Kentucky wineries gaining respect

RICHMOND — Lowell Land beamed as he held a bottle of the Concord wine made at his Acres of Land Winery in Madison County.

In June, that wine took a double gold medal at the 18th Annual Indy International Wine Competition in Indianapolis, one of the most prestigious contests in the country. (A double gold medal is reserved for the show's very best wines, and it earns the right to compete for best of show.)

"To beat out other wineries from other states, especially in that competition, is a huge accomplishment for us," Land said. "That just goes to show that we can make good wines in Kentucky."

After a decade of growth and production, Kentucky-made wines are gaining respect. Eight Kentucky wineries won 30 medals from Indy, which had 2,280 wines entered in the commercial competition.

Others are noticing Kentucky wines, too. Last year, Time magazine writer Joel Stein and friends sampled wines from all 50 states. Among the dozen wines Stein deemed to be "excellent" was a "Celebration White" wine from Midway's Equus Run Vineyards.

"Kentucky, you charmed me," Stein wrote.

The Bluegrass State's wine industry, still in its infancy, is maturing in other ways.

Wineries are becoming more sophisticated and aggressive in their marketing. Through television, newspapers, billboards, their own Web sites, and special events including concerts and festivals, wineries are getting the word out like never before that Kentucky is a place where wine is made.

"It's a necessity if you want to have the business be commercially viable," said Logan Leet, owner of Lovers Leap Vineyards and Winery in Anderson County. "We can grow all the grapes and make all the wine we want, but if we don't sell it, ultimately it's not going to make a lot of sense."

Becoming an attraction

This year, several nationally recognized musical acts performed at regional wineries.

In July, Elk Creek Vineyards in Owen County hosted a concert with country singer Darius Rucker, the former lead singer of the rock band Hootie and the Blowfish. The Temptations will play there in September. Grammy-winning singer Mary-Chapin Carpenter will appear at Equus Run in October. Other wineries have their own concert series including jazz and classical music.

Acres of Land Winery recently had its second annual festival, which included music, food, dancing and a grape-stomping contest. Land calls that kind of event "agritainment."

"We try to tell people what we used to do to make a living on the farm, and explain how our new operation is coming along," Land said. "We do tours of the wine operation and we do wagon rides and talk to people about the vineyards."

Wineries also are becoming popular places for weddings and wedding receptions.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand why wineries try to draw as many people as possible.

"We make more money off our wine if we can sell it here on the farm," Land said. "So the more people we get here, the better it is for us as far as profitable sales."

Bourbon and horses have been synonymous with Kentucky, but grapes and wine were a part of the state's history from the start. In fact, Kentucky was home to the first commercial vineyard in the United States. In 1798, Jean Jacques Dufour, winemaker for the Marquis de Lafayette, planted the first vines in what is now Jessamine County. (Nicholasville celebrates that heritage with an annual Wine & Vine Fest in May.) By the mid-1800s, Kentucky was the third-largest grape and wine producer.

Prohibition put a halt to the industry, and most vines were destroyed. Now, with the increasing appreciation for wine, Kentucky wineries are making a comeback.

Tourists and consumers have more and more choices of wineries to visit. The Kentucky Grape & Wine Council counted only five wineries in the state in 1999. Today, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control lists 52 licensed wineries, and more are coming.

About 90 percent of all the vineyard acreage is concentrated in Central and Northern Kentucky, as are most wineries, according to a 2008 survey conducted by the University of Kentucky and the state Department of Agriculture.

The 436 acres in wine-grape vineyards planted in 2008 represent a 60 percent increase since 2002, the study said. More acreage is being planted, said Stacia Alford, grape and wine marketing specialist for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

"Every day, I have more people getting hold of me and saying, 'I'm thinking about starting a vineyard. How do I do this?'" Alford said.

But the perception of wine-making as a glamorous and relatively easy way to make a living is off the mark. "Anybody can make wine, but it takes a trained winemaker to make really great wine," Alford said.

It takes a lot to get there

Land explored the wine business after his father died in 1998.

"We were tobacco farmers, and I just wanted to hold onto my family farm," he said.

So he did a lot of research, visited wineries and talked to liquor stores to see if there would be a market for wine. He learned that the slopes of his farm six miles west of Richmond would be a more-than-suitable place to grow grapes. The steep hills and broad ridges meant good drainage. He put out his first vines in 2000.

But it's about more than growing grapes.

Tom Cottrell, the state enologist, or wine-making expert, said a medium-sized winery that produces 5,000 to 6,000 cases of wine a year "probably calls for an investment over a period of four or five years of $2.5 million or so."

That doesn't include the cost of the vineyards; "that's just the winery and the equipment," Cottrell said. Then it takes four years to get a full crop for wine.

"The third and fourth years are the toughest," Cottrell said. "Most people are doing fine after seven or eight years. It is a money-making proposition, but it takes a lot to get there."

In Land's case, he bought grapes from other growers to start producing wine. The fourth year arrived "before you think about it."

"It's not like you're sitting there with nothing to do," he said. "In our case, we had a lot of infrastructure to work on here. Roads, electrical lines, gas lines, building buildings."

Today, he and other wineries draw visitors from all over the world.

Since 2005, "We've had people sign our guest register here from all 50 states and 19 foreign countries since we've been open," Land said.

Leet said some tourists visiting distilleries along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail will decide that they want to see a winery as well. Distilleries, Leet said, have been good about telling their visitors about area wineries, and Leet said he returns the favor by sending guests to distilleries.

Chateau du Vieux Corbeau Winery in Danville has attracted as many as 30,000 visitors a year, although the number is down by 30 percent this year. Owner Andre Brousseau said tourists are intrigued by the idea of Kentucky wine.

"They know Kentucky bourbon. That is a given," Brousseau said. "But they don't expect Kentucky to have wine, and they don't expect Kentucky to have a good wine. But women are more prone to try wine than they are to do bourbon."

Where the Kentucky wine industry goes from here depends on individual wineries, Brousseau said.

"We have so many agricultural people who are really good at growing grapes; they produce an excellent crop. But don't ask them to go out and market their fruit. It's a different mind-set," Brousseau said.

Some, including Brousseau, wonder how many more wineries Kentucky can support. Land wouldn't be surprised if the state someday has 100 wineries.

"A lot of people think of Kentucky as the bourbon state, and rightly they should think that," Land said. "But we're going to be known for some really great wines, too."