A father-son duo illustrated the idea this past month, sharing jokes as they prepared a well-known Put-in-Bay product for sale. Edward Heineman, the elder, oversaw a slew of glass bottles maneuvering through an automated assembly line. Dustin Heineman, his son, quickly and skillfully packed the filled containers into cardboard boxes a few feet away.
The faint, familiar aroma of wine wafted through the air. Antique equipment and rustic wine barrels stood tall nearby, towering alongside modern metal containers and machinery.
Five generations of winemakers have done likewise inside the Heineman Winery’s musty cellar walls, a makeshift museum of old and new showcasing the history of the craft.
It’s certainly a learned skill.
For 125 years, Heineman’s Winery, Ohio’s oldest familyowned winery, has provided fine island wine to Put-in-Bay residents and loyalists throughout the state. German immigrant Gustav Heineman founded the iconic winery in 1888 at the Catawba Avenue location where it stands today. At that time, most of South Bass Island was farmland, hosting 17 different vineyards, said Edward, who currently operates the winery with his father, Louie Heineman, and Dustin.
“Nobody wanted lakefront property because you couldn’t farm on it,” Edward joked. “It sold for next to nothing.”
The Heineman Winery property’s expansive caves — including the still-toured Crystal Cave, the world’s largest geode — served as the location’s main attraction during its early years, the group said. This was especially handy during the 1920s prohibition of alcohol, which virtually wiped out most of the island’s competitor wineries.
Today, the thriving business offers more than 20 wines and two grape juices, all locally produced from grapes grown in the Lake Erie Islands region.
“We don’t just slap a label on wine imported from other places,” Dustin said. “We’re the only ones here who can say that we make the wine we sell, but it’s always been that way and it always will be.”
Heineman Winery’s rich history is preserved on-site. Photos of the family’s generations and the olden days of Put-in-Bay hang on most walls. Daily tours offer a glimpse into wine bottling practices at the turn of the century. The winery’s first bottle of sweet Pink Catawba wine, its most popular product, is on display in a case near the building’s original bar.
Plus, Dustin’s a bit of an island history buff himself.
To celebrate the winery’s 125th anniversary, he has relabeled some of the family’s classic wines with historical labels, many taken directly from his expansive antique Put-in-Bay postcard and photo collection. “There’s so much history here that many people aren’t aware of,” Dustin said. “We’ve always talked about possibly making a museum of our items for tours, which is something I think I might want to do someday.”
A new addition to the Heineman family this year nearly ensures the Put-in-Bay winery’s history will continue. If he chooses to carry on the tradition, Dustin’s newborn son, Eli Heineman, born June 1, will be the sixth generation to take on the family business.
Eli sat in the wine garden this past month as his father and great-grandfather perused old photos. His mother, Kira Hubner, joked that he cooed and smiled any time the pair discussed the winery.
Eli was the first baby born in Put-in-Bay in 34 years, with quite a legacy to learn as he grows older. His birth attracted national attention to South Bass Island and Heineman’s Winery, prompting individuals from as far as Arizona to call and inquire about its products.
Heineman’s Winery currently only ships throughout Ohio, but that could change in the future, Dustin said.
“Most people who aren’t from around here don’t even know there are islands by Ohio,” Dustin laughed in July. “But people all across the country are hearing Eli’s story now, and he’s sort of put us on the map.”