Editor's Note: This story marks the first of a monthly series we've dubbed "Neighbor Spotlight," where we write a feature about a person in our coverage area. Submit candidates through Open Source.
LOUDONVILLE — It was one of those days where the sun fought with the swollen clouds to be seen. The air was thick. Full with the sound of screaming locusts. Rain or shine, it was time. Time to pick the first grapes of the season at Ugly Bunny Winery, a 4.5-acre vineyard off State Route 39, about a mile outside of Loudonville.
A bearded, suntanned Chad Marsh joined two of his employees that muggy day in the field. The three of them worked through the heat, picking bunches of Leon Millot grapes that hadn’t first rotted from too much rain and moisture. He wore a sweat-stained panama hat, a short-sleeved Ugly Bunny shirt, cargo shorts and tennis shoes.
He used a squeaky pair of grape shears to detach the dark purple bunches into yellow lugs — each destined for the winery’s basement. There, they would cool for a couple days before being crushed, fermented, clarified, bottled, labeled “Rosé” and sold to thirsty customers from all over the state.
“When you have too much rain, you get grapes that break open — because they’re water-logged,” Marsh said.
“Like that,” he said, discarding a few mushy grapes to the ground.
The winemaker noted the growing season’s dry start, but noted the deluge of rain the region received through July. The National Weather Station in Cleveland said July would go down in history as one of the wettest since 1992.
When the grapes break open, fruit flies feast, he said. When fruit flies feast, a number of things happen to the grape that transform it into a product oenologists resent: vinegar.
“We’ll be lucky to finish before they rot,” Marsh said.
So it was a sort of race.
It was a race that most of the winery’s customers will never witness. But Marsh, his family and staff of 13 are the racers, spectators, race organizers and architects, course marshals and trainers.
The Leon Millot grapes picked that day would undergo a process much like Marsh did leading up the point when he and his wife, Sandy, bought the property in 2015 and continues today.
The love of growing food was sowed into Marsh at a young age.
Through high school, the Massillon native worked on a dairy farm in Navarre. He milked cows and helped with feeding them, he said. But when the owner left for vacation, Marsh would basically run the place, he said.
“Once farming get’s in your blood, it’s hard to get out,” he said. “I like watching stuff grow.”
He attended Ohio State’s Agricultural Technical Institute in Wooster, where he earned an associate’s degree in 1996. He would later go on to earn his bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2004 through Kennedy-Western University.
His learning continued through the University of Phoenix’s online bachelor’s program in management in 2009 and then a master’s degree in information systems in 2012.
Following graduation from ATI, he got a day job there. At night, and during weekends, he tinkered with his winemaking hobby. But work kept him busy. The job at Ohio State led him to a job in Memphis, Tenn. working for Monsanto researching soybean seeds.
Eventually, the Monsanto job led him to a new gig in Illinois, working for Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a Dupont company. He said he loved living and working out there — and life was good. He even invented something that later got his name on a U.S. Patent.
The invention is a system that allows companies to determine quality markers in all sorts of crops, like soybeans and other grains grown around the world. Essentially, the system tells the company whether to throw a seed away if there’s qualities that would produce an unwanted product.
In 2004, Marsh moved back to Ohio, this time landing in Wooster, to live closer to family. He got a job with Certified Angus Beef working as a software engineer for the company’s website.
By then, Marsh’s interest in winemaking had blossomed into a hobby that kept him busy on nights and weekends. Through the 1990s, he’d experiment with the process in his kitchen and basement. Even his closet.
“Anywhere to get it to ferment like I wanted to,” he said, laughing. Marsh used winemaking kits at the time using grape and pear juices. Some of them actually tasted OK, he said.
“They were drinkable. They definitely weren’t anything spectacular,” Marsh said of those early wines.
Grapes can be finicky, but viticulture in the Buckeye state is as old as the state itself.
Some varietals prefer milder weather, others prefer hot temperatures. But generally, optimal temperatures can be somewhere within the range of 77 to 90 degrees. That makes Ohio — which also has its weather quirks — a good place for viticulture.
As of 2020, the state ranked as the nation’s sixth-largest wine producer and Ohio had 280 commercial wineries. Wine Enthusiast, a trade publication, called Ohio the “next Midwest wine destination” in 2018.
There are five designated American Viticulture Areas — a wine grape-growing region defined by the Tax and Trade Bureau — in Ohio. And there six wine trails that each offer distinctive samplings of wines: Appalachian, Canal Country, Capital City, Ohio River, Shores & Islands, Vines & Wines.
Little did Marsh know his growing love of winemaking would someday land him his own establishment found along Ohio’s Canal Country wine trail.
The fermentation and the aging
Like wine, the land that now houses Ugly Bunny Winery has only gotten better with time. The vision to transform it into a vineyard began more than three decades ago.
The first transaction recorded on the property, which is divided into two parcels, in Holmes County’s real estate records pops up in 1990.
John and Sandra Badell that year became the owners of the nearly 10 acres of land for $0. The other parcel, which provides space for a house, was bought by the couple in 2000 for $6,000.
Within the next decade, the couple had divorced, court records show, and the property became a waxing moon of weeds and unpruned grapevines.
The property was listed for sale on VineSmart.com for $475,000 in 2010. Sandra Badell was listed as the owner of Valley View Vineyards, but the company was never registered with the state, records show. Efforts to reach the Badells were unsuccessful.
By May 2011, a family from Dalton with a vision to start a winery there bought the property for $111,000.
“The place was completely overgrown,” said Andy Ryder. “It was quite the chore just to get it where we could get a mower through there. I mean, there was three-foot tall grass. The vines hadn’t been pruned in years.”
Andy Ryder is the brother of Phil Ryder, one of the owners. Andy and Phil are the sons of Tim Ryder, another owner. The families, along with their wives, bought the property with hopes of turning it into a winery — much like the Ugly Bunny Winery.
