You're going to try to do what?" the viticulturist from The Ohio State University's Extension Service asked. The toe of his work boot was nudging a huge dandelion on the weed-choked three-quarter-acre plot I was proposing to put under the plow.
The lot, which sits across the street from my home, had been vacant for 10 years, almost as long as my wife and I have lived in Hough. I used to harbor hope someone would build on the property. But that simply wasn't going to happen in this downsized housing market. And I was really tired of looking at a vacant, unkempt field.
"Yeah," I responded with false bravado, "my plan is to put in hundreds of grapevines. I'm going to christen the project The Vineyards of Château Hough."
I think it was the name that threw him, even more than the idea of growing grapes on Hough Avenue, hard in the shadows of abandoned buildings on two sides.
I pressed on. "My ultimate goal is to establish a winery in my neighborhood. I'm going to invite in-home winemakers from throughout the county to see if we can make some award-winning varietals."
The viticulturist was performing a site visit for Re-Imagining Cleveland, a federally funded program to establish 58 projects, including gardens, on vacant land throughout the city. My nonprofit had been awarded one of the grants. Many of the other projects involved less finicky crops: tomatoes, bell peppers, collard greens. I think the expert would've been more comfortable had I proposed to plant one of them, rather than grapevines. But my father always told me, "Son, since you're going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big."
If someone were to say "Château Solon" or "Château Westlake," no one would raise an eyebrow. But because there was a riot in Hough 45 years ago (we residents still prefer to call it an uprising), I think some people feel the soil is forever tainted. Would changing the neighborhood's name magically cleanse the dirt and make it fit for crops? No, that wouldn't be necessary. Soil tests had already verified no contaminants sullied the earth I wanted to use.
I selected the highfalutin name "Château Hough" purposefully, to help dispel false notions of inner-city inferiority. Many middle-class blacks have built substantial homes along the north side of Chester Avenue in the past couple decades. This was my effort to catch perception up to reality. Why not a "Château" in Hough?
Besides, when it comes to wines, I'm an expert — at taking the cork out of the bottle.
Truth be told, I knew absolutely nothing about planting a vineyard. But I was privy to knowledge the grape-growing expert didn't possess. An arborist raised in Hough once pointed out the height of the trees around my home to explain why my backyard garden was doing so well. "Anything grows well in this type of soil," he said.
Beginning in late May, a few novice friends and I planted 300 vines. The viticulturist had predicted that with diligent work and copious watering, the vines might reach a height of 4 or 5 feet. Currently, most are well over 10 feet high and still growing. When he visits, all he now says is, "Wow!"
Call me foolish, but I attribute some of the success to the outpouring of goodwill the project has inspired. When we're out working in the vineyard, a half-hour doesn't go by without someone stopping, asking what we're doing, and then beaming and offering good wishes, and some even offering to help.
I used to occasionally see this woman walking her dog in the neighborhood. All we ever did was nod to each other. However, when she saw us planting the vines, she stopped, talked with us, and then went home and put on her work clothes. Ten minutes later she was back, digging in the dirt with us. Another friend made. Goodwill, it seems, is akin to organic fertilizer.
By the way, the "us" I'm referring to also includes four hardworking young men from a nearby halfway house. They've learned to till the earth, put in an irrigation system and install some sophisticated support trellises. I'm so proud of them I could burst.
The site I had my eye on for next year's vineyard sits on the northwest corner of East 65th Street and Chester Avenue, a bigger, much more high-profile location. As luck would have it, a good friend of mine owns half the land. The other half is in the city land bank. We're on track to get the permits and should be able to turn over the ground by late April.
As for the current vineyard, come spring I'll be rounding up volunteers to help us cut the vines back and install bamboo training rods to keep them growing straight. We'll also have to pinch off the new grapes, which will be relatively small, so the energy can go back into the plants, making the roots and vines stronger. By 2012 we should have a bumper crop of grapes: enough for 3,000 bottles. I'll ask a couple of small wineries to turn the crop into something tasty. (Half of the vines are frontenac; the other half are traminette.) Even if the first crops turn out badly, I'll have lots of excellent vinegar.
I'm hoping to open a community-based, social enterprise winery on Chester in 2013. With a good first vintage, investor interest and a rebounding economy, I should be able to do it.
Even if I'm never awarded any medals, I've already won. We've helped improve the community and made a whole host of new friends. I'm having a great time, and we've proven true the words of environmental activist Majora Carter: "You don't have to move to live in a better neighborhood."