Good Grapes and Great Tradition

The Skeleton Root aims to recapture Cincinnati’s wine-making past

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click to enlarge The Skeleton Root winery makes Ohio heritage and European-style wines in Over-the-Rhine. - Jesse Fox
Jesse Fox
The Skeleton Root winery makes Ohio heritage and European-style wines in Over-the-Rhine.

I know it’s tempting these days to do a little eye roll when someone says they discovered a great new industrial space in Over-the-Rhine, but Skeleton Root, a new winery opening on McMicken Avenue in OTR, is truly remarkable. 

Every time I step foot into a new business with a genuine newness about it in Cincinnati, I envision this future mecca where people start flying in for the weekend; I want people to love this city like I do. As Kate MacDonald and her business partner and “other half,” Josh Jackson, led me through Skeleton Root, I thought that just might be possible. 

I pointed out a beautiful illustration of grape harvesters on a hillside hanging over a red chesterfield leather couch, and MacDonald surprised me with the exclamation, “That’s in Cincinnati!” It turns out, before California’s ubiquitous Napa Valley existed and even before the state in which it resides existed, the Ohio River Valley was our country’s premier wine region. By the numbers, it was the largest grape-growing region in the United States. How has this incredible fact been hidden from our city’s ongoing revitalization? 

Inside the city limits during Cincinnati’s prime grape-growing era in the 1850s, there were 2,000 acres of vines. Today, there are that many acres of vines spread across the entire state of Ohio. The acreage was hurt by the civil war and prohibition. After all, you get more booze for your buck with bathtub gin than wine, and eventually Cincinnati became crowded enough with residents and buildings that it pushed out urban agriculture. 

MacDonald’s focus with Skeleton Root will primarily be on highlighting the old, local grapes grown in the region’s heyday, the most well-known of which is the catawba (pronounced ka-TAH-ba). She’ll be exploring a more classical style of wine versus some of the sweeter whites that drinkers are used to seeing from the state. The catawba grape variety itself is pink, although the color doesn’t come out unless the skins are allowed to ferment with the juice. 

Skeleton Root will work with growers in Washington State to source fruit that isn’t available locally or regionally, but the majority of the production happens in the back of the McMicken Avenue building: Local grapes are pressed in-house and then moved to a room with changing neon lights and big metal holding bins for fermenting wine. The goal is to expand the use of locally sourced fruit as more vineyards develop.

Nearby is a small closed-off room that looks like a science lab where MacDonald does all the mixing. 

“We’re experimenting with a new one this year,” she says. “It could be a flop or it could be awesome.” 

Although the wines will mostly be fruit-forward and as natural as possible, MacDonald will also be producing some of the European varieties and wines that consumers often see coming out of Napa. She’ll even be bringing in other wine makers and breweries from the area to conduct tastings; a team player. 

The science of it and the general contract work (which MacDonald and partner Jackson have done themselves) seems to have come intuitively to both of them, even as they humbly admit what a learning process it’s been. Maybe that’s because she has a background in engineering and Jackson is a former pilot. 

Like a superhero with a tiny-mask disguise, MacDonald goes off to General Electric during the day (Jackson works in aviation elsewhere) and comes back to the winery at night, formulating new blends, building big metal farmhouse tables and making a giant concrete space look like a cozy but upscale hangout to sit around and enjoy a glass of wine.

The details have been well thought out with a lot of respect given to the history of the building. There have been two major fires in the building and the ceiling has black ashy shadows to prove it. Instead of painting or covering it with drywall, the couple sealed the heat scars in so they’re still visible, as a testament to the structure’s staying power. 

Even the windows, a unique pattern of tiny wire hexagons, like a silver beehive covered in milky glass, required a search to find replacement panels for broken ones. The windows simply aren’t manufactured anymore. 

“If you want to find them, it has to be from a rehabilitated building,” Jackson says.    

Although there won’t be a chef on site, a small kitchen is being installed for guest chefs to eventually create small-plate dinners and catering events. At first, food trucks will be called on site for weekends, but don’t expect a super late-night feeding frenzy outside the winery. 

“We won’t be keeping bar hours; we’ll probably close around 11,” MacDonald says. They will be open Thursdays and Fridays in the afternoon, and with the several laptop bars installed inside, it’ll make a wonderfully indulgent option for freelancers and work-from-homers at the end of a long week.

MacDonald has gone part time at her day job. “I like being on the ground,” she says. 

So do the grapes; it’s a perfect match.


THE SKELETON ROOT is located at 38 W. McMicken Ave., Over-the-Rhine. Get more information about the winery and opening dates at skeletonroot.com.

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