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How A Winery is Transforming Cleveland’s Most Notorious Neighborhood

An urban vineyard delivers a robust message.

Mansfield Frazier slides a cigar into his mouth, climbs into his pickup truck, and drives it from his house, in the inner-city Cleveland neighborhood of Hough, directly across the street to his vineyard, Chateau Hough. Set on three-quarters of an acre between an abandoned home, a long-shuttered library, and a vacant corner store are 14 rows of vines breeding Frontenac (a cold, hearty Minnesota red grape) and Traminette (a floral, white varietal developed in upstate New York) on the site of a former crack house. As Frazier exits the truck, he is greeted by his crew for the day: five parolees from a nearby halfway house who are responsible for the immaculately pruned vines.

“How are they treating you up there?” Frazier, a stout African-American man in his early 70s, shouts to the pruners. Eyes roll. One man has just finished serving a year for burglary, another five years for assault with a firearm. None have even stepped foot in a vineyard before. “Well, they didn’t treat me so well when I was there, but that was a few years ago,” Frazier says.

Frazier took a circuitous route into the world of winemaking. In his late 20s, he peddled strippers and prostitutes in Toronto and Miami, and he claims to have run high-end brothels and escort services in Los Angeles and New York under the street name Bae. “There was a year in my life where you name it, I did it,” Frazier recalls. “I’d buy kilos of cocaine with counterfeit money, then sell them.” In 1992, he was sentenced to three years in federal prison for credit card fraud. While behind bars, Frazier wrote From Behind the Wall, a book on the prison system and race in America that he later published. When he was released, he returned to Cleveland and leveraged his writing and community connections to become a powerful voice in the black community. He regularly contributes to Cool Cleveland, a local online publication; hosts a local radio show; and publishes Reentry Advocate, a magazine focused on the successful return of prisoners to society.

Chateau Hough, one of the first American vineyards set on reclaimed urban land, was started in 2010 with a $15,000 grant from the city and about $8,000 of Frazier’s own cash. Frazier’s main objectives were to beautify the lot across from his house (hopefully raising its value) and help out parolees, who often have trouble finding work. But he also wanted to see if Cleveland’s most notorious neighborhood could maybe make a pretty damn good wine.

Mansfield Frazier. Photo by Jan Thrope

The democratization of winemaking technology and expertise has made growing fine wine a reality in parts of the world that most drinkers would have previously considered unfit for even the worst plonk. But now regions from Michigan to Mexico and even China are producing locally grown wines that are not only drinkable but occasionally even great, from the rounded pinot noirs of Le Clos Jordanne near Canada’s Niagara Falls to the crisp sauvignon blanc from Kenya’s Rift Valley Winery.

Chateau Hough’s grapes may be grown on the terroir of a former crack house that Frazier had the city tear down, but his process is not much different than that of many upstart winemakers today. His right-hand man at Chateau Hough is Manny Calto, an Italian-American construction broker and streetwise former Teamsters official who resembles a bald Buddha in Crocs and learned about wine by supplying Ohio’s vineyards with labor crews, often ex-offenders. Calto first heard about the vineyard from a pamphlet Frazier had distributed to churches. “I thought, ‘Chateau Hough, what is this, a rib joint?’” Calto says. The two became fast friends. Calto walks the vines with Frazier regularly, helping him research techniques and troubleshoot problems. When the vineyard released its first vintage this past fall, it was the fruits of four years of daily effort by a reformed street hustler leading dozens of former convicts through the monotonous chores of pruning weeds, trimming vines, and tending a vineyard with the patience of monks.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Frazier took a circuitous route into the world of winemaking. In his late 20s, he peddled strippers and prostitutes in Toronto and Miami, and he claims to have run high-end brothels and escort services.[/quote]

White and prosperous during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hough became increasingly dense during the Depression as its grand houses were carved up for boarders. Following World War II, blacks from the South moved into the area in large numbers, as did working-class white Clevelanders displaced by highway construction. Overcrowding and racial tension made bad bedfellows, and on July 18, 1966, just a few blocks east of the vineyard, Hough erupted in riots for six nights, spreading bullets, blood, and flames. Though many residents held on, Hough never recovered, and its name is forever associated with the riots.

“My earliest memories of my street was that it was a beautiful street adorned with houses that were fully occupied,” recalls Tim Tramble, who was born after the riots and is now the executive director of Burten, Bell, Carr (BBC) Development, a nonprofit neighborhood development organization. “By the time I graduated and went to college (in the 1980s), every house on the opposite side of the street … and 50-60 percent of the houses on my side of the street had been demolished.”

Photo by Jan Thrope

Since the financial crisis, tens of thousands of foreclosures have occurred in Cleveland, along with what one non-profit estimated were 6,000 demolitions of abandoned buildings between 2009 and 2013 (with plans to destroy another 6,000). There are nearly 4,000 acres of vacant land in Cleveland, half of which are held by the city. Under the administration of Mayor Frank Jackson, Cleveland has responded to the housing crisis by aggressively promoting sustainable land use, leasing land, and funding some 250 projects around the city, from small parks to rows of commercial greenhouses in vacant schoolyards. “Our policy is not a shrinking city policy,” said Mayor Jackson in late 2012, insinuating Detroit, which has all but abandoned certain areas to large-scale farming. Eventually, Cleveland would like to see all its empty lots developed, but “right now the highest and best use for that particular piece of land is agriculture,” said Jackson, “and we use it that way.”

