Back in March, I would have said that everything I knew about wines could be written on the top of a cork. But then, at a dinner party that otherwise is a fuzzy memory, I learned that during the latter half of the 19th century, Kentucky was one of the largest wine-producing states in the nation. I was even more amazed when I read that there are 65 licensed wineries in Kentucky. So I decided to hop on my bicycle and head to Bullitt County to learn what I could about Kentucky’s winemaking industry.
The ride took me on a scenic journey to visit the hospitable folks at Brooks Hill, MillaNova, Wight-Meyer and Forest Edge wineries. I shouldn’t have worried that my ignorance about wine would be embarrassing. Vintners, tasting room staff and everyone else I met at the wineries were welcoming and patient with my questions.
One day of bike riding led to another, and then to another. Before I realized it, the summer was over, and I had visited 24 wineries.
No. 1: You don’t need to know (or care!) two hoots about wine to enjoy Kentucky’s wineries.
Wineries are fun, friendly places and provide enjoyable venues for weddings, retirement celebrations, family reunions, concerts, festivals, date nights and social gatherings of all kinds—or for simply relaxing and slowing down. Guests don’t even need to imbibe to enjoy a winery, as nonalcoholic beverages are always available. More than 200,000 Kentuckians and tourists visit Kentucky’s wineries every year.
Earlier this summer, my wife, a group of neighbors and I enjoyed a memorable evening at Smith-Berry Winery near New Castle. A delicious buffet meal was served in the barn, and a music group covered songs from The Beatles. We ate, drank, visited, listened to music, strolled through the surrounding vineyards, and watched children playfully climb over bales of hay.
Concerts with buffets are scheduled throughout the summer at Equus Run Vineyards & Winery’s gorgeous outdoor amphitheater near Midway and on Elk Creek Vineyard’s large outdoor deck that overlooks its vineyards near Owenton. Talon Winery & Vineyard south of Lexington offers music on the lawn of a stately 18th century mansion. A romantic meal on a patio surrounded by vineyards at Jean Farris Winery & Bistro, also near Lexington, is an unforgettable occasion. With its elegant table settings and sparkling chandeliers, celebrating anything at MillaNova Winery in Mt. Washington is magical.
One thing is certain: Kentucky’s wineries know how to “do” hospitality.
No. 2: It’s great fun finding and traveling to a Kentucky winery.
Perhaps it’s only me and my bicycle, but it seems that traveling to a Kentucky winery is almost always an adventure, in the best sense of the word. They are located in scenic and often out-of-the-way places.
Equus Run is in the middle of horse country. The last couple miles of tree-covered roadway approaching the winery run beside the South Elkhorn, one of the prettiest creeks you’ll ever see. Talon Winery, on Old Richmond Road, has another eye-catching setting, located on rolling farmland with the hosting center, tasting room and gift shop housed in the majestic home of Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor.
While biking on the 100-mile Louisville Loop, I discovered that Broad Run Vineyards & Winery is less than 2 miles from the Loop. The winery’s tasting room and large decks overlook 27 acres of scenic vineyards. Biking 4 miles from Lawrenceburg through quiet, pastoral Anderson County to Lovers Leap Vineyards & Winery took me on a winding road with chirpy birds, crumbling stone fences and colorful wildflowers. All at once, there appeared a panoramic scene overlooking 33 acres of lush, picturesque vineyards.
A few miles outside Owenton is Elk Creek Winery. My bicycle and I were treated to magnificent panoramas of beautifully maintained fields and homesteads with a square quilt design painted on the sides of many barns. A winding downhill country road provided a hint that something special lies ahead. Sure, I could describe the rural setting, rustic cottages that provide overnight lodging, many acres of hillside vineyards, and the winery’s carefully maintained grounds. But what I enjoyed most about Elk Creek is its extensive hosting center that features a large tasting room, art gallery, dining venues, gift shops and outdoor decks, where guests can dine and musicians perform. When I arrived, I spotted 10 spirited women attending a book club meeting. I noticed three things: several empty wine bottles, a book discussion had not yet begun, and they were having an absolutely spectacular time.
At another table, two couples in their 60s had decided to meet for dinner and an overnight stay. Another couple at a nearby table told me that they enjoyed a monthly date night at Elk Creek and had been doing so for years.
Brooks Hill Winery invites guests to bring picnic baskets to concerts and enjoy the grounds, fine wines and the company of Lili, the winery Labradoodle. And in the western part of the state, outside Paducah, is one of Kentucky’s largest wineries. Purple Toad Winery, owned by vintner Allen Dossey, is everything a visitor could ask for: It’s easy to find, offers an attractive setting, sells award-winning wines, boasts top-of-the-line facilities, and has welcoming dogs—Brownie and Shadow—as well as delightful people.
The bike ride of a lifetime, however, was my trip to First Vineyard, south of Nicholasville. It begins on a hilly, winding, tree-canopied road named the Sugar Creek Pike. The pike narrows, turns left, loses its middle line, narrows again, becomes one lane, narrows more, and only then do you come upon the sign: “Be Careful. Road Narrows.” At a severe turn in the road is another sign: “First Vineyard – Drive Slowly.” I shout, “Hallelujah,” thinking I’ve arrived, but there’s still another half-mile of graveled lane. Finally, to my great delight, I arrive.