“There’s definitely a learning process taking care of grapes,” Ryder said, adding the season extends from February to October. He said the family sold grapes and juice to other winemakers, but never really got far in the winemaking arm of the business. The family also rented out the house located on the property.
“The more time we spent there, the more the realization of (winemaking) became less and less. I live 45 minutes away, it was a big financial investment … there’s just no way it would have worked,” Ryder said.
One of the Ryder’s grape customers was Marsh.
One day in 2013 he was driving through Loudonville and he saw a sign advertising “grapes for sale.” He stopped by Ryder Vineyards at Mohican to grab a few for his next wine. In 2015, the Ryders listed the place for sale.
He talked to his wife, Sandy, who worked as a dental hygienist at the time. He wanted to buy the vineyard and start his own winery.
“She was all on board,” Marsh said. He said his wife is the one person who “holds it all together.”
Sandy said she doesn’t know about that. She describes herself as a “city girl” who’s always up for a new adventure. Although she has a science background, when it comes to winemaking, she only considers herself as a “good taste tester,” she said, holding up a half-full glass of white wine one afternoon at the winery.
“I grew up in Texas. I’ve also lived in Virginia and now in Ohio. So I’m just not afraid to do something,” she said.
Next thing the couple knew, they were renovating a barn into what would become the Ugly Bunny Winery and a small house on the property that would become their new home. The couple bought the property for $235,000 and have since made hefty investments to get the business and their home up and running.
Because the property already had a vineyard with viable grapes, Marsh had wine almost right away. When he opened the doors to the winery, he had 40 gallons of wine ready to sell.
“We were really hoping we’d make it through the year,” he said.
They did, but the business really took off when he clarified his own vision for its future by enrolling in the state’s only winemaking degree program at Kent State University-Ashtabula.
He graduated from the two-year associate’s program in May 2020, which marked the same year the winery produced 3,000 gallons of wine, began distributing to local grocers and restaurants and plans formed for an expansion of its production facility.
Marsh is even planning on launching a small brewery onsite.
He’s done all this while working for himself as a software engineer.
“Yeah, we’ve been busy,” he said with a laugh.
Art and science
Fermentation takes anywhere from a week to a month, depending on the kind of wine desired. But the wine isn’t ready, at that point, for drinking. Clarifying the wine comes next, which can take a week, months or sometimes up to a year.
Marsh is an artist with a scientific background. He loves winemaking because it puts him in touch with both of his artistic and numbers-driven qualities.
“It’s a quest to get the wine that’s in my head. I haven’t gotten it yet, so I just keep trying. I love the lab work, the numbers. I love watching it progress,” he said.
Marsh lets his wine clarify for a year because he doesn’t use a filtration system (at least for the red wines) or chemicals to speed up the process. In whites, he uses a small filter.
“I know some of my (Kent State) professors will be horrified by this,” he said, laughing. But he said wine naturally clarifies over time.
“But luckily, people like my stuff,” he said. So as along as the wines keep selling, he’ll keep up with his system.
Filtration and fining — the use of chemicals to improve a wine’s clarity — is a topic that polarizes winemakers. This is where Marsh’s artistic side comes in, one that has developed over 35 years behind a guitar or keyboard.
“Playing guitar is the one thing I’ve done consistently pretty much my whole life,” Marsh said. He’s been a member of several bands through the years and through moves to different states.
He even released an album in the mid 1990s. Jazz and blues are the styles he gravitates toward, and he plays once in a while at the winery — which offers live music every Friday and Saturday.
“Every once in a while I’ll write my own (song). But not too often anymore,” he said.
‘I love it here’
It’s been a race-sprint since buying the property in 2015, Marsh said. And it’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind.
But one of the best things about owning and operating a winery, he said, is enjoying a glass of wine with another enthusiast.
One day, Marsh stood behind the bar. He was serving samples of some of his wines. He explained each one — going into the type of grape used, the process behind it, like a proud parent would at a graduation party.
There was “1814 Founders Reserve,” a dry red wine paying homage to the year Loudonville was founded. The deep flavored wine earned a bronze metal at the 2021 Finger Lakes International Wine and Spirits Competition.
There was “Down the Rabbit Hole,” a sweet red ode to the Ugly Bunny’s moniker. It also happens to be the winery’s best seller.
Another one was called “Flxi,” a red wine with hints of cherry, black currant and oak that was named after Loudonville’s Flxible plant. The company, founded in 1913 by Loudonville inventor and businessman Hugo H. Young, manufactured the Flexible motorcycle sidecar. (The E in Flxible was eventually dropped from the name because of trademark considerations.)
Young owned the company until 1970, when it was acquired by a California company.
Coming up with names for his wines is a step in the process that again puts him in touch with the whimsy in winemaking. Take the name of the place, for example.
His sister gave him a rabbit once because it was a runt, he said.
“It was never quite right,” Marsh said while serving wine samples to customers recently. The family kept it for a while as a pet. The rabbit’s name became Ugly Bunny. One night — while Marsh and some members of his family sat down one night while nursing glasses of wine — it was decided. The winery’s moniker would bear the name of the runt rodent.
Marsh said the best payment he gets is not the sales made in the tasting room.
“It’s when someone tries it and really likes it,” he said. “I love serving wine. Especially to people who don’t know about it or think they hate wine. I’ll always tell people, ‘I’ll find something you’ll like.’”
Sandy, his “city girl” wife of 10 years, never envisioned this lifestyle. She left her job as a dental hygienist to work on the winery around three years ago and hasn’t really looked back.
“I love those mornings when we get to see the sun come up and it’s shining on the leaves, turning them yellow-gold. It’s those moments — I love it here,” she said.