America’s commercial wine industry was born in Kentucky in 1798 when the Marquis de Lafayette’s winemaker, Jean-Jacques Dufour, set out into the new nation to find suitable land for growing grapes. He arrived at the “Athens of the West” – Lexington – and made the acquaintance of Henry Clay. Backed with money from several prominent statesmen, including Clay, Dufour formed the Kentucky Vineyard Society and bought 600 acres on the Kentucky River, in what’s now Jessamine County. Dufour planted what he called the “First Vineyard” and, in 1803, his first vintage went to an appreciative Thomas Jefferson.
Overcoming crop damage from the Civil War, as well as vine diseases, by the late 1800’s Kentucky had become the nation’s third largest grape and wine producer. However, Prohibition put Kentucky’s grape and wine industry out of business and many Kentucky farmers turned their acreage over to the production of tobacco.
Kentucky passed legislation in 1976 allowing wineries to operate, and tobacco settlement funds have provided Kentucky farmers the opportunity to once again explore grapes as a cash crop. The grape and wine industry has seen tremendous growth in the past ten years, with grapevine acreage growing from 67 acres in 1999 to an estimated 600 acres today. In just five years, the number of Kentucky wineries has matured from 15 to more than 65, and is still growing.
Today, Kentucky wine is moving out an estimated 100,000 cases per year. But Kentucky’s wine industry is about so much more than producing a solid retail product. The tourism impact of our wine industry continues to blossom. Fueled by consumer interest in “agritourism” and support of local farmers and businesses, visitation at Kentucky’s wineries continues to grow and wineries now offer a wide variety of experiences – from wine tastings and concerts, to theme dinners, art shows and family friendly events.
Watch our video about Kentucky’s grape and wine history.