In 1798, Swiss-born winemaker Jean-Jacques Dufour arrived in Kentucky on a mission.
He had been sent by his father – Jacque Rudolph Dufour, at the urging of Benjamin Franklin – to search the new nation for climate and soil conditions suitable for growing wine grapes. After two years, Dufour arrived in Lexington, Kentucky, and came upon the ideal spot – 256 hectares on the banks of the Kentucky River.
The First Vineyard
Inspired by the soil composition of sandstone cap over Trenton limestone, he set out to procure the land. He reached out to prominent members of the community and created a group of enthusiastic sponsors, including Kentucky lawyer and future U.S. Sen. Henry Clay, Kentucky Congressmen John Brown and John Edward, and many more esteemed citizens. This group of almost 100 investors became the Kentucky Vineyard Society and provided the backing Dufour needed to start a vineyard. He named the property First Vineyard.
In the spring of 1799, Dufour planted 35 different species in a few terraced acres. The Alexander grape showed the most promise, and in the fall of 1802, Dufour made his first wine, which was drunk by members of the Kentucky Vineyard Society and their guests at Postlethwait’s tavern in Lexington in 1803. In 1805, two five-gallon casks of wine – a red made from the Alexander grape and a white made from the Madeira grape – from First Vineyard were taken by horseback to Washington, D.C., to President Thomas Jefferson.
Brown wrote a letter of introduction to Jefferson on behalf of Dufour and asked the president if he would critique the wine. Jefferson was amenable, and in his letter of critique, he advised that the wine showed promise but needed to age more. He later offered his hearty approval and was enthused about the potential of the Alexander grape. In a letter to a friend, Jefferson wrote, “The quality…satisfies me that we have at length found one native grape … which will give us a wine worthy of the best vineyards of France.”
Rows of grapes at a Kentucky vineyard
The Evolution of Kentucky Wine
At the same time, farther north, the hills of northern Kentucky were being settled by German immigrants who likened the rolling terrain to their homeland. They brought with them cultivars for wine grape cultivation. One of the region’s wine pioneers, Nicholas Longworth, planted hundreds of hectares on the Ohio side of the Ohio River, and began producing a sparkling Catawba wine lauded by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the famous “Ode to Catawba.” By 1860, Longworth’s cellars had produced more than 2.1 million liters of wine.
“The time span of 1830 to 1870 was the peak for wine grapes in Northern Kentucky,” says Dennis Walter, chairman of the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council and owner of Stonebrook Winery in Camp Springs. Dennis, who grew up on his family’s 40-hectare farm, recently determined that his great-great-grandfather was also a vintner and part of the Rhine of America era.
For many decades and despite numerous obstacles, including crop obliteration from the Civil War, vine disease and killing freezes, Kentucky was a leader in the budding U.S. wine industry. In fact, by the late 1800s it was the nation’s third-largest producer of grapes and wine. As in all wine regions across the country, though, everything changed in 1919 when the Volstead Act was passed and Prohibition began. Kentucky vintners needed to find another crop, and many turned to tobacco.
By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the agricultural makeup of Kentucky had taken a new direction. It wasn’t until 1976 that the state passed legislation to allow wineries to operate. Since then, with the decline of tobacco, the pendulum has swung back, and wine grapes are again a viable crop. Actually, the word “viable” is an understatement. In the past 25 years, the number of Kentucky wineries has risen from zero to 70. Kentucky’s new vintners demonstrate the same pioneering spirit that fueled Jean-Jacques Dufour and Nicholas Longworth.
Enjoying an alfresco dinner with Kentucky wine
Experiencing Kentucky's Wine
In 1998, after a 31-year career at IBM, Kentucky native Cynthia Bohn purchased a dilapidated tobacco and cattle farm to open her own winery. She’d had the idea ever since she studied Robert Mondavi Winery as part of her continuing business education at the IBM Harvard Business Institute. “It was a wonderful opportunity,” Cynthia says. “With the help of my family, I started Equus Run Vineyards, and wow, the industry just took off.” In its first 15 years, the winery’s case production soared from 450 to 12,000 cases annually.
Cynthia also worked with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture in 1997 to revitalize the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council, dedicated to helping farmers convert their farms to alternative crops such as wine grapes. “I like to think of Kentucky as a full artist’s palette for exploration,” Cynthia says. “There’s wine, bourbon, micro-brews, and micro-distilleries. Everyone is experimenting and having fun. I make Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, while down the street you’ll find various fruit wines such as cherry and blackberry. When you come to Kentucky, you’ll want to experience the whole thing!”
Kentucky Wine Today
From its homes, to its horses, to its coal mines, to its beverages, Kentucky is steeped in history. Today, First Vineyard in Jessamine County is reborn, thanks to the exhaustive research and efforts by its owner, Tom Beall. The original terraced vineyards are now planted to Norton, Riesling and more, including the signature Alexander, bottled under the exclusive First Vineyard Winery label. At Northern Kentucky’s Stonebrook Winery, Dennis is quite pleased with his Vidal Blanc, Concord, and Norton grapes. “One of these days, I’ll have the wild grapes on the farm analyzed,” Dennis said. “But i’m sure they date back to the first roots of American wine.”