in Cincinnati. Most of the attractions are unique to this city and give you a glimpse into why Cincinnati holds such an allure to visitors. The weather was beautiful when we arrived, so we made our way to 5th and Vine downtown, the site of Cincinnati’s tallest building, the Carew Tower.
An Art Deco treasure, the Carew Tower houses offices, shops, and an outdoor observation deck affording panoramic views. This is the best way to get a handle on Cincinnati’s unique topography. To the south, you’ll see the Ohio River and northern Kentucky. To the north and east sit Cincinnati’s seven hills. To the west, you’ll see the river valleys of western Ohio and southeastern Indiana, home to many vineyards and wineries. More on that later.
After experiencing the fresh air and striking views atop the Carew Tower, it was time to reaquaint ourselves with a Cincinnati culinary tradition – 5 way chili.
Local Delicacies Abound
Cincinnati is a foodie town, with numerous local restaurants and small local specialty chains. Whether your tastes lean toward German, steaks, or ice cream, you’ll find a perfect fit here. Nothing quite defines Cincinnati like chili, though. It’s a continuous subject for debate and a tremendous source of community pride. Not wanting to play favorites, we made a quick stop at a location for each of the two predominant chili parlors – Gold Star and Skyline.
Wherever you turn, you won’t be far from a Gold Star or Skyline outlet. There are over 170 chili parlors in and around the city, serving up plates of 5-way chili and Coney Dogs. 5-way Cincinnati chili consists of meat, beans, cheese, onion, and spaghetti. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried it! We detect allspice, cumin, cocoa powder, and cinnamon. We love both Skyline and Gold Star, but by all means, make the judgement for yourself!
Cincinnati’s downtown is perfect for a stroll, so we walked off our chili fix in and around Fountain Square, the centerpiece of the city. This city square is home to lunchtime music concerts and all sorts of shopping and dining destinations. Of particular note, there’s an outlet of Graeter’s Ice Cream on the Square. Graeter’s is as much a part of the Cincinnati culinary scene as 5-way chili, so if you’re craving a delicious inexpensive dessert, Graeter’s fits the bill.
Southwest Ohio Wine
After a relaxing one hour river cruise on the Ohio River, it was time to visit the first of four wineries in this immediate area. First stop was a long time favorite, Henke Winery on Harrison Avenue, in the midst of residential Cincinnati.
Every time we’re in Cincinnati, Henke Winery is a must stop. It’s a unique destination, kind of an urban oasis and a combination winery/restaurant/live music venue. We’ve been here for dinner before, and if you visit during the week, the winery is only open after 5 p.m.
We stopped here on a late afternoon Friday and enjoyed some wine tasting during happy hour. Henke usually offers about 15 wines, so we settled in for a few tastes.
First was the Riesling, a good value at $12 a bottle. As we mentioned before, we’ve always been partial to Ohio whites. Henke’s Riesling is just as we remembered – crisp and fruity, with a perfect balance between the two. We tasted pear and maybe a bit of apricot in the middle and finish.
Next, we ventured into a few lighter red selections. The Cellar Blush and Cin Zin (loved that name) were easy drinkers and an ideal companion for the patio or deck. Particularly interesting was the Vendage A Trois, a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Franc, and Merlot. Bold and full flavored, it’s a perfect example of Ohio winemakers creativity.
Cincinnati’s Evening Scene
After leaving Henke, it was time to begin our evening in Cincinnati, always a treat for us and we’d imagine for thousands of others. Recently, Esquire Magazine named Cincinnati as one of the “Top 10 Cities That Rock”, using the broadest sense of the word. There’s an energy in Cincinnati, a friendliness extending to visitors and locals alike. Eagerly, we set out for a few personal favorites, up the hill in lively, funky Mt. Adams.
Mt. Adams is actually a neighborhood. It’s up a steep hill and overlooks downtown Cincinnati, and the views are addicting. Years ago it was a bit tricky to find the way, but signage is now well marked and plentiful. Parking is much easier as well, with the addition of a city parking deck that nicely blends into the unique bohemian charm and early 20th century architecture.
So Many Places, So Little Time
For us, the hardest part of visiting Mt. Adams again is finding the time to stop in all our favorites. It’s a long list!
Our home away from home kicked off the evening. It’s very much a locals place, and truly a hidden gem … the City View Tavern. I first visited in 1991 on a baseball trip with my father, uncle, and cousin. Seventeen years later, my cousin still talks it up!
City View Tavern is a small place, and quite non descript. It’s located on Oregon Street, a residential side street away from the heart of Mt. Adams. MapQuest it so you find your way. When you arrive, you’ll walk through a dark corridor of sorts that leads to the small bar/grill area.
Once there, you’ll notice two things. First is the aroma of hefty burgers and a specialty Cincinnati sausage cooking on the grill. Second is the outdoor deck, with a commanding view of downtown Cincinnati and the Ohio River below. We spent the first part of our evening here, enjoying local Barrelhouse Brewing Co. beer, a burger, and a mettwurst, kind of a smokey spiced sausage that seems indiginous to Cincinnati. If you want a true taste of real Cincinnati, don’t miss the City View Tavern!
Mt. Adams Nightlife
From the City View, it was a slightly strenuous but pleasing walk uphill to the center of Mt. Adams. This is an area you’ll want to stroll, shop, and enjoy the evening, even into the wee hours if you dare.
Truth be told, you can’t go wrong wherever you pop in. The establishments are vibrant and lively, and there’s something for everyone. For acoustic live music on a 4 seasons patio, opt for the Blind Lemon, a treasure for over 40 years. Right next door on Hatch Street is the Mt. Adams Bar and Grill, whose name says it all. It’s an excellent choice for casual dinner or just appetizers and drinks. Then, there’s the Longworth Pavillion, a night spot with rambling outdoor decks, all affording a great view of the city below.
