VERSAILLES — Cynthia Bohn lived all over the country, and in England and the Netherlands, during her 30-year career as an IBM computer engineer and executive. Collecting wine became her hobby.
When she began planning for a retirement career, Bohn thought it might be fun to start a winery in Kentucky, where she had grown up in Louisville and on a Hart County tobacco farm.
"It was like a hobby that became a passion that became a business," said Bohn, whose Equus Run Vineyards just celebrated 15 years in business and is about to launch a major expansion.
Although Kentucky had the nation's first commercial winery, in 1799, there were only three wineries operating in the bourbon state when Bohn started planning her business in the mid-1990s. Now, Kentucky has 67 operating wineries, with more on the way.
"It's a very viable business model if you run it as a business," she said.
Bohn said that after three flat years during and after the recent recession, her revenues were up 17 percent in 2012 and 23 percent this year.
Equus Run now produces about 9,100 cases a year of 15 varieties of wine. The grapes come from her own eight acres of vineyards, and from contract growers in Western Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and California.
"There's no way I could grow everything I need," she said, and some grape varieties don't do well in Kentucky's soil and climate. Plus, having growers elsewhere is "sort of like an insurance policy" against unpredictable Kentucky weather, she said.
Bohn has discovered that it takes more than grapes and good wine to make a successful winery.
"The key thing with us is we diversified," Bohn said as we sat on a deck outside her tasting room overlooking her vineyards — and gardens and sculptures and a putting green and an amphitheater. Coming soon: bike trails.
"We are in the hospitality and tourism industry; we just happen to sell wine," she said. "It's all about the experience. It's about a day in the Bluegrass. It's about a lifestyle, not just wine."
In addition to the recreation facilities and places for hosting weddings, receptions and corporate events, Equus Run schedules programs so visitors can enjoy art and music — and even learn to fly-fish.
An equine artists' group will be coming to the winery this summer to paint. Several "foodie" events are scheduled, including a shrimp boil and a "pizza and pinot" evening. There is a dinner theater series built around murder mysteries.
Several nonprofit groups use Equus Run's facilities for fundraisers. The winery donates the space and keeps only the revenues from alcohol sales, Bohn said.
"It's been a great model," she said. "It has worked for them and it has worked for us."
Equus Run's biggest annual event is this weekend: the 10th annual Francisco's Farm Arts Festival, produced in conjunction with the Lexington Art League and Midway Renaissance. This is the third year that Equus Run has hosted the regionally acclaimed arts festival, which was formerly at Midway College. Bohn expects as many as 10,000 people to attend.
She is looking for more ways to expand Equus Run, which now has 16 employees. She recently bought 10 acres across Moore's Mill Road to add to her 38-acre property.
Until now, Bohn has been the winery's sole owner. But she said she is partnering with local investors to build new hospitality venues and wine-production facilities to replace the ones in a former tobacco barn she has outgrown. Other future plans include finding a partner to offer regular food service.
Equus Run is surrounded by several horse farms, and Bohn said she tries to be a good neighbor by ending concerts at 9 p.m., rather than the required 11 p.m.
"I love my neighbors; they are wonderful," she said. "We could have easily been shoved aside. Instead, they embraced us. I think that speaks highly of the community."
Bohn said businesses such as Equus Run can play a valuable role in increasing tourism in the Bluegrass, and in just making this a more fun and interesting place to live. Personally, it is not only a good retirement business, but a lot of fun.
"You've got to love people, and you've got to love dealing with Mother Nature and her erratic weather patterns," Bohn said Tending grapes isn't nearly as hard work as the tobacco-stripping she did as a teenager. "I very affectionately say I started with dirt and I have now retired with dirt."
IF YOU GO
Francisco's Farm Arts Festival
When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. June 22, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. June 23
Where: Equus Run Vineyards, 1280 Moores Mill Rd., Midway
Admission: $10 a vehicle.
More information: Lexingtonartleague.org, Equusrunvineyards.com
Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: Tomeblen.bloginky.com.