By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Proud Connection
WILLISBURG, Ky. – For the third year in a row, Kentucky's Horseshoe Bend Vineyard and Winery in rural Washington County is the official wine of the Catalina Film Festival in California.
"It's always great to see a Kentucky wine being poured in California!" said Tyler Madison, who heads the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's Grape and Wine Program.
So how did a small Kentucky winery pull off the coup of making the official wine for a film festival more than 2,200 miles away, especially when the festival is only a little more than 400 miles from California's Napa Valley, long considered the crème de la crème of U.S. wine production? A chance meeting on an airplane.
"It was a big, big bag of luck and being in the right place," said Greg Karsner, son of Horseshoe Bend founders Bob and Ann Karsner. Greg has been active in the family business for seven years after spending 15 years in the hospitality and restaurant industry and some time in advertising.
Three and a half years ago, Horseshoe Bend's then-publicist met Ron Truppa, founder of the Catalina Film Festival, on a flight during the holidays. The publicist put Truppa in contact with Greg.
"We talked on the phone for 2½ hours, and I sent him some wine," Greg said. "He loves our attitude, our moxie. We made a couple of special labels for them."
Greg said Truppa took some criticism from California wine makers on making Kentucky Proud wines the official wine of his festival.
"Not all of California is happy with us," Greg said. "He [Truppa] has got some flak over it, too. He put his neck out on the line for us."
Catalina Film Festival is an annual celebration of film on the resort island of Santa Catalina, 26 miles off the coast of Los Angeles. This year's event will feature more than 75 films, nightly events, and entertainment from Sept. 18-22. Films are screened at multiple venues on the island, including the iconic Art Deco, 1,200-seat Avalon Theatre – the world's first sound theater.
Greg called Catalina the largest film festival in the nation and the third-largest in the world behind Cannes in France and Tribeca in Canada. The festival website is www.catalinafilm.org.
Each of the festival's award winners in 10 categories will get two bottles of Horseshoe Bend wine, one red and one white. Greg will ship 40 cases to Catalina to supply all the festivals' many galas, parties and celebrity cruises.
"The only wine poured will be our labels," Greg boasted.
Greg attended last year's festival, where he met one of his heroes, Stan Lee, and watched "The Avengers" with him. This year, actor/director John Favreau will be honored.
"I'm hoping to get back out there again," Greg said. "We're in a fantastic spot right now. It's exciting."
Horseshoe Bend makes European-influenced dry wines from 14 acres of grapes fed by an underground spring. It gets its name from a creek that forms a horseshoe-shaped border around the hilltop vineyards and winery. Greg said the name also was selected because of the equine connection to Kentucky.
Greg said his parents always dreamed of owning their own vineyard. His father, a Lexington native, wanted his grapes planted in the rich limestone soil of central Kentucky.
"Geographically, we're smack dab in the center of the state," Greg said, noting Horseshoe Bend also is centrally located between the state's two largest cities -- 40 minutes from Lexington and 50 minutes from Louisville. "The biggest thing is trying to get people out here!" he said.
The 120-plus-acre winery is located about 15 minutes from the Bluegrass Parkway near Willisburg on narrow Lawson Lane, a one-lane road that transitions from pavement to gravel. "It can be a little bit daunting, especially at night," Greg said.
Greg and his sister were born in Amsterdam. Their parents lived in The Netherlands for about 25 years, which influences the European style of their wine. When Greg was young, the family moved to Fairfax, Va., a suburb of Washington D.C., where his father worked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and his mother was a computer programmer for Congress.
Ann makes most of the wine and keeps the books, Bob tends the grapes and also has a hand in the winemaking, and Greg is a jack of all trades. "I do everything," he said.
Greg's most noticeable contributions to the family business are his designs for its unique wine labels. The most controversial, appropriately titled Kong's Thong, features King Kong in a skimpy swimsuit.
Instead of Fay Wray, Kong has in his palm Horseshoe Bend's logo, a court jester holding a horseshoe.
Horseshoe Bend wines are available in more than 60 restaurants and retail stores throughout Kentucky and Ohio and will make their Illinois debut in The Hearty Boys new restaurant in Chicago.
Greg is happy that Horseshoe Bend is a member of Kentucky Proud. He said he likes the idea of buying local and supporting businesses in the community.
"Being part of Kentucky Proud is something that I love," he said. "I can't see a drawback."
For more information, on Horseshoe Bend, visit www.horseshoebend-ky.com.
Prior to prohibition, Kentucky was the third-largest grape- and wine-producing state in the nation. Kentucky grape and wine production is making a comeback with more than 60 small-farm wineries and more than 113 grape producers growing 583 acres of grapes, 280 of which are producing. For more information about Kentucky's grape and wine industry and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture's Grape and Wine Program, go to www.kentuckywine.com. To find a Kentucky winery on the go, download the Kentucky Wine Trails app for iOS and Android devices.