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Can a Return to Winemaking Save Kentucky's Soul?

With tobacco farms closing and coal mines shutting down, the Bluegrass State
is pinning its hopes on the fruit of the vine

A

high school acquaintance from Poosey Ridge — a one-stop-sign hamlet in the eastern Kentucky county where I grew up — was croaking at me in a hushed way, tapping his Zippo lighter anxiously on the bar.

"You know what I heard?" he said. "I heard that Old Man Minerich was just telling people to go in there and pick off them grapes. He don't have a clue what to do with them."

Old Man Minerich was Madison County's wealthiest farmer, and his estate sat high on a plump hill overlooking his fields of cattle like a backwoods Xanadu. He had recently purchased the county's lone, celebrated winery at auction, when its previous owner's financing went belly up. He was a lifelong cow man — not an aspiring vintner — and under his watch, the grape vines hung heavy with unharvested fruit. Rumor had circulated, Telephone-style, that families who might be hungry were secretly welcome to venture in and pick the grapes, a form of twenty-first century gleaning.

My friend cocked a bushy, wooly-worm eyebrow at me, and took a choppy drag off of his cigarette. Wine was something new here. Even if you weren't a farmer, if you lived in that part of Kentucky, your life was tobacco. Growing up, I would drag thick stalks of the plant along the pavement from the back of a rusted out Chevy, tiny flames shooting up from the ground like a Fourth of July sparkler. By the time I was a teenager, my favorite English teacher (on whom I harbored a not-so-secret crush) was almost blinded by the tobacco juice that had dripped in his right eye while he was hanging some leaves to dry.

For generations, the family of my friend at the bar had farmed tobacco on hilly plots of land — planting the green crops, harvesting and hanging them as they withered into flaky amber gold, then shipping them out to be rolled up into puffable sticks like the one he held between his thin lips. (Tobacco farmers both beget and become smokers, a closed loop and a self-fulfilling prophecy.) But soon after I left high school — and Kentucky — the circle was broken. The tobacco buyout happened, leaving hundreds of tobacco farmers scrambling to figure out how to keep their livelihoods afloat. Today, my friend was trying to find work as an auto parts dealer.

He eyed me suggestively across our splashes of bourbon, reminding me of a decade earlier when this same boy — his jaw more firmly square and his stomach less beer-jiggly — convinced me to sneak off into a pasture to go cow tipping. "You want to go in and get grapes? They're sour, but we could try and mash ‘em up."


T

he Tobacco Transition Payment Program, more commonly known as the tobacco buyout, was a 2004 federal initiative that took the writing on the wall about dwindling American tobacco production and inked it as doctrine. The buyout lifted a quota mandate dating back the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938, which guaranteed price support to independent farmers who produced a number of commodities — including tobacco, prunes, butter, pecans, dates and peanuts — to help keep their produce supply in line with market demand. As demand for tobacco fell, the government decided to stop subsidizing the farmers who grew it.

Contract payments from the government to tobacco farmers were made in annual installments over a ten-year period beginning in 2005. The few tobacco-growing holdouts frequently found themselves outpaced by massive farms operated by a handful of faceless corporate overlords. The majority of Kentucky tobacco farmers — over seventy percent — had given up their crop, taking the buyout and shifting their focus to more diverse agricultural pursuits. For generations of Kentuckians, tobacco was identity and income — the past and future wrapped up into one dippable, spittable, and smokeable package. When it began to disappear, what was going to replace it? One common answer quickly revealed itself to be wine.

"Marijuana was the secret, number one alternative crop in Kentucky, but I wasn't going to get involved in that, so I decided to do a little experiment with planting some grape vines."

"I inherited the land my winery's on today from my mom and dad, and it was a tobacco farm," said Norrie Wake of Lake Cumberland Winery in Wayne County, Kentucky. "For a long time, folks could have a thousand-pound patch of tobacco and have a little extra spending money at Christmas — a little something on the side. It was great for the small farmer. When that was phased out, it was cultural change as well as a financial change for a lot of people."

