The first commercial winery in America was founded in Kentucky in 1798 by Swiss winemaker Jean-Jacques Dufour, in what is now Jessamine County. At one point in the 1800s, Kentucky was the third largest grape and wine producer in the country. Prohibition wiped out the state’s wine industry, but in the 21st century, wine production is once again on the rise.
“There has been remarkable growth in Kentucky’s wine industry in recent years, from 67 acres of grapes planted throughout the commonwealth in 1999 to around 600 today,” said Tyler Madison, director of the grape and wine marketing program for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
Just five years ago, there were 16 licensed wineries in Kentucky; in 2013, there are 73, 66 of which are currently operational. Most are in or near Lexington, Louisville and northern Kentucky.
“We are seeing more and more pop up in western Kentucky and southern Kentucky,” Madison said. “There are two in eastern Kentucky; that’s the sparse area at the moment.”
In 2002, the Kentucky Grape and Wine Council was established by House Bill 855/GA. Funds, in the form of reimbursements, are available to licensed small-farm wineries in the state through two programs, one for a marketing and advertising cost-share program and another for wholesaler reimbursement to help wineries with distribution.
“Wineries can’t self-distribute,” Madison said. “We offer a $20 reimbursement for every case they deliver to a retail location.”
Ten years ago, Equus Run Vineyards was selling 40 percent of its wine through wholesale channels and 60 percent on site. Today owner Cynthia Bohn sells 88 percent of her product on site.
“The market has changed,” said Bohn, who considers Equus Run an agritourism business.
A former electrical engineer at IBM, Bohn opened Equus Run in Midway in 1998. In addition to her own eight acres of grapes, she uses fruit from Kentucky growers in Hardin, Nelson, Pulaski and Washington counties, as well as growers in Indiana and Ohio, and even as far away as New York and California. She calls it an insurance program.
“When we were in a drought, the western part of state was OK, or Ohio was fine,” she said.