What comes to mind when you think of Kentucky? Spoiler alert for the top two answers: the Kentucky Derby and Bourbon!
At one time, the top answers could have been wine, tobacco and hemp. In an interesting twist of history, Kentucky’s story about these three agricultural products are converging in the twenty-first century.
Kentucky became home to the first USA commercial vineyard and winery in 1799. The current owners of what is called (then and now) “First Vineyard” spent several years verifying this little-known piece of history prior to reopening the winery in 2012. Tom Beall and Bobbye Carpenter learned about a Swiss immigrant by the name of John James Dufour who had arrived in Kentucky in 1796 in search of a vineyard property. He found one, about an hour south of Lexington, at a time when the city was only 20 years old. Famous frontiersman Daniel Boone had already surveyed the land, so it was ready for development.
Unfortunately, the business only survived a decade, until 1809, due to Kentucky’s severe winter weather conditions and the challenges of running successful businesses in the hinterlands of the 15th state in the union.
Fast forward nearly two centuries. In 1994, Tom Beall purchased 30 acres of farm land, unaware of the property’s hidden history. Twelve years later, a chance conversation with a neighbor and a book called “Indiana Wine: A History” introduced Beall to The First Vineyard, at which point he decided to bring it back to life.
Tobacco barns have dotted the landscape of Kentucky for centuries, even before the first commercial winery was built. By the 1990s, Kentucky had 200,000 acres planted to tobacco. And then 2004 hit. The federal government ended a Depression-era subsidy program for tobacco farmers, and for the next decade bought out farmers through a program known as the “Tobacco Transition Payment Program.” Tobacco acreage shrank by more than 50%, although Kentucky is still one of the top three producers in America (along with Virginia and North Carolina).
What to do? Transition land use to what crop? Wine grapes, of course, and more recently, hemp.
Most of the 70 wineries in Kentucky got started during the period 2000-2015, gaining money and momentum such that today there are 113 grape growers and 70 licensed wineries. The best source for up-to-date information about wineries is Kentucky Wine. A smartphone app called Drink KY encourages visits to wineries and craft breweries across the state.
Hemp is back on the scene in Kentucky, creating competition for tobacco and winegrape farmland. Kentucky grew hemp for use in various materials (such as rope) from 1940-70 until it was criminalized as part of the Nixon-era “war on drugs.” With that history, Kentucky was ahead of the game when President Donald Trump signed a farm bill in December 2018 that legalized commercial cultivation of hemp nationwide. Kentucky farmers were able to jump right back into production. And those old tobacco barns? After nearly two decades of serving primarily as props for The Kentucky Quilt Project (public art), some have come back to life as hemp barns.
The Kentucky Winery Scene
About 50 of Kentucky’s 70 wineries are located in a convenient regional triangle from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky to Lexington to Louisville. A complex of three interstate highways makes it relatively simple to navigate the 90-120 mile drives among the cities where there are ample cultural tourist draws and vibrant eating/drinking opportunities. There is plenty of time to wander leisurely through scenic Kentucky byways to enjoy pastoral rolling hills and pristine horse farms (and see the panorama of tobacco/ grapevine/ hemp for yourself).
Did you know that Kentucky’s hills actually roll? Bits of parking lots, roads and buildings have been known to slip off the side of a hill because of the gradual erosion that occurs when they roll…
Most wineries offer an array of experiences and amenities on premises. This can range from lite bites to full restaurants, tasting flights to glass pours and bottle purchases, weekend music lineups, event facilities, and overnight accommodations. Kentucky’s wine laws are among the most complicated and restrictive of all 50 states. Some wineries can ship to other states, some cannot. (Wineries cannot ship at all within Kentucky.) Some wineries have a retail presence, at Kroger grocery stores for example, and other wineries will welcome your visit to sell you bottles of your favorite style.
Kentucky wineries are a mix of estate farm growers and winemakers who purchase grapes or juice from other places. Growers tend to plant a combination of classic, familiar international grapes (vitis vinifera), French Hybrids, and American varieties. Grapes (or juice) travel from California, Oregon and Washington — or in one instance, from Italy!
Elk Creek Vineyards is one of Kentucky’s largest winery operations. In addition to a focus on wine, Elk Creek invites visitors to stay a while in one of 15 Bed & Breakfast rooms available in three properties situated on vineyard premises. Events are quite popular in this venue, including “pop the question” engagements as well as weddings. As perhaps can only happen in Kentucky, there is a hunt club where overnight guests and other visitors can practice sport clay shooting. After experiencing two winter freezes in 2013-14, Elk Creek is in the process of replanting vines on 35 acres. At least temporarily, the winery is mostly purchasing grapes from California and Oregon. All wines are estate made. Winery tours are available twice a day, and tasting experiences — flights and glasses — are offered at any time. A limited menu is available for lunch and dinner.
If you visit Elk Creek Vineyards:
150 KY Highway 330
Owenton, KY 40359
Grimes Mill Winery: Ca’ DeSimone Wines has an Italian flair, which might be obvious from its name. The “house of DeSimone” is a 30-acre farm that blends new and old wine-worlds in one place, primarily around a focus on big red wines. In keeping with Kentucky’s agricultural transition theme, owners Philip and Lois DeSimone previously grew tobacco on this farm. An oncologist in the Lexington area, Dr. DeSimone originally learned about winemaking from his Italian grandfather who had emigrated to Brooklyn. Grimes Mill estate wines include traditional red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petite Syrah (which is less well known, but popular in Kentucky). The owner imports grapes from Italy and Chile, such as Sangiovese and Malbec, and offers the finished wines in the tasting room according to their names-of-origin such as Amarone and Brunello.
If you visit Grimes Mill Winery:
6707 Grimes Mill Rd.
Lexington, KY 40515
Jean Farris Winery & Bistro — “classic wines with a Southern drawl” — is family owned, one of few multi-generational wineries in Kentucky. Owner Jeanie O’Daniel was raised in a winery family, married into one, and now includes two of her daughters in the business. Her parents own Highland Winery in Eastern Kentucky, and her husband’s parents own Springhill Winery in Bloomfield just off the Bluegrass Parkway. Since her husband Ben (Farris) O’Daniel passed away in 2016, Jeanie has stepped into a leadership role managing all three wineries. Jean Farris Winery & Bistro offers a restaurant, which has provided a training ground for many well-known chefs in Louisville and Lexington restaurants, and full bar including tastes of other Kentucky wines as well as their own estate wines.
If you visit Jean Farris Winery & Bistro:
6825 Old Richmond Rd
Lexington, KY 40515