Why we love her: She had a dream of creating a winery that would reconnect Cincinnati with its deep and fruitful winemaking heritage — and she quit her day job to make it real
Kate MacDonald and her partner Josh Jackson, both in life and business, are searching for property in the rolling countryside outside of Cincinnati. Ohio isn’t often heralded as the land everyone wants a piece of, but MacDonald disagrees: She started her winery, Skeleton Root, in Over-the-Rhine to prove that the Ohio River basin has more to offer than dairy farms and corn.
Our region was once the greatest producer of wine in the country. During Cincinnati’s prime grape-growing era in the 1850s, there were 2,000 acres of vines inside the city limits. A beautiful and giant print of those days, illustrated for a magazine published decades ago, hangs in the main room of Skeleton Root. The grape vines criss-cross in a maze, covering the hillside of what we now know as Eden Park. It’s a reminder that at one time, even right here in our metropolis, people took the bounty of the earth at its word.
MacDonald is one of those people. She quit her job as an aerospace engineer to pursue her passion for winemaking. She started making wine at home, like a true DIY-er, and eventually, through connections in the community and her own know-how, began dreaming of a space where she could show the locals just how good wine from the juice of Ohio grapes can be.
Inspired by 19th-century Cincinnati winemaker Nicholas Longworth, MacDonald pays tribute to the city’s tradition of urban viticulture. The space that now holds Skeleton Root started as a historic warehouse. MacDonald, her mom and her partner all pitched in and completed the harrowing task of a massive building overhaul, mostly with their own blood, sweat and tears. They maintained the historical details of the building anywhere possible, and what resulted is an evocative space in the city — perfectly poised to set the mood for a drink originally heralded in a time gone by.
CityBeat: What aspects do you love about your job?
Kate MacDonald: I love that wine allows me to connect with people from varying backgrounds — from legacy farmers to mastermind chemists. Through wine, there’s endless opportunity to learn about world cultures and the land.
CB: How do you define passion?
KM: Passion is a deep emotional connection and interest in someone or something. In my mind, it’s often tied to a desire to understand or perfect something.
CB: What are you most passionate about?
KM: Connecting with people and hopefully creating a sense of community around wine. Too often wine is presented in a pretentious or complex way. We hope to kick that. One of the aspects I enjoy most about wine is that, historically, it’s been a beverage meant for sharing. At its root, wine connects people.
CB: It’s Friday night after a long week. Where would you love to be?
KM: Blind Lemon, by the fire!
CB: Finish this statement with five of your favorite things: “I love…”
KM: Our city, the land and anything native growing on it; engines — I’m a gear-head; local food and drink; our family and pups; friends; and amazing supporters that allow us to pursue this crazy dream.
CB: What do you love about Cincinnati?
KM: The hills that form our river valley and city basin; our rich heritage of makers, from world-class machine tools to beautiful wine and beer; our amazing and super-accessible arts community; Italianate architecture; and the unrelenting pride that Cincinnatians have for this place.
CB: What’s the best lesson life has taught you about love?
KM: If you don’t like your reality, change it. Love, after all, is what we do. Personally, it was tough for me to make the career leap. I had a lot of opportunity in the corporate world — not to mention a regular paycheck; however, I couldn’t stay away from the grapes, and I was very motivated by the potential to create something remarkable here, something that’s an authentic expression of the land.
CB: What is a phrase or motto you live your life by?
KM: “The best journey answers questions that, in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.” - Jeff Johnson in his book 180 Degrees South.