I love these adventures, and you will, too.
No. 3: The first commercial winery in the United States was located in Kentucky.
I was surprised to learn that Kentucky has a long, distinguished history of winemaking, due mostly to our fertile soil and moderate climate that enable many varieties of grapes to flourish. Two wineries in Kentucky have lived this history from the beginning—First Vineyard Winery and Baker-Bird Winery outside Augusta on the Ohio River. Tom Beall at First Vineyard and Dinah Bird at Baker-Bird are terrific hosts and spellbinding historians of Kentucky’s early years as a wine-producing state.
In 1798, Swiss-born winemaker Jean-Jacques Dufour was sent, at the urging of Benjamin Franklin, to search the new nation for climate and soil conditions suitable for growing grapes. Dufour arrived in Lexington and came upon the ideal spot on the banks of the Kentucky River. He recruited investors, and in 1799 planted a terraced vineyard he appropriately named the First Vineyard. In the fall of 1802, Dufour made his first wine, which was drunk the following year by members of the Kentucky Vineyard Society and their guests at Postlethwait’s Tavern in Lexington.
In 1805, two 5-gallon casks of wine from First Vineyard were taken by horseback over the Wilderness Road to Washington for President Thomas Jefferson to enjoy. Jefferson responded with a letter stating that “the quality satisfies me that we have found native grapes [the red Alexander grape and the white Madeira grape] … which gives us wines worthy of the best vineyards of France.”
Visitors to First Vineyard can taste wines made from the same grape varieties that made Dufour and Jefferson so proud.
No. 4: It takes 756 grapes to make one bottle of wine.
While it’s an interesting tidbit for readers, the question of the number of grapes it takes to make a bottle of wine is one that wineries ask as they assess equipment needs and calculate production costs. And if 756 grapes are used to produce a 750 ml bottle of wine, it means that 151 grapes give up their existence for each glass of wine we enjoy.
According to the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council, Kentucky vintners typically plant 500-600 vines on an acre of land. (As we know, 1 acre is the amount of land that a farmer with one strong ox can plow in a day’s time. For readers like me who sold their ox a while back and promptly forgot how much land we plowed in a day’s time, an acre is the same as a 90-yard football field.) The average yield of a Kentucky vineyard is 3-4 tons of grapes per acre. These grapes produce 2,700 bottles of wine. Since 2.6 pounds of grapes are needed to produce a bottle of wine, and grape growers figure on 18 grapes per ounce, one can conclude that on average a Kentucky vintner uses 756 grapes to produce one bottle of wine.
Kentucky’s annual wine production is an estimated 212,000 gallons or 90,000 cases. There are 12 bottles in a case, so in a typical year, Kentucky’s wineries will produce 1,080,000 bottles of wine! More than 3 million pounds of grapes are used to make this wine. Less than half of these grapes are grown on the 225 acres of Kentucky vineyards. The rest are imported from other grape-growing states.
No. 5: More than half the wine produced in Kentucky comes from fruit and berries other than grapes.
In fact, the No. 1 seller in Kentucky is blackberry wine. Actually, this shouldn’t be a surprise because Kentuckians overwhelmingly prefer sweet wines. Several wineries—most notably ChuckleBerry Farm Winery near Bloomfield, McIntyre’s Winery & Berries east of Bardstown, and Wildside Winery south of Versailles—specialize in producing wines from non-grape sources.
I had never before tasted peach, elderberry, cherry, pear, blueberry, raspberry, cranberry, pawpaw, pomegranate, sweet potato, daylily, dandelion, rhubarb, corn cob or black walnut wine. None of these may end up being a favorite, but the wineries that produce them make sampling enjoyable, and the experience of tasting these offbeat wines provides amusing stories to share with friends afterward. Be adventurous; give these exotic fruit and non-grape berry wines a try.
No. 6: Kentucky’s wine industry creates an annual economic impact of $165.3 million.
This is an amazing statement about an industry that pretty much flies under the state’s radar screen. A July 2016 study commissioned by the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council and implemented by a California accounting firm documents the notable impact that Kentucky’s wine industry has on our state’s economic well-being.
According to the study, Kentucky’s wine industry was responsible for creating 1,247 full-time equivalent jobs in 2014 that paid $37.2 million in wages. Kentucky’s 65 wineries and vineyards accounted for 330 of these jobs. In addition, a hefty $20 million in economic activity was generated by the 216,000 guests who visited the wineries in 2014. These visitors spent $9 million on wine and $1 million-plus to participate in activities held at wineries.
“The industry continues to grow by leaps and bounds, which is great news for wineries, grape growers, and those of us who love wine. But additionally, the success of Kentucky’s wineries is superb news for the Commonwealth’s economy and the entire state,” said Tyler Madison, director of the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council.
No. 7: Kentucky wines do well in “blind” judging at prestigious competitions.
