The Kentucky Wine Trail

A Touring and Tasting Adventure to Savor

Story by Nancy Miller

Kentucky is the indisputable bourbon capital of the world. A lesser known fact, one that elicits plenty of, “No kidding?” comments, is that the Commonwealth is producing some mighty fine wines.

Is Kentucky a late bloomer in the world of wine? Yes and no. In 1799, First Vineyard, which is located in Jessamine County, was the first commercial winery in the country. It lasted until 1809 when a hard freeze put it out of business. In a 2008 historical turnaround, First Vineyard was revitalized and is now one of 70 wineries on the Kentucky Wine Trail.

At one point, Bracken Country was the leading wine producing county in the United States, but such notoriety was short lived. Kentucky’s modest but growing wine industry was decimated by the introduction of Prohibition and didn’t resurface in a meaningful way until the 1990s. By 2010, there were already 35 or 40 wineries, signaling the interest in and viability of the Kentucky wine industry.

“Word about Kentucky wines is getting out. A couple of years ago, I would give talks at conferences and found that people were surprised that we had a wine industry at all. Now they’re becoming aware that we’re producing high-quality, award-winning wines,” says Tyler Madison, the grape and wine spirits program manager for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

The Kentucky Wine Trail showcases the smorgasbord of varieties offered in the state. Among the types of grapes that are grown in Kentucky is the Vidal Blanc, which Madison describes as the workhorse of a grape variety. The white grape is best known for making ice wine in Canada, but in Kentucky, it is used to make dry, sweet, off-dry and sparkling wine. Other varieties are the red, French-American Chambourcin and the Norton, a red grape that originated in Virginia and is one of the earliest grapes that had success in the United States.

The majority of the wineries are located in the golden triangle between Louisville, Lexington and Cincinnati. But, Madison says there are also wineries in Western and South Central Kentucky that are producing some fabulous wines. “The takeaway is that we are a young industry, so a lot of the wineries are (located) where more significant populations are. As we grow, I think you’ll see more wineries around the state.”

Visitors to the Wine Trail will discover that most of the wineries are very small producers. There are quite a few of these businesses that sell to stores throughout the state, such as various Kroger and Liquor Barn locations and smaller shops. However, 85 percent of the wines are sold out of tasting rooms and aren’t available in stores. So, the only way to discover those wines is on the Kentucky Wine Trail. The recently passed Kentucky House Bill 400 allows visitors to the wineries to purchase wines and have them shipped home to states that have a reciprocal agreement. Originally proposed for the bourbon industry, Kentucky wineries were a secondary beneficiary.

“One of the things that’s great about so many of the wineries is that they focus on the whole family and come up with events that everybody can get into and that you wouldn’t usually expect at a winery. Mike Hatzell at Brooks Hill Winery makes his famous bean soup a couple times a year. It’s appropriately called ‘Mike’s Pretty Good Bean Soup.’ I haven’t tried it yet but it’s one of the many unusual things on the Wine Trail that I’m looking forward to,” says Madison.

Wine has become a convivial, competitive sport all its own. The Kentucky Commonwealth Commercial Wine Competition and Commissioners Cup, to be held in the fall (date and location to be announced), is a recurring event that is open only to Kentucky commercial wineries. Beverages are placed in flights based on their grape variety or style of wine and the sweetness level. The flights are blind tasted by a panel of industry expert judges who bestow bronze, silver and gold awards. Wines that receive a gold medal and consist of at least 75 percent Kentucky fruit are re-evaluated in five categories – red, white, rosé, sweet dessert fruit and boutique (under 100 case production.) The ones that win those categories receive the Commissioner’s Cup designation.

Madison has visited about 60 of the stops on the trail and has tasted most of the wines produced at each. “I typically taste all the wines. There are worse jobs than tasting wines,” he jokes. “The owners are great people who are very passionate about their wine. Most have always wanted a winery and have made it happen. They’re living their dreams.”

A Sneak Peek at the Wineries

Each winery has a distinct character, making the Kentucky Wine Trail an exciting, evolving trip of adventure. Bucolic settings of rolling hills, creeks and vineyards are reminiscent of the picturesque images most people have of wineries. However, the Kentucky Wine Trail offers a surprising diversity of settings. For example, a stark contrast to a rural backdrop, the Old 502 Winery is an urban winery in downtown Louisville.

Reid’s Livery Winery’s tagline, “equine and wine by design,” hints at what you can expect. Sure, you’ll be able to relax with a glass of something tasty (perhaps by the fireplace when the weather is crisp) but leave time to take a wagon or carriage ride to spot the wildlife that make their home on the farm in Alvaton.

Cave Valley Winery in Park City is part of the Park Mammoth Resort. Combine your excursion with a visit to Mammoth Cave and a morning of horseback riding or canoeing.

Redman’s Farm and Winery in Morningview is a working farm that invites you to pet the animals, try your luck with a fishing pole and go pumpkin picking in the fall, all before you relax drinking one of the winery’s white, red, blackberry, strawberry or apple varieties.

The European-estate-like River Valley Winery in Carrollton has mastered the art of Southern hospitality. Stroll the property, taste the wines and get to know the resident llamas, sheep and Pyrenees dogs.

End a hike in Bernheim Forest with a tour of Forest Edge Winery in Shepherdsville. At Forest Edge, imbibing and doing yoga are a perfect match. Sign up for a yoga session and give your mind and body a treat. No yoga mat? Don’t worry Forest Edge has one for you.

Baker-Bird Winery in Augusta prides itself on being on the National Registry of Historic Places, and having the oldest wine cellar in America. It is also the site of a Civil War battle. The Baker-Bird folks invite you to take a tour and tasting, and they hope you’ll consider attending the Civil War Dress Ball and Chocolate Fest. Wine and chocolate, what could be better? V

Visiting the Wineries

Touring the wineries to learn about the state-of-the-art wine making practices is only the beginning of the fun on the Kentucky Wine Trail. Most spots on the rail have tasting rooms where you can sample the vintages and retail stores where you can purchase them. Some stores also sell wine accessories, Kentucky food products and gift items.

Visit the wineries’ websites to find ideas for dining. There’s something for every taste: sandwiches, buffets, pizzas, cheese plates or full meals. Or, pack a picnic lunch and lounge in the sun while you take in the scenery. The Jean Farris Winery & Bistro ups the culinary ante by growing its own fruits, vegetables and herbs that are served in its restaurant.

The Kentucky Wine Trail is all about the total entertainment experience. Live music rounds out the day at several of the wineries.

Many of the vineyards and wineries are family friendly, hosting entertainment and recreational activities for kids. Then, parents can have the freedom to set out on tours or stop by the tasting rooms for a leisurely afternoon of sipping. 

Turn your winery visits into a weekend getaway. Check out lodging options at individual places as well as bed and breakfasts and little inns in the surrounding areas.

Drink Ky: Your One-Stop Shop for What You Need to Know

Technology is a Kentucky wine lover’s best friend, The Drink Ky app is an excellent way to virtually explore the Kentucky Wine Trail before you set out on the trek itself. All the wineries are featured on the app, which is simple to use and includes a description of each place, address, phone number, directions, hours of operation and a link to the website. It’s an easy way to instantly familiarize yourself with upcoming events and happenings you won’t want to miss. Best of all, an interactive map lets you create your individualized trail and record tasting notes.

Once you visit a particular winery, the app check-in button becomes live and starts you on your way to receiving gifts that are awarded after seven, 14 and 21 check-ins. Gifts change periodically and have included-shirts, leather coasters and a Corkcicle that keeps any vintage cold for up to two hours.