Ohio State Parks hoping for bright new future for Lonz Winery

Ohio State Parks hoping for bright new future for Lonz Winery

MIDDLE BASS ISLAND, OH (WTOL) - If the old Lonz Winery on Middle Bass Island looks like a castle, it is no accident. That's the way George Lonz designed it many years ago after he inherited the winery from his father Peter Lonz.

Lonz had worked many years as a grape grower for the original owners of the winery business, the Wehrle family. But when their Golden Eagle Wine Cellars fell to flames in the 1920's, an enterprising George Lonz bought the property and the ruins of the old winery and built his own building on top of the existing stone cellars.

Lonz had this new building designed in the style of a Bavarian castle to reflect his family's heritage.

As the years progressed, the rich Catawba grape vineyards of Middle Bass kept producing a robust harvest and the Lonz family built a robust and business.

The Prohibition Era of the 1920's kept the Lonz family from producing wine, forcing them to produce grape juice instead. But they survived and after Prohibition was repealed, the wine flowed again.

The so-called "Golden Years" for the winery were about to begin as business flourished through the 1930's, 40's 50's and 60's. It was reported that as many 4,000 people might show up on a July afternoon to drink some wine, have some laughs and do some dancing.

It was not just a winery, it was an experience.

But on a warm July day in the year 2000, the good times stopped when a stone terrace that overlooked the lake, collapsed. One man was killed. Scores of others were injured.

Andy Thompson, who is the now the manager of the Lonz Winery for the Ohio State Parks, was a volunteer fireman at the time for a nearby department.

"There were ambulances, fire fighters from all over Ottawa County and adjoining counties and townships that came from everywhere to help get the people back off with airlifts and life flights," Lonz said.

The tragedy that played out at the Winery on that July 1st was a scene of mass trauma and triage.

Lynn Rudin from Cleveland, who visits the Island every summer with her family, says she was on the island that day it happened.

"It was emotional, we didn't quite know what was happening," Rudin remembered. "There were helicopters and sirens."

The collapse of the stone terrace made national news and the effects of the accident lingered for a long time. The damage to the building was substantial.

Jon Linhart, the maintenance manager for Middle Bass State Park says the collapse destabilized much of the old building.

"A lot of the building, especially the second floor, was in pretty bad disrepair," Linhart explained. "So a lot of it had to come off."

The future of the historic building was in limbo, but the Lonz Legacy was far from over when the state of Ohio stepped in and purchased the winery property with the intention to restore it.

Park Manager Andy Thompson says there was never any talk of tearing it down.

"We knew we wanted to do something to bring back it back to this island," Thompson said.

This month, after years of work to restore the pride of Middle Bass Island, the door's are reopening again. People who want a closer look at the history of the winery can book tours of the property.

"It's like walking back in time" Thompson said.

Visitors for example can now view the old stone cellars built in 1886, which still hold a an impressive line up of the historic white oak casks. Visitors may also see dozens of artifacts of aging equipment that was once used in the winemakers craft.

In yet another cellar room, some people might recognize the heavy old wooden tables that were used for years in the bar and patio area. They are still scarred with the aging hieroglyphics of graffiti.

On the outside, the famous Lonz Tower has been saved. In that tower, George Lonz, an amateur astronomer, used to watch the stars from his perch high above the rooftops.

Below the tower, a new outdoor patio has been built on the footprint of what used to be the main dancing and dining room. This new patio is open for picnics and events and perhaps someday a restaurant dining area.

The state of Ohio has yet to find a private partner for a possible joint venture at the restored winery. They are still looking.

The Lonz Winery has gone through many transitions over the decades, good years and bad years. Sort of like wine.

Now 17 years after the tragedy that stopped the wine from flowing, there is new hope that the future will once again bring the next great vintage to Middle Bass Island.

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