After a nightcap at the Hofbrauhaus (see Recommendations) near our hotel, we settled in for the night, with a full day of sightseeing and winery hopping ahead.
There are so many things to do in Cincinnati, and agenda planning is a breeze. On this visit, we enjoyed the Cincinnati Zoo (to see the fantastic white Bengal tigers), Krohn Conservatory, Newport Aquarium, and the home of William Howard Taft, our 27th President. Cincinnati and the surrounding area are compact enough, so navigating between activities is a breeze.
We began the day with breakfast at Camp Washinton Chili, a newly remodeled Cincinnati mainstay serving marvelous inexpensive breakfasts and of course, 5 way chili. Yes, I will admit I had Cincinnati chili for breakfast!
After enjoying the Cincinnati Zoo and Krohn Conservatory, we headed out to visit two Cincinnati area wineries – Meier’s Wine Cellars and Vinoklet Winery.
Meier’s Wine Cellars and Vinoklet Winery
Just a few minutes north of downtown sits Ohio’s oldest and largest winery, Meier’s Wine Cellars. Many years ago, Meier’s was our introduction to Ohio wine. Meier’s produces a full range of wines, from dessert wine, champagne, sparkling wine, and everything in between. We settled in at the large tasting bar to reacquaint ourselves.
Our first choice was the Walleye White, a pleasant, fruity blend of three white wines. It works well with, what else, fish. Also recommended is the Sauternes, slightly sweet and full of fruit.
When you’re at Meier’s Wine Cellars, be sure to taste and take home some of their juice. These non-alcoholic selections are ideal for summer time, specifically to try your hand at creating a sangria. If you can’t make it to the winery, you can find Meier’s wine at most wine/liquor outlets in Ohio.
From here, it was off to Vinoklet Winery on the north edge of the city. The winery is situated among rolling hills, and in addition to tasting Vinoklet’s wines, you can stay for dinner in their restaurant. We arrived late afternoon, ready to taste.
Vinoklet’s wines have won awards at several prominent wine competitions, including the Indy International and the Finger Lakes International. Try the spicy Traminette, and Dreamer, a pleasantly drinkable semi dry white. It was a real joy to be here, with the beautiful grounds and tasting room offering views of the surrounding area. And if you can make it for dinner, all the better … the menu is tantalizing!
With dinner time looming, we headed back downtown for happy hour at the Montgomery Inn Boathouse, a well known restaurant famous for ribs. The bar overlooks the Ohio River and is a convivial spot to mingle with locals.
From there, it was time for dinner at the oldest restaurant/bar in Cincinnati, Arnold’s Bar and Grill. Open since 1861, Arnold’s has an old saloon feel, and you’re comfortable just as soon as you enter the well worn front door. If the weather is nice, have lunch or dinner in the courtyard, or stop by later in the evening for live music, never a cover charge.
Dinner is a real bargain at Arnold’s. Everything is homemade, and the daily specials are fresh and delicious. We started with roasted garlic, a bulb sauteed in olive oil and served with olives and pita bread. For our entrees, we chose a tasty eggplant marinara and a grilled Greek style chicken breast sandwich, dressed with bacon and feta cheese. When you visit, make sure to see the bathtub in the upstairs seating area … rumor has it the bathtub was used to make gin during Prohibition.
Cincinnati’s Micro Distillery
The next morning started with a stop at the Findlay Market, Cincinnati’s year around public market. Operating since 1852, Findlay Market is where Cincinnati restaurateurs shop, as well as the general public. Here you’ll find meat markets, cheese shops, spice stores, bakeries, and all sorts of places to have a bite to eat for breakfast or lunch. It’s a quintessential urban shopping experience, with over two dozen indoor vendors and many more outdoor vendors in the warmer months.
After a visit to the spectacular Newport Aquarium just over the river in Kentucky, we visited Woodstone Creek Winery and Distillery, just outside downtown Cincinnati. Woodstone Creek is Ohio’s only micro distillery and produces numerous specialty wines and small batch spirits.
Woodstone Creek is a fascinating place to visit. Not only will you enjoy the tasting room, but there’s also an on premise art gallery. You can shop here for handmade jewelry either before or after sampling at the classic mahogany bar.
Starting with wines, we enjoyed the Vidal Blanc, an Indy International Wine Fest medal winner. It’s a semi dry, nicely balanced offering that pairs well with snacks or finger food. We loved the Laureate, a rich red port, and the fun Eden, an apple dessert wine.
Although we didn’t sample, Woodstone Creek also produces an interesting array of small batch liqours like vodka, rum, and bourbon. We bought a bottle of the rum and bourbon and our only regret is we didn’t buy more! This is a place that’s enjoyable for everyone, whether you imbibe or not. Only open on Saturdays at this writing, Woodstone Creek is a lot of fun, and you’re sure to strike up a friendly conversation or even develop a new friendship. Don’t miss Woodstone Creek on your next visit to Cincinnati.
In a way, we almost hesitate to sing the praises of Cincinnati and its special local places. But it’d be selfish to keep it to ourselves, now wouldn’t it? Having been here many times through the years, we feel as if we’re evangelists for Cincinnati. The east/central location makes it readily accessible to much of the country, and if you drive, there are numerous wineries along the way, no matter what direction your origin.
Ohio is a terrific, underrated state for wine. Cincinnati and the southwestern part of the state are just one of many wine trails to explore for wine travel lovers. We’ll be back to Ohio in the near future, and we’ll look forward to sharing our wine and travel discoveries with you.
Schnell, zuverlässig und kompetent
by Jim Hofman