Take a Walk on the Wildside

Last March, the Wildside Winery near Versailles celebrated the two-year anniversary of its grand opening. They started out with a vineyard and actually began selling wine in 2005 at special events and festivals, but in 2006 their winery at the vineyard actually opened. However, the real story begins earlier.

It was around 1997, and Neil and Rachel Vasilakes, natives and residents of Minnesota, decided they wanted to live somewhere “a little warmer.” They both loved the central Kentucky area and after a search found a nice farm in Woodford County on Troy Pike. The farm property was dense with sunflowers and coneflowers, and hence the derivation of the name “Wildside.”

When they moved here, they did not have the intention of going into the winery and vineyard business. They began planting grapes, a variety of berries (blueberries, blackberries, raspberries) and some fruits such as apples, plums and pears. Neil Vasilakes was a home beer and winemaking hobbyist and after moving here actually started a wine club. As all this progressed, it slowly evolved into a vineyard and then a winery. Along the way, they received help from the Kentucky Vineyard Assistance Program and became involved in the Kentucky Vineyard Society (www.kentuckyvineyardsociety.org). Today there are over 250 members of this organization. Since then, another organization has been formed called the Kentucky Winery Association. They both exist to support the growth of this growing agri-business and agri-tourism sector of Kentucky’s economy.

This is a neat vineyard and winery, and watching this operation as it grows to greater and greater heights will be fun. All vineyards and wineries are different, and while they produce a wide range of products, their focus is on two areas. One is dry red wines, and they have some really good ones, but one I personally recommend is their Kentucky Chambourcin. They also have a fine Cabernet Sauvignon. Another area of focus is serious berry wines. They do a limited production of high quality berry wines from pure berries (no artificial flavors here!). This is a great niche product that differentiates it from other operations. Another of their really interesting products is their Sparkling Pear & Apple Hard Cider. This is an excessively cool beverage that is light, refreshing, has appropriate complexity and goes great with a variety of food. For something different, I highly recommend it.

Wildside Winery operates on a philosophy of maximizing flavor and not quantity. That is another way the Vasilakes build their niche and brand for measured, steady, long-term growth. Neil Vasilakes is the winemaker and vineyard manager, while Rachel Vasilakes handles marketing and other functions.

Some of their other offerings include Seyval Blanc, Chardonnay, Duet, Cynthiana, Red Zinfandel, Sonata, Wild Blueberry Dessert, Blackberry Wine, Raspberry Wine, Wild Rose, Niagara, Cranberry Wine and Cherry Wine. Other products in the planning stages are jams and a vinegar product, and those will come with their expansion, which is underway.

Small operations like this, and some larger ones, are an important part of a bigger and historically important picture. The Kentucky Vineyard Society was founded in 1798 by John James Dufour, who was the winemaker for the Marquis de LaFayette. The vision of the founding shareholders was to grow grapes along the Kentucky River. By 1860, Kentucky was the site of the first commercial vineyard in the United States and was a leader among grape-producing states. The war between the states interrupted grape production in the state, and during the prohibition era, grapevines were ripped from the ground. In the 1980s and afterward, the industry slowly began to rebuild, although one has to ask why it took so long. Now vineyards and wineries are appearing throughout the state, with even regional associations being created.

This brings us to another issue and opportunity. The 2010 World Equestrian Games is the Kentucky equivalent of the Olympics. I believe Kentucky has a world-class culinary, food and beverage heritage and capability that can be leveraged to propel many of our states’ food and beverage products and brands to greater heights. However, it (in my opinion) won’t happen by accident. There has to be a plan, but perhaps that is a subject for a different article.

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