One of the first things to do when visiting Kentucky wineries is to look for the colorful lineups of awards that have been won at important regional, national and international competitions. Most often these medals are found hanging around the necks of winning bottles. They are not difficult to find, as they are prominently displayed by vintners who are rightfully proud of the recognition that their wines receive.
In recent years, Kentucky wines have earned highly regarded recognition and increased respect, and are winning gold and double gold medals at competitions in the U.S. and overseas. Kentucky’s wines are competitive, ranking favorably with those from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois; and they are much better than commonly believed. They may not be up there with wines from California and Washington, but most of us aren’t expert enough to recognize the difference. For an affordable price, we can enjoy award-winning wines produced in our state. Kentucky has talented and highly respected winemakers who are making names for themselves far beyond our state’s borders.
No. 8: There’s nothing glamorous about growing grapes and making wine.
As is the case with any small business, winemaking is a lot of hard and challenging work. Growing grapes is farming, and making wine is chemistry. Both are demanding and highly specialized activities. I looked every place I could, but not once did I see a sexy-looking couple romantically dancing through a vineyard with wine glasses in hand. Instead, I found industrious people carefully tending crops of grapes and carrying out behind-the-scenes experiments to produce the most satisfying wines possible.
The search is ongoing for wines that are new and appealing. Winemakers cannot become complacent. They must stay fresh, be open to new ideas, and try new varieties. According to Cynthia Bohn at Equus Run, “The selection of grapes is key, and each year can be different. There’s a lot of diversity. The successful winemaker takes whatever Mother Nature gives up.” Jim Wight at Wight-Meyer Vineyard & Winery outside Shepherdsville said that he drinks “a lot of other people’s wines to gain new ideas and to elevate my own performance.”
The relentless cycle of planting and tending vines, pruning, spraying against pests and diseases, and harvesting is demanding work, requires expertise, and can be costly. It is estimated to cost as much as $15,000 per acre to plant and nurture a vineyard. The ongoing challenges of insects, diseases and inclement weather never let up. “There’s always something important to do to either nurture or protect the grapes,” said Bryan Jones, chief winemaker at Lovers Leap. “From early spring to the end of harvest, we’re totally involved with the growing process.” As another vintner told me, “The romance that folks talk about just plain ain’t there!”
Most wineries in Kentucky cultivate fewer than 3 acres of vineyards and produce fewer than 1,500 cases of wine a year. The majority of this wine is sold on-site at the wineries’ tasting rooms, through wine clubs and at special events. Because these are small, hands-on operations, no two wineries or their wines are the same, which makes Kentucky wineries fascinating to visit.
No. 9: Winery dogs and cats are friendly and happy creatures.
Every winery seems to have a four-legged mascot. My bike and I inevitably were greeted by a congenial animal that made a point of letting us know we were welcome. Sometimes, I was even led to the tasting room. These creatures have important roles—such as rodent control—as do most dogs and cats that reside on farms, but their No. 1 responsibility is to extend a friendly welcome to every visitor. They do this well. During my winery visits, I met Shadow, Brownie, Bee, Henry, Burley, Lili, Thor, Champaign, Tuxedo, Frankie, Snowflake, Merlot, Sandy, Isabelle, Sheena and many others. Most winery animals are dogs or cats. A few are ducks, and one is a turtle. The last three names on the list above are llamas! Labradoodle Lili even writes a blog on Brooks Hill Winery’s website.
No. 10: The history of each winery is always a fascinating story.
People enter the winemaking business for a variety of reasons and under remarkable circumstances. In 1992, Chris and Denise Nelson decided it would be fun to make the wine that would be served at their wedding. Guests responded enthusiastically and encouraged the couple to make more. They did. And even though Chris is a pediatrician and Denise an architect, the couple eventually ended up opening Chrisman Mill Vineyard & Winery near Nicholasville.
Bohn was an executive with IBM when she decided in 1998 that it was time to return to her agricultural roots. She announced her “retirement” and soon thereafter purchased a 35-acre tobacco and cattle farm near Midway. With the help of her sister, Susan, she planted 8 acres of grapes, began making wine and named the place Equus Run. Production increased from 450 cases in the beginning to 12,000 cases in 2013.
While in France with the Army, Mike Hatzell was introduced to winemaking and began dreaming of the day he’d return to Kentucky, grow grapes and make wine. In 2006, he acquired 30 acres of land at the top of Brooks Hill, 5 miles south of the Jefferson County line. Mike cleared old buildings and 1,200 used tires from the land, built his facility and opened Brooks Hill Winery.
Vintners love to talk about how they got to where they are. The history of Kentucky’s wineries is both fascinating and a testimony to perseverance, entrepreneurship and the relentless pursuit of personal dreams.
Thank you to the following sources of information about Kentucky’s wine industry: Tyler Madison, director of the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council, Kentucky Department of Agriculture; Kentuckywine.com; Wineing Your Way Across Kentucky (Acclaim Press) by Becky Kelly and photographer Kathy Woodhouse; Wine Lover’s Odyssey (Butler Books) by P. Faye Collins; and Patsy Wilson, extension specialist-viticulture, Department of Horticulture, University of Kentucky.