Farmers Look To Wine As Tobacco Replacement

by Gabe Bullard on April 21, 2008

“This is our operation, 26, 27 acres of grapes.”

Next to tobacco and hay fields in southern Jefferson County, Jerry Kushner runs Broad Run Winery. Kushner opened Broad Run fifteen years ago, after spending more than 20 years growing and selling grapes in Kentucky.

“When we started our winery there were three wineries in Kentucky and they all started the same year. Now there’s roughly 50, they just pop up all the time now.”

They’re popping up in part because the University of Kentucky has been helping tobacco farmers turn their fields into vineyards. It’s a program UK Viticulture Specialist Kaan Kutural says has been very successful.

“It’s one of the fastest growing states in the union. From 90 acres of commercial vineyards, we’ve surpassed 700 acres in a matter of 3 years. I think we will top out at around 1500 acres by 2015.”

“It’s not going to be statewide. Everybody’s talking about replacing tobacco with grapes. That’s a wonderful idea on paper, and it would be wonderful if it could happen.”

Jeff Tatman used to grow tobacco, now he makes wine at Felice in downtown Louisville. He says a lot of the new vineyards in Kentucky grow American style grapes, which in his view results in second-class wine.

“A lot of people I think in the state have rushed into American variety grapes, but no matter how much lipstick you put on a pig, you’ve still got a pig.”

Jerry Kushner agrees. He laments the fact that UK encourages farmers to grow domestic grapes instead of the more sought-after European varieties.

“They claim they’re more delicate and this and that, but we’ve never lost any of those and had the other survive. We feel they’re just as easy to grow and in some places easier. In fact, for years University of Kentucky people said what we’re doing up here is impossible and we’ve been growing them for 26 years.”

Kushner says Kentucky has a climate and soil suited for European breeds. The state was once the site of America’s first commercial vineyard and was a leader in grape production prior to Prohibition.

“We can grow a perfectly balanced grape. In other words, its pH is in the ideal range, it’s sugar is in the ideal range, its acid is in the ideal range…provided we don’t have too much rain.”

Kushner says the European grapes make better wine. And wine is where the real money is for grape-growers.

“When you take grapes and convert it to wine you can add anywhere from 8 to maybe 15 times or higher than that value.”

Stereotypes about Kentucky make it difficult for Kushner to get the full value from his crop. He says he realized this when a Chicago expert took a bottle of his Broad Run wine to the west coast.

“He took some of the wine out to California to have some people taste it out there and they loved it because it was a blind tasting. When he showed them it was from Kentucky they said, ‘Well, the wine was good, but it didn’t come from Kentucky.’ Kentucky has a tremendous image problem.”

Kushner thinks high quality wine production and state support will fix that image. But Kentucky is in a budget crunch and vineyards take about five years to start turning out quality wine from European grapes. In the meantime, Louisville winemaker Jeff Tatman says local vineyards should aim for the tourism market.

“That’s going to be the biggest angle for Kentucky wineries. A lot of people love to go out to the wineries and walk around the vines and you can sell a lot of wine right at the point. I think that’s the angle a lot of Kentucky wineries need to take.”

Kentucky law prohibits the sale of wine in grocery stores, so for Tatman’s urban winery, on-site sales are key.

“I’m not even thinking about the other Kentucky wineries because you’ve got a liquor store every 8 or 10 blocks so my competition is Australia, and California and Argentina, you name it.”

Winemakers have been pushing for a bill that would allow wine sales in grocery stores, which Kushner says would give him and other small producers a boost.

“You know, the more outlets you have, the more you’re going to sell. We’d have at least between 4 and 700 more outlets if we sold it in the grocery stores.”

But even if wine could be sold in grocery stores, it still wouldn’t be legally available to many Kentuckians. 54 of the state’s 120 counties are dry.

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