NICHOLASVILLE, Ky. — Tom Beall had no idea that he was buying a piece of American history when he purchased a scenic tract of land along the Kentucky River in 1994.
Beall called it “a fluke” that he discovered the historical significance of the property on the border of Jessamine and Garrard counties.
Beall just loved the breathtaking view of the valley overlooking a big bend in Kentucky River.
“I was gonna put an A frame [house] right there,” Beall said, pointing to the spot where his winery now sits.
First Vineyard & Winery recently was certified by the U.S Department of the Interior as the nation’s first commercial vineyard and winery. The certification places the winery, which was incorporated 216 years ago, on the National Register of Historic Places.
“What an honor to be a steward for this place, to share this story,” Beall said in a story that appeared in The Lane Report. “What a thrill to help put Kentucky on the map for wine.”
On a recent Friday visit, the winery’s pavilion was being decorated for a reception after an outdoor wedding planned the following day alongside the picturesque vineyard. Last year, First Vineyard hosted 23 weddings.
“I didn’t know about the winery and vineyard being here until 2002,” Beall said.
A friend, neighbor Don Graham, and his son were doing some research about the origin of the American wine industry. Beall had no interest in wine then. Even now, he rarely drinks a glass.
The Grahams came across a book in Bloomington, Indiana, that said the nation’s first commercial winery was located at a big bend in the Kentucky River. Recognizing that was his neighbor’s property, Graham bought the book, brought it home, and called Beall.
“Don called and said, ‘You need to come over; I’ve got something to show you.’” Beall said. “I was in the middle of doing something and didn’t want to stop. But he said, ‘No, you really need to see this.’”
“If it wouldn’t have been for him [Graham], this would’ve been lost to history,” Beall said. “It’s not like I’m a big wine aficionado; I don’t drink much. I just love history.”
First Vineyard offers a selection of Kentucky Proud varieties and vintages sold under the J.J. Dufour label.
Beall said the Kentucky Proud label gives his wines an advantage over out-of-state competition.
“A lot of Kentuckians look for things make in Kentucky,” he said. “They feel good about buying it, so they’re willing to pay a little more to get something made here.”
Beall and his wife, Bobbye, trademarked the name “First Vineyard” and spent thousands of hours over four years researching the history of First Vineyard, the name given it by founder John James Dufour.
Beall painstakingly restored the vines of Concord, Diamond, Norton, and Alexander grapes on the original terraces skillfully carved out of the hillside by Dufour. Beall, who owned the Jessamine County construction company Kentucky Builders Inc. for more than 25 years, surveyed the terraces and found they were perfectly level.
The foundation of the original winery still stands at the bottom of the hill near the riverside. One end is rounded, which was the location of the large vat, while the other end housed the wine press.
Numerous excavations by Beall on the property, bordered by a dry limestone fence common to central Kentucky, turned up a vinedressers’ medal likely belonging to Dufour, the business end of one of Dufour’s grape-cultivating hoes, and the iron remains of a harness revealing that Dufour used light-stepping goats to pull his grape carts during harvest.
Framed on a wall inside the winery’s small tasting room are copies of the first survey of the land done by famed explorer Daniel Boone in 1785; a deed granted by Patrick Henry, then governor of Virginia, which Kentucky was a part of until it became a state in 1792; and a letter from then-President Thomas Jefferson thanking him for wine made on the premises.
Now Beall, who is in his fifth year as a colon cancer survivor after undergoing surgery and chemotherapy, has a dilemma. He Bobbye are both retired and have no children, so there are no heirs to carry on First Vineyard.
“I’d like to find a buyer to take care of it into perpetuity and keep it open to the public,” Beall said. “The state should buy it, put in a bigger winery, and make it into a museum so people could walk on the land that Daniel Boone surveyed and see where it [American wine industry] all started.”