When you think of the great wine-making regions of the world, Kentucky seldom (never) comes to mind; yet back in 1798, the state known better for horses, bluegrass, and bourbon was the site of the country’s first commercial vineyard. By the late 1800s, it was the nation’s third-largest grape and wine producer and Kentucky wines were filling the cellars of burgeoning oenophiles.
Kentucky wines may not have the appeal of those of the Loire and Napa valleys, but they certainly hold their own. With close to 70 commercial wineries dotting the state, there is no need to take a long flight across the country or ocean; traverse the Kentucky Wine Trails and you’ll soon be sipping amid vistas that rival those of the aforementioned valleys.
“We have the ‘lay of the land’ and Southern hospitality,” says Jim Wight, one of Kentucky’s most experienced and long-term commercial winemakers. “You don’t hear highway traffic; you hear nature—and we’ve never met a stranger. We also have an appealing price point in Kentucky, $13 or so a bottle, about half the price point of Napa.”
Wight, a Salt River Electric Co-op member, started growing grapes in 1996 and opened the doors of Wight-Meyer Vineyard & Winery in 2007. The vineyard, sheltered by pine trees on 16 acres of Shepherdsville soil, is Bullitt County’s oldest vineyard and winery and one of Kentucky’s most award-winning wineries. This includes double gold medals for its Vignoles from the International Eastern Wine Competition in Sonoma County, California.
“Wine historically has always been associated with food, fun, and friends,” says Thomas Beall, owner of First Vineyard in Nicholasville, president of the Kentucky Vineyard Society, and member of the Kentucky Wineries Association. “This hasn’t changed; a visit to a Kentucky winery almost always guarantees beautiful facilities, gracious owners, friendly fellow wine lovers, and award-winning wines.
“Kentucky wineries are also the hub of social gatherings such as weddings, family, or school reunions, birthday parties, and musical events,” adds Beall, a Blue Grass Energy Cooperative member.
Besides affordability, tranquility, and conviviality, Kentucky wines have something else going for them: personality.
“It all has to do with terroir,” says Wight, using the French word that characterizes a given region’s vineyards that share the same soil conditions, climate, grapes—even winemaking savoir faire. “We’ve got a unique situation here in Kentucky with the shale, clay, and limestone. Limestone gives minerality to the fruit. If you put the right fruit in, it’ll turn out very well.”
According to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Tyler Madison, who oversees the Grape and Wine Marketing Program and Kentucky Grape and Wine Council, the wines seen most often at Kentucky wineries are also the grapes most often grown: Vidal Blanc, Chambourcin, Norton, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Traminette, and Chardonnay.
“There’s also a large fruit wine presence in the state—blackberry, raspberry, etc.,” Madison adds, noting that Blaufrankisch (a grape used for red wine with a typically spicy character) is a personal favorite. “There’s not much of it, but the little that’s out there always seems to be quite rich with a lot of complexity and a medium-full body.”
One of Kentucky’s newest commercial wineries is Hamon Haven Winery in Winchester, which received its certification and opened in June. Although the Hamons have been making wines since 1980 and established their vineyard in 2000, it was only this summer that they decided to open a winery and tasting room to (pun intended) share the fruits of their labors.
“We initially planted 30 varieties of grapes and, over the last 13 years, have narrowed them down to nine that grow well in our area and represent Kentucky-style wine,” says winemaker Andy Hamon, a Clark Energy Cooperative member. “Instead of Concord grapes, we plant both Jupiter and Mars grapes to make our ‘Out of This World’ table wine, our best-seller so far.”
Alex Payne is one of Kentucky’s newest winemakers. In 2002, WhiteMoon was a vineyard servicing Kentucky wineries; by early 2013, it had become a winery in its own right and one with a winemaker with a keen sense of humor. Payne’s Mooned Red, a sweet red, has a label that features a grape-growing friend standing naked in a barrel. Today, WhiteMoon is beautifully situated on a swatch of undulating greenery surrounding a lake in Lebanon, a peaceful place to sip Payne’s dry, off-dry, semisweet, and sweet wines, including best-seller Mooned Red.
Payne, an Inter-County Energy Cooperative member, has studied enology and viticulture at the University of Kentucky. She credits her classes for giving her the know-how to grow award-winning fruit, which in turn has helped her produce wines that garner medals, including a gold for WhiteMoon’s plum—what Payne calls an “adult SweeTart”—at the Indy International Wine Competition and a silver for Mooned Red at the Kentucky Derby Wine Competition.
