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President Thomas Jefferson, statesman Henry Clay and French aristocrat and military officer Marquis de Lafayette all played key roles in the development of America’s commercial wine industry – and it all began right here in Kentucky more than 200 years ago.
In 1798, Jean-Jacques Dufour, Marquis de Lafayette’s winemaker, sought the best climate and soil conditions in America to replicate his incomparable French wine. He found the perfect spot on 600 prime acres along the Kentucky River in what is today Jessamine County.
With backing from Clay and other investors, Dufour planted what he referred to as the “First Vineyard,” with the first vintage, in 1803, going to a receptive President Jefferson. Kentucky’s wine industry was off and running. By the late 1800s, Kentucky became the nation’s third largest producer of grape and wine.
In 1920, Prohibition halted wine production, with wine acreage converted to tobacco production, and it would take more than a half-century for wine to make a comeback. That was in 1976, when the Kentucky General Assembly passed legislation allowing the re-establishment of wineries. Interestingly, it was tobacco settlement funds that were used to help producers re-launch wine as a viable cash crop.
The industry rebounded modestly enough, but growth has exploded in recent years. It seems that if wine-tasting had once been merely a curiosity, it has now generated a solid “agri-tourism” following. And where there are visitors, there are plenty of palates to please and profit to be realized.
Grapevine acreage totaled a mere 67 acres in 1999, growing to an estimated 600 acres within a decade. In the last few years, the number of Kentucky wineries has skyrocketed from 15 to 65, with licenses made available for several more as the industry matures. Kentucky winemakers are now producing more than 100,000 cases of wine a year.
Visitors to the Commonwealth have a vast array of opportunities to sample Kentucky wines: Along one of many wine trails, or at concerts, theme dinners, art shows and family-friendly events. Many communities now have wine festivals to promote the latest vintages. In some places, tourists can travel along a wine/bourbon trail, visiting wineries and distilleries on the same trek.
“We would like for Kentucky to be a wine destination, just as it is for bourbon and horse racing,” says Brance Gould, president of the Kentucky Wineries Association Inc. Gould is happy to report that sales and visitors have been steadily increasing at the state’s wineries.
“The industry is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Tyler Madison, Grape and Wine Program director, Kentucky Department of Agriculture. “The quality of Kentucky wines has really improved. We have some awesome wines out there.” Three types of grapes grow especially well in Kentucky: American, American-French hybrid and European.
According to the Wine Spectator magazine, the USA has passed France and Italy to become the world’s largest wine consumer. Americans drank 324 million cases of wine in 2012, a 7.7-percent increase since 2007. Moreover, 2012 was the first year America could boast of 100 million wine drinkers!
Kentucky’s wine promoters are dreaming big, setting their sights on becoming another Napa Valley. Stay tuned. Meantime, welcome to wine country, and happy sipping to you!
Happy trails to wine lovers visiting the Louisville area!
For the traveling wine connoisseur, opportunities to taste the efforts of Kentucky wineries and vineyards await. Tasting rooms from downtown Louisville to neighboring Bullitt County to points beyond offer visitors the chance to discover new favorite wine.
The Louisville area is home to two wineries — Old 502 Winery and Broad Run Vineyards.
Housed in a reclaimed, two-story 19th century warehouse, Old 502 Winery is Kentucky’s only urban winery located in downtown Louisville. The winery produces nine wines with unconventional names including Bore-Dough, Shar-Duh-Nay and Bourbon Barrel Red. For more information, visit www.old502.com.
Broad Run Vineyards is an estate winery/vineyard located in rural southeast Jefferson County on 72 acres of rolling hills. The winery produces 30 wines using the 22 varieties of grapes grown in the 27-acre vineyard. Relax on the back deck where gorgeous views await you. Bring a picnic lunch while you’re at it. For more information, visit broadrunvineyards.com.
Just 15 minutes from downtown Louisville, Bullitt County offers four award-winning wineries as part of the self-guided Bullitt County Wine and Bourbon Tour. Brooks Hill Winery, Wight-Meyer Vineyard & Winery, MillaNova Winery and Forest Edge Winery have more than 1,000 awards to their credit. Collect stamps on your Wine and Bourbon Tour Passport to receive a free souvenir glass. For more information, visit http://www.travelbullitt.org/winebourbontour.shtml.
Kentucky Wine Trail
Ready to discover what the rest of Kentucky offers? Consider traveling along one of the four regional Kentucky Wine Trails. To navigate the trails, visitors can use the Kentucky Wine Trail App to locate wineries by name or location, chart their personal wine trail and collect digital stamps on the Kentucky Wine Trails Passport to earn a special Kentucky wine gift. The app is available in both the iTunes store and Google Play Store.