Jean-Jacques Dufour arrived in Lexington in 1798, purchased 600 acres near the Kentucky River and created the Kentucky Vineyard Society. It wasn’t long before the state became the nation’s No. 3 grape and wine producer.
Unfortunately, Prohibition decimated Kentucky’s wine industry, and many farmers converted their acreage to tobacco. But wine has made a comeback. Kentucky’s grape and wine industry has seen tremendous growth, with grapevine acreage increasing from 67 acres in 1999 to about 600 acres today, and the number of wineries soaring from 15 to more than 65.
“We’re really still in our infancy as far as wine regions go,” says Tyler Madison, grape and wine program director at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. “Because of that, there’s a lot of experimentation happening in the vineyards as well as at the wineries in terms of cultivars and styles of wine being produced.”
The two most widely planted cultivars in the state currently are Vidal Blanc and Chambourcin, but there’s also quite a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
“It’s an exciting time to be a part of Kentucky wine because it’s all still so new,” Madison says.
In 2013, the Kentucky Commonwealth Commercial Wine Competition and Commissioner’s Cup was created to be the yearly guide to the state’s best wines. As a result, there will no longer be a state fair wine contest.
“The Commissioner’s Cup is the pinnacle of the competition and highest award bestowed to a winery,” Madison says.
Harkness Edwards Vineyards, whose “Taste the Sun” Vidal Blanc 2012 won the Commissioner’s Cup for Best Dry White, has been in the business for more than a decade.
“We began in 2000, as raising grapes was determined to be a potential alternative to our tobacco crop,” says Harkey Edwards, owner of the winery. “The ultimate hope for our winery was to produce wine that is recognized as great and expresses unique Kentucky qualities that will take a place beside the great Kentucky bourbon.”
Tragically, the Winchester winery lost most of its vineyard to a fire caused by lightning in 2013. Before the fire, the vineyard consisted of 17 acres of vines comprising 11 different verities. It is evaluating its next steps but has been grateful for the support from the Kentucky wine industry.
Wight-Meyer Winery has taken home more local, national and international wine awards than any winery in the state. It took home 14 awards at the 2013 Commissioner’s Cup, including three golds, eight silvers and three bronzes.
“The state of Kentucky has done a great deal to assist the emergence of the state’s wine industry,” says owner Jim Wight. “For a leader such as the Commissioner of Agriculture to be personally linked to the contest sends a strong message of support for the wine industry to the citizens of Kentucky and beyond.”
Elsewhere in the Commissioner’s Cup, “Lauren’s Blackberry” from Paducah’s Purple Toad Winery received a double gold, as well as Best of Class in the Blackberry Fruit Wine category. Other winners included Best Dry Red: Wildside Winery Reserve Chambourcin 2009; Best Sweet/Dessert Style/Fruit Wine: Purple Toad Winery “Paducah Peach”; and Best Boutique (Small Production) Wine: Reid’s Livery Winery Black Raspberry 2011.