Also fairly new to Kentucky’s winemaking scene are Rex and Diane Reid of Reid’s Livery Winery in Alvaton in south-central Kentucky. In addition to award-winning wines and daily wine tastings, this “mom and pop farm” offers riding lessons and carriage rides.
“We make grape and fruit wines from homegrown on-the-farm fruit and local fruit that is 12 percent alcohol and has won numerous awards, both nationally and internationally,” says Diane Reid, a Warren Rural Electric Co-op member. “We have won medals every year since we became a commercial winery (in 2009) from the Finger Lakes (New York) International Wine Competition. In 2014, our Silver Streak won gold at four different contests.” Silver Streak is a dry white wine with a full flavor and a citrus finish.
Peaceful and beautiful scenery and a delicious variety of wines aside, there are activities and events aplenty at Kentucky wineries, particularly in the spring, summer, and fall—although many Kentucky wineries are open year-round and host indoor activities as well. There are concerts, “Paint & Wine” nights, grape stomps (a la I Love Lucy), food and wine pairings, murder mystery, progressive dinners, and more.
“We feel very strongly that hands-on experiences and a true behind-the-scenes look are what people enjoy,” Payne says. Like those who operate most of the wineries in Kentucky, Payne and WhiteMoon’s marketing manager, Bert Poston, love to plan different and fun events to bring people out to the winery and into the vineyard; in fact, in October, they are planning to host a ZombieFest.
“It’s sure to make for an interesting evening,” says Payne.
Within the Kentucky Wine Trails network, there are several free, self-guided wine trails and three fee-based wine trail tours:
Kentucky Wineries Association
www.BestKyWineries.com, comprises 22 wineries, many of them Kentucky Proud members, situated all over the state. If you visit eight KWA wineries, you’ll receive a gift from the eighth winery.
Northern Kentucky Back Roads Wine Trail
www.campspringsvineyard.com/Wine_Trail.html, features these wineries: Camp Springs Vineyard and Winery, Stonebrook Winery, Atwood Hill Winery, Seven Wells Winery, Redmans’ Farm and Winery, and Baker-Bird Winery. Visit all six wineries during a calendar year and receive a complimentary coaster.
Wine & Whiskey Trail of Bullitt County
www.travelbullitt.org, includes tours/tastings at four wineries: Brooks Hill Winery, Forest Edge Winery, Wight-Meyer Vineyard & Winery, and MillaNova Winery. For bourbon drinkers, this trail also visits Jim Beam American Stillhouse, and Four Roses Bottling & Warehouse. Visit all six locations and redeem the Wine & Whiskey brochure for a free souvenir glass at either Cattleman’s Roadhouse or the Best Western Plus South in Shepherdsville.
Kentucky Wine & Bourbon Tours
www.kwbtours.com, is based in Danville and offers three all-inclusive wine tours to different regions (fees vary based on number of guests): East Bluegrass Experience includes Grimes Mill Winery, Talon Winery, Chrisman Mill Vineyards and Winery, and First Vineyard; North Bluegrass Experience covers Lovers Leap Vineyard and Winery, Rising Sons Home Farm Winery, Wildside Winery and Vineyard, and Prodigy Vineyards and Winery; and West Bluegrass Experience takes in WhiteMoon Winery, Springhill Winery and Plantation, Horseshoe Bend Vineyard and Winery, McIntyre Winery & Berries, and Chateau du Vieux Corbeau Winery.
Take me out to the vineyard
At Kentucky wineries, outings to the vineyard are about more than the grape, with year-round events including wine fests, concerts in the vineyard, themed wine and food pairings, and more. Coming up September 26-27 is the Kentucky Wineries Association’s Wine Fest at the Bullitt County Fairgrounds; on October 18, the Northern Kentucky Wine Festival takes place at the Goose Girl Fountain in Covington’s MainStrasse Village.
To find out about events at Kentucky wineries, visit the Web sites of the individual wineries or go to www.KentuckyWine.com to see the full list of wineries and a calendar of events. You can also find wineries by region and learn more about them by visiting www.KentuckyTourism.com. Click on the “Things To Do” tab, scroll down, and click on “Wineries and Breweries.”
Download the free Kentucky Wine Trails app for iPhone and Android phones, at the Apple Store and Google Play. You can uncork the fun by region or by wine name, chart trips using interactive maps, and complete a virtual passport. Visit seven wineries within a year, and receive a free Kentucky wine gift.
Discover more fascinating facts and current statistics about the Commonwealth’s long wine history, and find out the 2014 Kentucky Commonwealth Commercial Wine Competition winners.