On September 30, 2014, the final federal payments of the buyout were issued as part of the transition process, as many newly minted vintners (and recirculating farm specialists, and reluctant alpaca farmers) still struggled to find their sea legs.

"During the buyout, everything was ‘alternative crops, alternative crops!' but of course none of us really knew anything else that would grow well," laughed Wake. "Except marijuana. It was the secret, number one alternative crop in Kentucky, but I wasn't going to get involved in that, so I decided to do a little experiment with planting some grape vines."

In communities that have historically orbited around a particular crop or craft — from mining towns to tobacco farms — when industry begins to wane, every member of the town feels the radiating impact. The feeling of identity loss is often difficult to pinpoint at first, and it manifests in a number of ways. There are the obvious signs — once-thriving squares of land quilted across rolling hills go fallow, turning into barren earth after generations of toil. Families fall into the silent sadness of stubborn pride, or reluctantly abandon the homes their great-grandparents built in search of work elsewhere. In an ever-increasing number of cases, opiates — oxycodone, heroin — sink in their lethal claws, proving a cheaper (and often deadlier) release from the struggles of reality than the heavily regulated methamphetamines popular in the past. Even for the most abstemious, making wine now seems like a relatively tame vice. (Former tobacco farmer Zane Burton — owner of Sinking Valley Winery in Palto, Kentucky, and the son of teetotalers — told the Rodale Institute in 2006 that his conversion from tobacco to wine sprang from, "economic need and a quirky personality.")

"I was a school teacher for forty years before we got heavy into winemaking," said Suzanne Lawson of Mountain Rose Winery in Wise, Virginia, a former coal mining town just across the Kentucky state line in the heart of Appalachia. Along with the tobacco farms, the coal companies that for decades were an economic engine of the region have also been steadily disappearing. In their place, vineyards have started to spring up on reclaimed mine land, giving new purpose to land that may have seemed otherwise worn out. "Twenty years ago, we had twelve thousand students in our school system," said Lawson. "Now, we only have about six thousand. There's no coal, fewer jobs, fewer families. The winery, though — everyone in the community is real proud to have it."

W

hile at first blush wine might seem like an unusual replacement for tobacco and coal, it's actually not so strange that farming and mining communities across Kentucky have used the grape to rise up from the ashes of floundering traditional income streams. The state's often overlooked backstory as a wine pioneer makes the resurgence of the vine slightly less curious. Kentucky was the first wild frontier for the early colonies, as eighteenth-century adventurers and Don Quixote types strode arm-in-arm into the untamed hills and forests of what would become the country's third largest producer of grapes and wine until the Civil War.

But it was not some muscular he-man — like American pioneer and Appalachian trailblazer Daniel Boone — that made Kentucky's wine industry blossom. Instead, a mealy-mouthed, one-armed (and generally disliked) Swiss-born Frenchman named Jean Jacques DuFour would lay claim to that title, alternatively loving and lambasting his time in the future Commonwealth.

The official winemaker of the Marquis de Lafayette, an America-loving French aristocrat, DuFour was sent on a pilgrimage to Kentucky in 1797, to work with heralded statesman Henry Clay setting up the first mass-producing winery in the country. Lafayette — true to his roots — was disdainful of the drinking practices of the colonists, who favored hard ciders and malted beer. (This drunken derision was, perhaps, merited. By 1790, records indicate that annual alcohol consumption for every citizen over the age of fifteen amounted to thirty-four gallons of beer and cider per capita.)

In a letter to the citizens of Kentucky published in The Kentucky Gazette, DuFour genuflected in front of his new countrymen, and brought the pie-in-the-sky promise of new jobs to those in the rocky foothills of the Ohio Valley and eastward into Appalachia:

"In such parts of those countries covered with mountains or stony ground, where not a man would dare settle himself if he did not have to cultivate the grape, we will find an astonishing number of residents living as comfortably...than any farmer settled on rich, level ground."

