By CHRIS ALDRIDGE, Kentucky Proud Connection
VERSAILLES, Ky. – Wildside Winery is quickly becoming a central Kentucky wedding destination, with 16 ceremonies booked this year as of mid-May.
"We hold a lot of weddings," owner/winemaker Neil Vasilakes said. "We have one just about every weekend in the summer with only a few gaps."
Wildside, located at 5500 Troy Pike near Versailles, has also become a popular location for reunions, baby and wedding showers, and business meetings without alcohol.
"Word is starting to get out, just word of mouth, that it's a nice place to go, a good venue for events," Vasilakes said. "My goal is to keep that going."
Vasilakes said most of Wildside's visitors hail from out of state. "We get more tourists than local people," he said. "Our signs are nicely placed with one close to Woodford Reserve, and we do quite a bit of advertising on the Internet."
Vasilakes said Wildside has been a member of Kentucky Proud from the program's beginning. He has seen the benefits, especially from out-of-state visitors.
"It helps because a lot of the tourists only want grapes grown in Kentucky," he said. "They like to see locally grown stuff rather than stuff brought in from California and other states. They specifically ask where it was grown, and if it was grown in Kentucky. Half, if not more, request, if not buy, only wine made in Kentucky."
Whatever occasion brings customers to Wildside or wherever they come from, Vasilakes has two goals for them to experience: "Good wines and good times."
"The wine has to be great; it just can't be OK or good," he said. "When customers come out to the winery … at a very low cost, they can have a great night out."
"We want to give the customer a really good experience … and help them dive into some tastes that they've never had before."
Variety of wines
Vasilakes said Wildside is known for the quality of its red wines. Its 2009 Reserve Chambourcin was named Best Dry Red at the Kentucky Commonwealth Commercial Wine Competition last year and earned one of three gold medals Wildside took home from the inaugural statewide event.
"We also make really high-quality fruit wines," he said. "They're quite a bit more expensive to make than grape wine because the fruit is more expensive, but the flavor is worth it. That's our goal. For people who want sweeter wine, we make something they're really gonna love."
A variety of tastes sets Wildside apart from other wineries.
"We have a little different business model," Vasilakes said. "I love making wine. I like to make lots and lots of different kinds of wine – 22 kinds. Most wineries have six to 10." He makes wines from berries, apples, pears, peaches, and even pawpaws, which results in a wine that he called "unusual but really popular."
Wildside also makes wine out of black walnuts. "We grind down the [walnut] meat, ferment it with sugar, and it tastes like candied walnut," Vasilakes said.
For those who prefer Chardonnay, Vasilakes offers an alternative. "Our Chardonel tastes like Chardonnay except Chardonel grapes are hardy enough to handle our up-and-down temperatures," he said.
Wildside makes a popular raspberry and chocolate wine and also makes hard apple cider from its own apples and pears.
The Versailles winery is a fixture on Saturday mornings at the Lexington Farmers' Market. "We sell wine, but we also get a lot of customers that have never heard of us and come out," he said.
Wildside's business grew 40 percent last year and 35 percent annually in 2012 and 2013.
"If every business in Kentucky grew that much, the state would be in good financial shape," Agriculture Commissioner James Comer told Vasilakes during a visit last fall.
"We've been growing pretty rapidly, and this year, we're well ahead of last year already," Vasilakes said. "We've grown every year since we started, even through the recession [from December 2007 to June 2009]."
The growth forced Vasilakes to make a career decision last year. On Jan. 1, 2013, he became a fulltime winemaker, leaving his engineering job at Sylvania in Versailles.
"I'm not really retired; I'm self-employed," Vasilakes said. "We had been growing, and there was no way I could continue to do both. I had been building this thing up 15-16 years and decided I needed to jump into it. The quality of our wine and just the looks of the place have improved quite a bit since I have more time."
Vasilakes bought the farm on which Wildside sits in 1998 and planted 11 acres of grapes. He grows 10 varieties of grapes, most of them Cabernet Franc and Norton.
Vasilakes grows 1½ acres of blackberries and blueberries, and three acres of fruit trees, including 10 pawpaw trees and 50 persimmon trees. He plans to make persimmon wine.
Vasilakes supplements his grape crop by buying from other Kentucky grape producers, including Harkness Edwards Vineyards in Winchester, whose winery burned last year. "I've bought quite a bit from them and plan on buying more this year," he said.
Wildside gets a unique Frontenac grape from grower John Leininger in Lexington. "It's like a Riesling," Vasilakes said. "That wine has been selling like crazy. When people try it, they buy it."
This summer's crop will be reduced because of the harsh winter.
"But the good news is, whenever we have a small crop, our wine is always fantastic because the vines can put more flavor into each grape," Vasilakes said.
Vasilakes was originally a home beer maker who taught himself to make wine for friends, who helped him harvest the grapes.
"Over seven years, it built up to a wine club," he said. "I'd make several batches [of wine] out of several tons of grapes, and we'd split the cost of the bottles. It was a good way for me to get a lot of practice."
The practice started paying off in the early 2000s when his wine started winning medals. So 10 years ago, Vasilakes decided to start a winery, constructing the original part of the current building himself.
Wildside has expanded twice, first adding an event room with a capacity of 35 people, then opening an 84-foot addition on Jan. 1.
"All the [Kentucky] bourbon distilleries are expanding," Commissioner Comer told Vasilakes last fall. "We're doing that in the wine industry, too.
"This is an impressive place. Wineries like yours are growing by leaps and bounds. We're excited about the wine industry in Kentucky."
Wildside is open from 1-7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, go to www.wildsidewinery.com.