Wine countries celebrate the land's beauty and the earth's bounty. As culinary destinations, these networks of vineyards and dining spots are where nature and culture merge to produce food and drink that echo a sense of place. The emphasis tends to be local, seasonal, fresh and often organic. Central Kentucky's still-emerging wine country is gradually rediscovering the grapes that best suit its soil, climate and history, and that complement and define its culinary identity.
Among the area's pioneers is Jean Farris Winery and Bistro, which brings under one roof an elegant tasting room, enhanced by the artwork of the late local artist John Tuska, and an upscale restaurant. Outdoors, overlooking quintessentially Bluegrass rolling hills planted with rows of grape vines, a large patio is an ideal spot for dining al fresco.
Any meal here should start with a tasting flight ($5-$12) so you can consider wine and food pairing in advance.
The "Classic Whites" flight ($7) offers 1-ounce pours of Marito white (a vidal blanc- viognier blend), viognier, chardonnay, pinot gris and riesling. Some of the grapes, like the chardonnay and viognier, are grown locally, while others are imported. For example, I was told the pinot gris and riesling are from the Pacific Northwest.
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I preferred the "Bold Reds," however, because for the most part, they showed more varietal character and fruit. For $12, I got samples of cabernet sauvignon, Tempest (a blend of tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc), Tuska (a blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon) and petite syrah.
But wine appreciation, a separate subject so laden with subjectivity, is not this review's focus. Let's talk about the beautifully presented food instead.
A generous appetizer of pan-fried chicken livers ($10), crisp outside and creamy within, was classically paired with caramelized onions. Chewy strips of country ham contributed a salty buzz. The thick, syrupy Madeira sauce, though, needed a lighter hand.
The Jean Farris salad ($7) with mesclun got an Asian flair from orange supremes, toasted almonds and a sesame seed oil vinaigrette. It partnered well with pinot gris. More Southern, more substantial and more to my liking was the iceberg lettuce wedge ($8) with cherry tomatoes. Country ham cracklings made it Kentucky Proud. It would have been even better with a little more blue cheese in the buttermilk-based dressing.
The most disappointing moment of the evening was surely the amuse bouche, a complimentary ice-cold mushroom cap with ice-cold sausage. There was nothing "amusing" about it.
Fortunately, the best moments followed.
An entree of seared sea scallops ($26), also pinot gris-friendly, was a lovely balanced plate with fluffy whipped potatoes, bright green wilted spinach and crisp leeks, all placed on top of a rich sauce with cherry tomatoes and hints of garlic.
But my very favorite experience of the evening, apart from the distant horizon glowing at night, was the rack of lamb ($28) — medium rare, tender and juicy with a slight crust around the edges. That, with a glass of petite syrah, was the perfect meal. It came with a simple ratatouille, a rich reduction of red wine and lamb jus, and whipped potatoes. I substituted the buttery au gratin spuds for $2.50 — worth every penny.
As our local viticulture continues to evolve, expect Jean Farris to continue focusing and refining its style and leading the pack in Kentucky wine country dining.
A three-course dinner for two, including two glasses of wine but not tip, was about $100.