Armed with funds from Clay, Thomas Jefferson, and a legion of gentleman farmers eager to see the European tradition of wine stamp out more heathen drinks in the states, DuFour purchased six hundred acres of land along the banks of the Kentucky River in Jessamine County. (The area was surveyed on DuFour's behalf by our aforementioned he-man, Daniel Boone.) Not one to mince words, DuFour called the experiment "First Vineyard," and in 1798 set about the business of cultivating the inaugural grape vines. In his 1826 memoir, The American Wine-Dresser's Guide: Being a Treatise on the Cultivation of the Vine and the Process of Wine Making Adapted to the Soil of the United States, DuFour recalled his adventures in Kentucky:

"...It is [my] resolution which made me a vine dresser, although some may think I am not fit for it being maimed in my left arm. It was it which made me lose several chances of getting rich in my journeying through America, because it had so completely absorbed all my other thoughts, and it was also that resolution which made me accept a proposal of an association for the culture of the grape in Kentucky under the same principles of the one established at Philadelphia (though not knowing, however, which of those societies had been the first) but the Kentucky Vineyard Society may be with great propriety considered as the beginner: the true introducer of the cultivation of grape vines into the United States."

He also dedicated a fair amount of space to whining over the quality of the much-derided grapes imported for use in his initial planting, writing that "the cape grape [planted] has been slandered and cryed down to a mere wild grape." Wild grapes are native to Kentucky — they can still be found ambling alongside ponds and hugging sweetgum trees — so it's easy to imagine a similarly coarse grape being met with a scornful chuckle. Their pea-size, midnight-hued fruit clusters hang on tangles of woody vine; they're useless for winemaking, but they're a sweet-tart source of jam, and an irresistible food source for young deer and twittering catbirds. Wrote DuFour:

"It is true that it is a very coarse grape, unfit for table use for those who have eaten the best sort in Europe or who can get a better one. It has a very thick skin and pulp, but the juice is very sweet when perfectly ripe...[It] has the taste of the strawberry which gives a fine perfume to the wine such as made the President Jefferson say that there was no other such tasted wine within his knowledge in the world."

DuFour's dismissal of Jefferson's palate notwithstanding, First Vineyard harvested its inaugural crop in 1803, fulfilling its mission of becoming the first commercial winery on American soil. But that first harvest would, alas, also be the vineyard's last. The farm was plagued by fungal diseases and insects that swarmed the vines, leaving the crop eviscerated. Ever the optimist, DuFour wrote that the experiment would at least be a lesson to others: "Although it proved to be a ruinous affair both to the shareholders and their vine dresser, nevertheless millions will accrue to the country at large from the school made there."

His sunny outlook proved to be correct. Where DuFour laid a path, others followed, and within a decade of First Vineyard taking shape, Kentucky unexpectedly blossomed into the third-largest wine producing state in the Union, its grape harvests falling behind only Georgia and, eventually, California.

Wine production in Kentucky flowed along merrily until 1862, when the Civil War arrived in the Bluegrass, and the once-untamed frontier shifted into an out-and-out battlefield. Kentucky's role as a border state ensured that families torn between the blue and the gray — brother pitted against brother — were as common as cornbread. "I'd hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky," wrote Abraham Lincoln, and true to the that necessity, blood spilled mercilessly in the state, darkening hearts and seeping into the soil of fields trampled by destructive boots. Troops from both sides marched, camped, and fought in the vineyards, where vines were ripped from the ground and, by gunfire or campfire, burned to ash.

Running a vineyard isn't about producing and selling a commodity product, as it was with tobacco and coal — it's about hawking a brand

When the war ended in 1865, Kentucky's once-flourishing wine industry had been entirely destroyed. Instead of replanting their vines, former winemakers turned their attention to tobacco, their choice fueled by the faster crop-to-cash turnaround time, and confirmed soon thereafter by the increasing volume of the voices of the temperance movement.


