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June 8, 2012
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Rooted in Kentucky

Jean Farris Winery is earning national acclaim for its Kentucky-made wines

By Katherine Tandy Brown

Jean Farris Winery & Bistro grows 90-95 percent of the produce its French-trained executive chef serves in the summer and fall in addition to 10,000 gallons of wine in 2011.

The five-mile drive from Lexington out Old Richmond Road to Jean Farris Winery & Bistro is a perfect prelude to the experience that awaits. Both are pure Kentucky. Hugging each side of the narrow, two-lane byway, acres of crops ripen while horses graze on lush bluegrass. Practical frame farmhouses neighbor up to historic, elegant mansions. Farm machinery ambling along the roadway offers the opportunity to slow down, savor the scent of fresh-mown hay and catch the cacophony of an afternoon cricket concert while traveling to a wine tasting or supper.

That’s exactly the idea owners Jean and Ben O’Daniel had in mind when they chose to start a vineyard and open a winery and restaurant in their home state, in particular in Fayette County, with its ideal soil and elevation, a population center and access to transportation (I-75).

“We wanted to create a place we’d want to go ourselves,” said Ben, “a place with a relaxed feel, without the pretensions you often find in some of the other major wine regions of the world. We wanted farmers from down the road to be able to come in and not have to worry if their boots are muddy. At the same time we wanted a kind of elegance that comes with the culture of Kentucky. So now on any given day, you can see suits and ties and t-shirts and shorts here.”

In 1977, the couple met on a University of Kentucky-sponsored wine tasting tour in Missouri. With a UK food science degree in hand, Jean, who had grown up in Seco, near Whitesburg, had just planted several hundred grapevines on her family’s 800-acre Christmas tree farm on land reclaimed from a strip mine. Ben’s father was Eddie O’Daniel, owner of one of the state’s first wineries, Springhill Vineyards, now part of Springhill Winery and Plantation Bed and Breakfast in Bloomfield, 20 miles north of Springfield. The wine industry was in their blood.

The meeting was magic, and the couple married, moved to Nashville and started a wine consulting business, Southeast Vintners, before making the decision to return to the commonwealth in 2003. They purchased a farm, bulldozed, and planted vineyards in 2004. The business opened in 2006, and by 2010, Ben had eased out of consulting.

A combination of Jean’s first name and Ben’s middle name, Jean Farris now pours its award-winning wines for dinners, tastings and weekend brunches in a 2006-vintage bistro built in the footprint of, and modeled after, an old tobacco barn. Like the barn, the inside dining room area has a 25-foot ceiling and on the location of the old lean-to equipment shed is a covered patio that can seat up to 60 for private dining and spectacular sunsets. A spacious indoor bar also catches the view. The other existing barn houses the winemaking operation.

Because the family lives onsite and the owners don’t like to turn away potential guests, there are no weddings or property-buyout events.

On 14 acres – eight of which are planted in grapes – the O’Daniels reside with their two kids in an 1840-era house; grow a raft of herbs, vegetables and fruits; raise chickens for farm-fresh brunch eggs and bees for farm-made honey; and make Kentucky wine. In the summertime, 90 to 95 percent of the restaurant’s produce comes fresh from the garden, including 200 plants of 10 to 13 varietals for heirloom tomato tastings, served classic or caprese-style.

Though the menu changes every three months to reflect the season, charcuterie (prepared meats, primarily from pork), cheese tastings, wine flights and house-made cornichons and chutneys are always available.

Jean Farris’ 12 to 15 employees include classically French-trained executive chef Justin Thompson, a Lexingtonian who serves “French cuisine with a regional twist” that is remarkable enough to have caught the eye of the prestigious James Beard Foundation, which honors the nation’s most talented chefs, winemakers and cookbook authors. Last August, Jean Farris Winery & Bistro was invited to prepare hors d’oeuvres and a five-course Kentucky dinner, paired with its award-winning wines, at a “Kentucky Wine Estate Event” at the James Beard House in New York City.

For the occasion, the winery released a new sparkling wine, Constellations, at the event.

And in February 2012, the second-generation vintners’ 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon scored a double gold medal at the San Francisco Wine Competition, the largest in the country with some 5,500 entries. Jean Farris, Ben explained, was the only winery outside a major California valley to win the medal. Over the past six years, his wines have won about 75 medals, beginning in 2004 with a double gold in the largest international competition.

Made with 95 to 96 percent Kentucky fruit, Jean Farris wines include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Muscat, Merlot, Petit Syrah, Pinot Gris, Rose, Viognier, Malbec (the state’s only vineyard) and several special blends, such as Tempest (Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc) and Cuvee (a Kentucky blend of Mourvedre and Cabernet Franc).

In 2011, the winery produced about 10,000 total gallons.

Members of its Wine Club get automatic shipments, discounts and VIP tastings and barrel samples at a winery that has emerged from Kentucky roots.

“Kentucky is not the easiest place to grow grapes or to sell wine,” said O’Daniel. “I could be lots of places making wine, but doing it at home means a lot more.” n

Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at editorial@lanereport.com.

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