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The history of grape growing and winemaking in Kentucky is a long and storied one. In fact, America’s commercial wine industry was born right here in Kentucky in 1798 while we were still a fledgling country. Thomas Jefferson firmly believed that wine industry was at the heart of any great empire. During the same time Jefferson was drafting the first of two Kentucky Resolutions, he made a request to his good friend the Marquis De Lafayette to source a wine expert to come to the United States. The Marquis sent his personal winemaker and Swiss-born vine-dresser; Jean-Jacques Dufour. At the request of both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Dufour set out into our vast new nation to find suitable land for grape-growing. He soon arrived in Lexington which was known as the “Athens of the West.” It was there he made the acquaintance of famous Kentuckian and future Secretary of State, Henry Clay. Backed with $10,000 from 133 prominent statesmen, including Clay, Dufour formed the Kentucky Vineyard Society in 1799 and bought 633 acres of property on the banks of the Kentucky River in what is now Jessamine County. Daniel Boone surveyed this property for Dufur and the Swiss-born vine-dresser soon began planting. Interesting fact; the Kentucky Vineyard Society was founded by Freemasons and was the first business incorporated in Kentucky.
Dufour established “First Vineyard” in December of 1798 and in 1803, a large wheel of cheese and (2) 5-gallon barrels from his first vintage were sent to US president and well-known wine connoisseur, Thomas Jefferson. The first wines were produced from “native” varieties of a red grape known as Alexander or (Cape) and a white grape called Madeira. After his barrels had aged for 2 years, Thomas Jefferson wrote that these wines rivaled the best that France had ever produced.
Kentuckians are proudly resilient farmers and problem-solvers. Overcoming crop damage from the Civil War as well as many vine diseases, by the late 1800s Kentucky had become the nation’s third largest grape and wine producer. During the 1870s, Bracken County in Northern Kentucky was the leading wine producing county in all of the United States. At this time, Bracken Co alone was producing over 30,000 gallons annually or approximately 150,000 bottles. This was half of the national wine production at the time. This impressive production lasted for nearly 50 years when Prohibition put Kentucky’s grape and wine industry out of business. There was just no more reason to grow grapes as a cash crop. Kentucky farmers then turned their acreage over to the production of tobacco.
50 years post prohibition, Kentucky passed legislation in 1976 allowing wineries to operate, and tobacco settlement funds provided a number of Kentucky farmers the opportunity to once again explore grapes as a cash crop. The Commonwealth’s modern grape and wine industry has seen tremendous growth. Since 2000, the number of Kentucky wineries has matured from 8 wineries to 78, and is still growing. There are 5 new wineries in the state which plan to open their doors to the public this year. Proof of our continued growth is evident here where we have 5 Small Farm Wineries within a 25-mile radius of Bowling Green.
Our unique terroir in Kentucky is key to what makes our grapes different. Much like our amazing Bourbon industry, limestone bedrock is one of the important characteristics which help set us apart. Limestone offers beneficial nutrients such as calcium to grapevines that make them grow better and produce sweeter grapes. It's special because it retains moisture in dry weather, but also offers good drainage in wet conditions.