F

or many of Kentucky's upstart wineries, their tobacco or coal heritage is impossible to miss. The tasting room of Highland Winery operates out of a former coal camp company store in the town of Seco; the top of the building still reads "Southeast Coal Company." Up the Creek Winery in Burkesville has a tobacco barn sketched on its label, explaining that it signifies "the winery's farm and the Commonwealth's heritage." Suzanne Lawson's winery names all its vintages after former coal camps — Pardee, Dorchester — and lays claim to being the first "mines-to-wine" vineyard. Sinking Creek Vineyard over in Plato illustrates buckets of wine being poured out on the label of their "Prohibition Repeal Red."

These promotional pieces come more easily to some than others. One of the biggest hurdles for many budding vintners is the total personality overhaul that is often required in order to succeed in the business. The day-in and day-out of running a vineyard isn't just about producing and selling a commodity product, as it was with tobacco and coal — it's about hawking a brand, the product not just a freshly bottled chardonnay, but the entire concept of wine from Kentucky. Locally, this means convincing a heavy majority of alcohol-shunning, church-going people that a vineyard, winery, or tasting room won't lead the town's youth toward the hell fires.

If you've always been interested in just what Prohibition felt like, Kentucky is your answer. The Commonwealth boasts one of the largest remaining number of dry counties in the nation, regions where the sale and purchase of alcohol is entirely illegal. Located at the north end of the Bible Belt, Kentucky strongly supported the Eighteenth Amendment when it was presented in 1918, and it was one of the first three states to ratify the federal anti-liquor law.

After the amendment's repeal in 1933, Kentucky left its counties to determine on their own whether or not they'd like to remain liquor-free, and as a result the state's laws remain the very picture of mind-boggling bureaucratic nonsense, boasting seventy different types of licenses for the sale of alcohol. At last count, thirty-eight counties in Kentucky are dry, thirty-three are wet, and forty-nine are "moist" (dry with wet precincts) or dry with special circumstances (like specially-approved wineries). In 1985, the Kentucky Supreme Court described the laws as a "maze of obscure statutory language" with a meaning that was "anybody's guess." Among the morass of laws and morals, winemaking was specifically derided; it was illegal in Kentucky from Prohibition until 1976, when the law was repealed and aspiring vintners were able to bring their operations out of hiding.

I

t's not just their teetotaling neighbors that Kentucky's winemakers need to convince to be on their side. The vineyards' real target is tourists, coaxing them to come to town for the wine, but to stay for the natural beauty of the area and all that the state has to offer. With remarkable frequency, Kentucky winemakers are on the forefront of pushing back against Appalachia's pervasive — and damaging — Deliverance-style reputation, waltzing on a razor's edge of salesmanship (playing down the stereotypes) and authenticity (keeping just enough of them to lure the customers in).

In that act, winemakers are fundamentally redefining Kentucky's sense of place. The further away you get from the (relatively) big city lights of Lexington — traveling east, sinking deep into the Ohio River Valley and finally rolling into the Appalachian mountains — the more evident it becomes that wineries are helping to buoy the fortunes of wide-spot-in-the-road towns in transition. Whether converted from tobacco farms or coal camps, it's undeniable that, in spite of the challenges of product and sales, wineries now produce a tremendous source of pride for community members at a time when local economies continue to flag.

Today, there are sixty-eight wineries and roughly 150 grape growers in Kentucky, generating $15 million in annual revenue. The numbers are constantly growing. This spring, the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture offers its first official course in viticulture, offering students the chance to learn all about the crop production of grapes. Last fall, the same students were eligible for a course in oenology, cracking the books over the science and industry of grapes becoming wine. Nationally, Kentucky has climbed back from trampled vines to be America's sixth largest wine producing state — not quite the third-place scale of its history, but a far cry from winemaking's illegal status just a short four decades ago.

"We didn't try and set out to grow our grapes on reclaimed mine land. It's just all we had to work with."

