The grapes hang in picturesque green and purple clusters on their vines, and in two or three weeks, University of Kentucky enologist Jeffrey Wheeler and his students will begin the age-old process of turning them into wine.
Winemaking at UK’s research farm off Nicholasville Road has been going on for several years, but starting this year, UK will be making limited sales of those bottles to people who subscribe to their community supported agriculture program, which allows folks to buy produce from UK’s numerous agriculture programs.
UK’s wine program works through UK agriculture extension, and is aimed at research that helps support Kentucky’s growing wine industry. The program has been mostly funded through the Kentucky Agriculture Development Board with tobacco settlement funds, which won’t last forever, so the limited sales — no commercial sales at liquor stores or restaurants — could help.
“Since we produce a product where we could have some profit to put back into our program, we want to create a longterm sustainable program to help fund our operating program,” said Patsy Wilson, another UK extension specialist who is also the state viticulturist. “We have the tools and the knowledge to figure out what grows best and how to produce the best wine from it. With the support of the university and the agriculture development board, we can provide this information to the grape growers and wine makers in the state.”
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Wine has a long history in Kentucky, which actually had the first commercial vineyard in the United States in 1798, according to the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council. After Prohibition, bourbon and tobacco surged ahead, but after the federal tobacco buyout, some farmers turned back to grapes. Currently, the number of wineries in the state has grown from 10 in 2000 to 65 in 2016. Those wineries produce 89,000 cases of wine.
However, Kentucky’s constantly shifting temperatures can be tricky on vines that are traditionally known as good wine producers. One of Wheeler and Wilson’s jobs is to figure out which vines survive the best and produce the most to make good wine. Two bad winters a few years ago decimated many vines, Wilson said, so it takes patience.
Wheeler thinks some hybrid varieties like Vidal Blanc, Vignole and Chambourcin could be the answer to a more flourishing industry. But people may have to prime their tastes to more whites and sparkling wines in order to buy local.
“Most hybrids adapted to Kentucky have low tannin,” the element in grape seeds and skins that make wine drier instead of sweet, Wheeler said.
Kentucky will never be Napa Valley, but it could turn into another Virginia, which birthed a wine industry in the 1980s that is now both respected and prolific.
“We have to find our niche of a high quality and unique product, and I think we’re close,” Wheeler said.
At South Farm, an old garage has been turned into a distilling station, where Wheeler experiments with different blends of grapes.
The CSA wine sales, including prices, are still being worked out, but Wilson said she imagined it might be an option for a customer to get 4-6 bottles every other week. The wine will also be available at UK’s faculty club, the Boone Center and Spindletop Hall. UK is still in the process of getting a wine sale license, and its labels must be approved. Wheeler thinks sales could start by late fall.
“The wine is really good,” Wilson said. “We don’t make bad wine.”
UK holds ‘Field Day’ for winemakers
UK’s cooperative extension service will hold a free day-long seminar Monday on viticulture and enology at their research farm, 4321 Emmert Farm Lane, Lexington. Topics to be discussed include grape disease, grape nutrition, harvesting and vineyard management. The sessions begin at 9 a.m. and it is requested that you RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org or text/call 859-494-1657.