BOURBON AND ALE-8-ONE may be the drinks most associated with Kentucky, but the state’s history with winemaking is almost as old as America itself. Kentucky winemakers bring passion and dedication to this sometimes uncertain process that combines commerce and craft, agriculture and hospitality.
Here is a sampling—a flight, if you will—of Kentucky wines and the people who produce them.
First Vineyard Winery, Jessamine County
Established on the site of America’s first commercial winery, First Vineyard, served by Blue Grass Energy, offers visitors “a taste of history,” with its red and white wines made from Alexander, Concord, Diamond and Norton grapes grown on the property. Co-owner Tom Beall says operating a vineyard is both a leap of faith and a labor of love.
“Grapes are a fragile thing,” he says, because they’re vulnerable to disease, mold and mildew and other challenges. Hungry wildlife is one of those challenges: “Everything in the world likes to eat a grape—raccoons, rabbits, foxes. Everything with legs,” he says.
Still, Beall and business partner Bobbye Carpenter have made it work. They take pride in welcoming guests to First Vineyard, which is the only place you can buy their wine. “We can’t produce enough to retail it (outside of the vineyard),” Beall says. “And what we’ve got now keeps us busy.”
Among their offerings is a special edition red wine made from Alexander grapes, the same variety first planted on the property more than 200 years ago.
Reid’s Livery Winery, Warren County
Rex Reid’s winemaking journey began almost by accident. He’d been growing blackberries on his farm in 2007 when an extension agent told him that those particular berries would make great wine. “I went to Barnes and Noble and bought a book on winemaking,” says Reid, a consumer-member of Warren RECC.
Immediately hooked, he opened Reid’s Livery Winery in 2009. Reid’s produces traditional reds and whites, along with an assortment of fruit wines: elderberry, black raspberry, blackberry, strawberry and more. “We don’t try to be fancy. I couldn’t even spell Tuscany,” he jokes.
Alvaton, Kentucky, may not enjoy the same reputation as the Italian wine capital, but Reid’s wines have won over 400 medals in local, national and international competitions. “We just try to make a good product,” he says.
He and his wife, Diane, offer guests a Wine & Ride option—the fruit of the vine along with horseback riding lessons on their farm. In case you’re wondering, “We do the horseback riding first,” Rex says.
Located on a former tobacco farm, Smith-Berry Winery, served by Shelby Energy, offers visitors an experience that includes concerts, food trucks, a venue for picnics and weddings, and, of course, wine tastings.
Smith-Berry used to grow their own grapes for those wines. Then, in an agricultural mishap three years ago, pesticides drifted over from a neighboring farm and ruined the entire vineyard. For now, they’re buying grapes from vineyards in Kentucky and elsewhere to produce wines for guests and retailers.
The winemaking process, like other culinary forms, involves precise combinations of ingredients and temperatures as well as cooking and cooling times (in this case, lasting years), along with a measure of creativity. Smith-Berry manager Melissa Ballard says, “It’s part science, part art.”
It’s also commerce, and Ballard says it’s become clear that, “Bourbon tourism is helping small wineries.” One recurring dynamic she’s noticed among her guests, particularly those from out of state is, “The husbands come (to Kentucky) for the bourbon. The wives love the wine. So they do both,” she says—a compromise Smith-Berry Winery is happy to facilitate.
Gunpowder Creek Vineyards, Boone County
At Gunpowder Creek, wine is aged in bourbon barrels, which doesn’t just add extra Kentucky flavor, owner Gena Ward says: “The bourbon barrel helps take the bitterness out.” That formula helped Gunpowder Creek earn Best Red in the 2022 Kentucky Commonwealth Commercial Wine Competition.
While the grapevines are resting this winter, Ward, a consumer-member of Owen Electric Cooperative, says the operation’s work will shift to pruning, bottling wine and building a tasting room at the vineyard to complement the one Gunpowder Creek operates in Rabbit Hash, just across Lower River Road from the iconic Rabbit Hash General Store.
The Gunpowder Creek tasting room is open year-round. Business hours are listed on the vineyard’s Facebook page, but visitors should note that whatever hours are listed, the reality is more flexible. That’s because the whole point of a winery is to help people relax, connect and have fun. Regardless of the time, Ward says, “If there are people here enjoying themselves, we’ll stay open.”
GRAHAM SHELBY loves to tell stories about Kentucky’s unique places, people, food and history. He lives in Louisville with his wife and sons, and frequently visits his family homeplace in Clay County.
Here’s a sampling of winemakers, all served by Kentucky’s electric cooperatives, who’d love to pour you a glass.
- 2746 Brooks Hill Road, Brooks
- (502) 957-7810
- Just 5 miles south of Louisville, the “little winery on the hill” offers a patio where visitors can relax with one of their wines made on-site.
- 2284 Barnes Mill Road, Richmond
- (859) 328-7773
- On the rolling hills just outside Richmond, Chenault features 500 acres with grapevines and gorgeous views of the Kentucky countryside that pair nicely with their selection of wines.
- 12522 U.S. Highway 41 S., Robards
- (270) 748-1856
- The owners—one a native Kentuckian, the other a native Parisian—combine their heritages to create a winery, event space and cafe with a menu “using European-style recipes based on Kentucky ingredients.”
- 4275 Old U.S. Highway 45 S., Paducah
- (270) 554-0010
- This Paducah winery takes its name from the color your toes will turn if you crush grapes in the traditional way. They’ve modernized their production process, but adhere to the tradition of great winemaking, with an emphasis on gourmet sweet wines