After all this, though, what does the wine taste like? I've swished around many homegrown wines from Kentucky and Southwest Virginia — a thin, oxblood red; a fruit-forward white so thick it's almost a syrup; crisp pink sippers that are razor-sharp on the tongue. Some are bright and tannin-heavy, some are more like melted hard candies. But the swirl-and-spit opinion of any wine judge has little bearing on Kentucky wine culture. Small, locally-focused wineries in Kentucky are about community pride more than the wine itself: a focal point for joyfulness and hope in a landscape that frequently has seemed downright bleak.

"We didn't try and set out to grow our grapes on reclaimed mine land," said Lawson of her mountain vineyard. "It's just all we had to work with. Every fall we have our big grape harvest, and everyone from the community comes out and helps to pick the grapes in shifts. Every year there's someone new out, even kids a lot of the time. Sometimes, it's hard to go to the store and not see someone who's been picking alongside of us."

Learning about winemaking has also been a community experience. "I'm always behind the eight ball, so when I was finally successful with my vines and didn't know what to do with the grapes, I called my friends in to my rescue," explained Norrie Wake. "I said, 'Hey, guess what? We want you to come out here and help us pick our grapes, then we want you to buy the grapes from us, then all of us together are going to learn how to make wine!'" He laughed at the memory of his audacity. "We had about twelve couples who did it with us. We used a homegrown recipe book that tells you how to make wine out of anything — even onion wine. It was awful at first, but it was our wine. We've gotten a lot better since then."

One winemaker told me that she looked to the Book of Judges to explain just why winemaking is burgeoning. She explained her neighbors had all found a renewed sense of connectedness and courage since the winery had opened, and then she launched into scripture:

Then said the trees to the vine: Come thou, and reign over us! And the vine said unto them, should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?


A

fter I brushed off my high school friend's plan to go round up abandoned vineyard grapes, he slid his lighter into the inside pocket of his Carhartt jacket and stared off into the hazy distance of the bar, smirking. After a pause, he playfully punched my arm. "It's a shame you won't go get any of them grapes," he said. "I hear if you feed them to the cows, it makes them easier to tip over at night."

Kentucky is the kind of place where the land remembers: where the coarse dirt underfoot has been plowed and pulled and turned, worshipped and wronged, for generations. It is still there today. It will be there tomorrow. Kentucky is the kind of place where people remember: what the land has been, why it means to much to so many, and what it means to stay firmly — often, stubbornly — planted in a place of kinfolk and connection. Yesterday, the land fed us tobacco crops, or it was split open to deliver its black-gold bounty of coal. Today, it's encouraged to nurture gently trellising grapevines.

Unfortunately for me, my fellow Kentuckian in the bar also remembered: how to cock his head just right, how I'm a sucker for truck rides with a Garth Brooks soundtrack, how to make me feel like a knock-kneed teenage girl all over again. Six hours after my initial rebuff, I found myself hopping the fence into a cow pasture — less like the graceful white-tailed deer of my high school days and more like a lumbering elk — with grapes in hand for cattle feed.

The secret to cow tipping is that it isn't real — you can't actually tip a cow over. It's half hormone-driven novelty, half rural legend. At best, you'll startle a bovine awake from a drowsy state, the mammoth creature staring at you with eyes wet and blinking in the dewy dark. Standing in front of a cow, holding a bunch of grapes in my palm, I couldn't say whether or not Kentucky's freshly sprouted wineries will fully take root, if the vineyard revival is real enough to last beyond its own balance of novelty and legend. Maybe, though, that's not the point. Just like a cow on the verge of tipping, wine might be exactly what these communities need to jar themselves awake, to see what's right in front of them, a whole state blinking with fresh, fully opened eyes.

Sarah Baird is a writer and restaurant critic based in New Orleans.
Hallie Bateman is a cartoonist and illustrator in Brooklyn.
Editor: Helen Rosner

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