Frazier built his house in Hough in 2000, consulted on the construction of other houses nearby, and invested $200,000 in a six-home development in 2007, right before the housing market tanked and stopped Hough’s revival in its tracks. Frazier came up with the idea of building a winery across the street from his house to raise his home’s value. He began devouring books on viticulture and seeking out advice from Ohio’s winemaking experts, such as those who work for the state’s agricultural authorities and academics at Kent State University. They taught Frazier how to focus on grapes that would best thrive in Hough’s terroir—a mix of trucked-in topsoil, crushed concrete, and God knows what else—as well as how he should design the vineyard and how to install the trellises, right down to the specific way the wires should be stapled to the wooden posts to maintain proper tension.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]These wines may not have the well-rounded body of a Bordeaux, but they come with a narrative that justifies the price.[/quote]

Chateau Hough’s winemaking process has been largely inspired by the French garagiste movement, a collective of small, experimental winemakers with a DIY ethos that emerged in Bordeaux in the 1990s and has since become a catch-all for young, flavor-forward, micro-lot wines, often made, as the name hints, in garages. Frazier and Calto didn’t shy from the symbolism of associating their Cleveland vineyard with French winemaking. The name, etched into a wooden sign standing prominently at the corner, presents a luxurious, deliberately contrary image to the surrounding streetscape, with its abandoned liquor stores and burned-out buildings. Calling it Chateaux Hough is a big middle finger to all that, and Frazier’s quick to acknowledge that with a tone of mockery for those offended by it.

“ ‘Chateau Hough? How dare you call it Chateau Hough? You can’t do that!’ ” he says, in a high-pitched tone. “Well, I don’t need your permission. I could call it Royal Chateau Hough if I wanted to.”

Global wine drinkers, especially younger ones, have been moving away from marquee European varietals for several years, first to Australia and South America, and now into uncharted territories that touch nearly every part of the world. “I’ve been in restaurants where you hardly recognize the grapes,” said Kara Nielsen, a food and beverage trend analyst in Colorado who works for the advertising agency Sterling-Rice Group. “Even the pinot they have is coming from the Czech Republic. The sommelier comes by, they give you a taste, and you realize, ‘Hey, that’s pretty good. It’s not the pinot I used to drink, but it’s good and interesting.’” Nielsen now sees this new wine frontier merging with the evolving local food and DIY spirits trend, which has placed a microbrewery in every neighborhood and a locally distilled whiskey behind each bar.

The front lines of this are the wine lists of locally focused, hip restaurants, where young sommeliers are trying to define themselves with quirky, eclectic selections that surprise diners with unexpected grape varietals and geographic provenance. These wines may not have the well-rounded body of a Bordeaux, but they come with a narrative that justifies the price.

Photo by Jan Thrope

Jonathon Sawyer, the owner of downtown Cleveland’s popular farm-to-table restaurant Green House Tavern, sees Chateau Hough’s wine fitting perfectly on a menu where even his vinegar is distilled in-house. “[Frazier’s] not going for an upper echelon wine. He’s going for a good table juice,” says Sawyer. “Our house wine is our No. 1 seller. If we can source that within two and a half miles, you’re talking about your dream goal of being carbon neutral. ... There’s something incredibly Cleveland about Mansfield. It’s a broad-shouldered city. We love to prove people wrong. ... Cleveland’s never going to be Chicago or New York, but it sure as hell can be Portland.”

Around Cleveland there are now hundreds of urban farms that have appeared over the past decade, often on abandoned plots distributed by the city, and Frazier, a skilled gardener, could have chosen to plant anything on the plot he acquired from the city. But a vineyard also delivers a powerful message about an area’s worth. It’s a landmark of wealth and privilege rarely found in poor areas like Hough. “If I’d planted bell peppers, you wouldn’t be standing here,” he says, flashing a Cheshire cat’s grin. “The land we occupy in Hough is just as valuable as the land in Honey Valley,” he adds, referring to a nearby wealthy suburb rife with horse farms. “People stop and do a double take.”

Last spring, the first vintage of Chateau Hough was bottled and auctioned off to help support the vineyard. Both varietals had been mixed with grapes brought in from California to mellow out some of the harsher tannins in the red and the sweetness of the white. “It’s a B headed for a B-plus,” said Frazier, noting that they had recently added oak chips to the red, which was shaping up to taste like a medium-bodied syrah, while the white almost had the characteristics of a fruity Moscato. Later that summer, the white won a second prize ribbon at Cleveland’s county fair.

Frazier talks big about what all his little corner could become: The abandoned library to the west of the vines will house the winery, and a block away, in a decommissioned fire station, Calto and Frazier will build their own wine bar and restaurant, which will employ local youth and formerly incarcerated individuals. The two speak of tourists, students, wine lovers, and foodies making pilgrimages to Hough, which today lacks even a single restaurant. “They’re going to scream bloody murder when I ask for it,” Frazier says of the fire station, which the city still owns. But in his eyes, Hough is already becoming his own personal Napa. “I’ve always been a first-class hustler,” Frazier says with pride. “You’d better learn how to hustle, or we won’t have any wine.”

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