The first commercial winery in America was founded in Kentucky in 1798 by Swiss winemaker Jean-Jacques Dufour, in what is now Jessamine County. At one point in the 1800s, Kentucky was the third largest grape and wine producer in the country. Prohibition wiped out the state’s wine industry, but in the 21st century, wine production is once again on the rise.
“There has been remarkable growth in Kentucky’s wine industry in recent years, from 67 acres of grapes planted throughout the commonwealth in 1999 to around 600 today,” said Tyler Madison, director of the grape and wine marketing program for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Just five years ago, there were 16 licensed wineries in Kentucky; in 2013, there are 73, 66 of which are currently operational. Most are in or near Lexington, Louisville and northern Kentucky.
“We are seeing more and more pop up in western Kentucky and southern Kentucky,” Madison said. “There are two in eastern Kentucky; that’s the sparse area at the moment.”
In 2002, the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council was established by House Bill 855/GA. Funds, in the form of reimbursements, are available to licensed small-farm wineries in the state through two programs, one for a marketing and advertising cost-share program and another for wholesaler reimbursement to help wineries with distribution.
“Wineries can’t self-distribute,” Madison said. “We offer a $20 reimbursement for every case they deliver to a retail location.”
Ten years ago, Equus Run Vineyards was selling 40 percent of its wine through wholesale channels and 60 percent on site. Today owner Cynthia Bohn sells 88 percent of her product on site.
“The market has changed,” said Bohn, who considers Equus Run an agritourism business.
A former electrical engineer at IBM, Bohn opened Equus Run in Midway in 1998. In addition to her own eight acres of grapes, she uses fruit from Kentucky growers in Hardin, Nelson, Pulaski and Washington counties, as well as growers in Indiana and Ohio, and even as far away as New York and California. She calls it an insurance program.
“When we were in a drought, the western part of state was OK, or Ohio was fine,” she said.
Equus Run Vineyards has 13 wines at any given time, including four for this year’s Kentucky Derby, as the winery is an official licensee for Derby 139.
Talon Winery owner Harriet Allen purchased land in Fayette County in 1998, planting grapes in 2001 and opening the winery in 2004. Winemaker Kerry Jolliffe grows seven varieties of grapes on five acres that can yield as much as 30 tons of grapes.
“I have other growers in the state that sell to me because we do try to use as much Kentucky fruit as possible,” Jolliffe said. “Once the Kentucky supply is used, I occasionally get grapes and/or juice from other states such as Washington or New York.”
Wineries may legally acquire grapes or juice elsewhere, “though they are prohibited from purchasing and receiving finished wine from outside of the state,” according to the Department of Agriculture’s Madison. If the bottle’s label has “Kentucky” in the name of the wine, then a minimum of 75 percent Kentucky fruit must be used. If it says “American,” then more than 25 percent of the grapes were sourced from outside the commonwealth.
Certain grape-growing regions are recognized legally. In Europe, for example, Bordeaux and Burgundy are two of the noted wine regions in France. In the United States, wine appellations of origin are known as American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), such as California’s Napa Valley. Portions of Kentucky are in the Ohio River Valley AVA. These U.S. grape-growing regions are governed by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, known as TTB, which operates under the Department of the Treasury. TTB sets criteria for estate-bottled wine, the first of which is that 100 percent of the grapes must come from land controlled by the winery.
Talon Winery’s cabernet franc 2008 was estate grown and won a double-gold medal last summer at the Indy International Wine Competition in West Lafayette, Ind., and was served last October at the vice presidential debate in Danville.
“Grape growing is still a fairly new enterprise to the state, and there are too many mistakes being made, such as trying to grow too much or not spraying enough, all of which affect the quality of fruit I receive,” Talon’s Jolliffe said.
“Any tobacco farmers that switched over [to grapes] will tell you it is way harder than growing tobacco,” Madison said. Growing grapes is a year-round, labor-intensive business.
“I used to have 20 growers and am now down to 11, because it is hard labor,” said Equus Run’s Bohn. “I don’t even have enough land to grow the grapes I need to meet my production. I need more Kentucky grapes. I would love it.”
For more information about the state’s wineries, visit the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s site, www.kentuckywine.com.