Uncommonwealth: Jessamine vineyard packs one impressive title

History buff revives first fruits of American wine production

ctruman@herald-leader.comJune 16, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    First Vineyard

    Address: 5800 Sugar Creek Pike, Jessamine County

    Tasting room: Open 1-7 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Also available for group gatherings and weddings.

    More information: (859) 885-9359 or on the Web at Firstvineyard.net

— A sparsely populated cluster of hills way outside Nicholasville, where you can see over to the Garrard County knobs and where the grapevine terraces run down toward the river, was once a hot spot of trade. Quantico, it was called, a town with lots lining the road to the ferry.

Flour, hemp, tobacco, beef and pork were inspected and shipped from Quantico until the second decade of the 19th century, when roads had improved enough to move such staples by wagon and cart.

That was before trains and then later cars shifted the transportation pattern twice more.

In those days, John James Dufour of Vevey, Switzerland, had a vineyard here, known as the "First Vineyard" because it was the first commercial vineyard and winery in the United States. The Kentucky Legislature said so, by a decree on Nov. 21, 1799.

The first wine from that vineyard was consumed on March 21, 1803. In 1809, a May freeze destroyed the crop. The Dufour family moved its operations to Vevay, Ind.

In 1995, Lexington metro officer and builder Tom Beall (pronounced "Bell"), now retired, came upon the site and was astounded by its beauty: a tiny pond shaded by an enormous tree like something out of a Wordsworth poem, dry stone fences and a view that makes the Jessamine-Garrard county line look like something ethereally green that floats above the commonwealth, somewhere between the flat ground and the clouds.

He started buying parcels in the area, intending to make it his getaway spot. But then, on top of being a police officer and having a construction business, Beall was an incurable Kentucky history nerd.

He started poking around historic documents about the property and discovered its viticultural history. Beall embarked on a third career: running a vineyard.

He began re-establishing the vineyard in 2006, Beall said while sitting in front of a sign that says, "First Vineyard: Est. 1799." (Another, inside the tasting room, appropriately observes, "Alcohol: Because no great story ever started with someone eating a salad.")

First Vineyard grows the grapes; the produce then goes to Shepherdsville to be made into wine.

"I'm more of a historian than a wine connoisseur," Beall said.

He points to a row of grapes on the vine: They were once called Cape grapes because it was thought that they were from South Africa, but they were later renamed the Alexander. The Alexander became a favorite because it added disease resistance and pest resistance from North American grapes to the flavor of European wine grapes and was thus used for large-scale wine production.

Although the Alexander grape was thought to be extinct, Beall said he obtained cuttings from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 2015, he said, he hopes to bottle some of the Alexander grape wine, perhaps 75 to 125 bottles. It will be the first time such wine will be consumed in 160 years.

The driving instructions to First Vineyard note that the turnoff to the vineyard is about four miles past the McDonald's on the U.S. 27 bypass, but the vineyard feels even more remote, yet Beall said that about 6,000 tourists find their way to it each year, many of them from abroad.

The area is so rural that a couple of neighborhood dogs wander up to greet passing cars, seeking head pats. On the way back out, the pair are patiently lounging on their front porch, out of the noonday sun.

For tastings, Beall and his colleagues start novices out with sweet wines. More experienced oenophiles get to start with drier wines. In a nearby cooler in the tasting room are wine jellies produced by a Lexington woman, Sondra Strunk.

"Had I not been a history buff all my life, I probably wouldn't have done this," Beall said of the vineyard. "I have met some of the nicest people out here."

Cheryl Truman: (859) 231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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