History of Kentucky Wine
America’s commercial wine industry was born in Kentucky in 1798 when Swiss vine-dresser, Jean-Jacques (John James) 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 of property on the banks of the Kentucky River, in what’s now Jessamine County. Dufour established “First Vineyard” and, in 1803, bottles from his first vintage were sent to US president and well-known wine connoisseur, Thomas Jefferson.
Overcoming crop damage from the Civil War, as well as vine diseases, by the late 1800s Kentucky had become the nation’s third largest grape and wine producer. During the 1870s, Bracken County in Northern Kentucky was the leading wine producing county in the US, producing over 30,000 gallons annually (half of the national wine production at the time). 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 provided a number of Kentucky farmers the opportunity to once again explore grapes as a cash crop. The Commonwealth’s modern grape and wine industry has seen tremendous growth. Since 2000, the number of Kentucky wineries has matured from less than 10 to more than 65, and is still growing. .