Kentucky grape growers are working aggressively to re-establish the state as one of the country's pre-eminent grape and wine producers. On Monday, the city and the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council announced a wine festival that organizers hope will become a major event to promote the state's rapidly expanding wine industry.
Vintage Kentucky: A Toast to Henry Clay will be Sept. 4 at Ashland, the Henry Clay Estate, in Lexington.
Ashland is a particularly appropriate location to celebrate wine. Clay grew white grapes on his farm and had an extensive wine collection. Clay also was a stockholder in the first licensed winery in the United States, in Jessamine County, said David Lord, president of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Before Prohibition, Kentucky was the third-largest wine-grape producer in the country, he said.
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"Henry Clay embraced science to make this estate a model farming operation, much as Kentucky farmers are doing today, especially our grape industry, to bring the industry back into prominence," Dennis Walker, wine council president, said at a news conference at Ashland.
The local festival will be modeled after GrapeFest in Grapevine, Texas, near Colleyville, where 5th District Urban County Councilwoman Cheryl Feigel lived for several years.
GrapeFest has grown into a four-day celebration with a $2 million budget and an international wine competition. "The first year, this event will not be very big," Feigel said of Vintage Kentucky. "But five years out, I can see it being the major promotional event for Kentucky's wine industry."
Seed money to start Vintage Kentucky came from a $6,780 grant from the state Department of Agriculture.
Fifteen vintners will have wine for tasting. Participants can sample five wines for $10, or 10 wines for $20. Wine will be sold by the bottle. Food will be available for purchase. In addition to the tastings, vineyards can take part in wine competitions.
The event will incorporate a longstanding popular event at Ashland, a summer jazz concert, with music this year by the 18-piece DiMartino Osland Jazz Orchestra.
Kentucky has 64 licensed wineries, Walters said. "And the number changes daily. We may have 65 or 66 by the end of the week."
Tom Cottrell, a University of Kentucky Extension Service enologist (wine maker), said farmers continue to look for new crops to take the place of once-lucrative tobacco.
In 2005, the state had 15 wineries selling wine; today, 53 sell a total of 100,000 cases of wine annually, Cottrell said. Sales were $15 million in 2009.
Vineyards in the state are small, growing on average half an acre of grapes. "So the cost is a little more for Kentucky wine," he said. "Even so, growth of the industry has been good."
And quality "has increased significantly," Walters said. "Kentucky wines compete at national and international events and are winning medals."
In Kentucky's favor when it comes to growing grapes is the long growing season, warm summer temperatures and well-drained soil. "Grapes really grow well in temperatures in the mid-80s. And we've got that in the summertime," Cottrell said.
UK's College of Agriculture has stepped up its educational opportunities for growing grapes and making wine, because the two play a more prominent role in Kentucky agriculture, said Patsy Wilson, a UK extension professor of viticulture (grape growing). UK also has established a master's degree program in viticulture. The first graduate of the program has a job with the largest winery in the state, Cottrell said.
UK will help sponsor a field day at Talon Winery & Vineyards on Tates Creek Road on July 25. Sarah Spade, University of North Carolina professor of viticulture, will be the keynote speaker.