Kentucky is best known for Bourbon, bluegrass music, thoroughbred racehorses, and the Kentucky Derby. So the fact that Kentucky was home to the first commercial vineyard in the United States may come as a surprise.
Early History of Wine in Kentucky: 18th and 19th Centuries
The story of the Kentucky wine industry begins in 1798 when Swiss immigrant Jean-Jacques Dufour arrived in what is now Jessamine County. On the banks of the Kentucky river, dufour decided that it had the right climate and soil for grape production. He raised capital for his project through the creation of the Kentucky Vineyard Society and sold shares of stock to wine loving investors. In 1799 Dufour used the funds to buy 600 acres of land and 10,000 vines consisting of thirty different varieties.
Dufour called the vineyard “First Vineyard” and bottled his first vintage in 1803. Dufour earned high praise for his wine; he sent bottles to President Thomas Jefferson, one of his investors, who reportedly found it quite enjoyable. However, by the early 1800’s he, like many other early European winemakers, found it difficult to cultivate Vitis Vinifera grapes in Kentucky and First Vineyard ended up being plagued by Pierce’s disease and phylloxera. Dufour decided to leave Kentucky for Indiana to develop his wine business, where he hoped for “greener pastures”.
Dufour was not the only wine pioneer in the region, and through the use of grapes like Catawba, Vidal Blanc, and Chambourcin, all French hybrids, other budding vintners found success producing wine in Northern Kentucky. By the mid-19th century Kentucky was the third largest wine producing state in the country; it produced 135,000 gallons of wine annually. Unfortunately, the Civil War brought troops from both sides who marched and fought in Kentucky, trampling and burning the vineyards. Both the war and the Kentucky wine industry ended in 1865. Instead of replanting vines, farmers planted tobacco, a quick cash crop that was made more attractive by the growing anti-alcohol sentiment across the state.
The state of Kentucky was a staunch supporter of prohibition and one of the first three states to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. After prohibition ended, several counties around the state continued to ban the sale of alcohol. The wine making industry was specifically targeted and remained illegal until the passage of the Farm Winery Act in 1976, allowing wineries to operate. This legislation, along with tobacco settlement funds, encouraged Kentucky farmers to engage in the wine industry.
Between 1998 and 2002, the grape vine acreage in the state quadrupled as the state put up funding for any new vineyard startup costs. Grape growers moved away from planting hybrid grapes and instead filled their vineyards with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Chardonnay vines. In 2007 the Kentucky Wineries Association was formed by 10 licensed farm wineries and membership has grown every year. Their mission is to build public awareness about member wineries and to promote the production of quality wines. Every year they hold the Kentucky Commonwealth Wine Competition and award the Commissioner Cup to the top wines in five categories; dry red, dry white, rose/blush, dessert, and boutique wine with gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded in each wine style. To learn more about the association and check out the winners of the competition over the years click here.
Kentucky Wine Industry Today
Today Kentucky has over 65 wineries and 150 grape growers covering 600 acres of land and producing more than 100,000 cases of wine a year. The majority of the wineries are located in Northern Kentucky between Louisville and Lexington and encompass part of the Ohio River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA). The Back Roads Wine Trail, a joint collaboration between multiple wineries, is a wonderful way to get to know Kentucky wine. The trail takes you on a scenic drive along the Ohio river with stops at award winning wineries. Each winery is distinctive with its own history, including the country’s oldest wine cellar at Baker-Bird winery in Augusta. To learn more about the Wine Trail, click here.