Not so long ago, wine growing “out west” always meant California’s Napa Valley or Sonoma region. But in the past several years, the term has taken on a more local connotation in the commonwealth, as vineyards and wineries have begun to appear in western Kentucky. Turns out those wines are quite good.
In 2010 alone, wines produced at Purple Toad Winery near Paducah, for instance, garnered 51 awards across the country. That’s especially impressive since the Kentucky Proud facility only opened in July of 2009 and began distributing its wines the following March. By last December, monthly distribution had tripled to 334 cases.
About 12 years ago, Allen Dossey, president of Western Rivers Insurance Company in Paducah, visited Napa Valley. Having grown up on a farm, he admired the neat rows of vines and relished the thought of running a business that called for outdoor time. He ended up taking online courses in enology (the science of winemaking) from the University of California-Davis, planted a vineyard (Dossey Vineyards LLC) in 2002 and planned to open a winery upon retirement.
“But I got tired of putting money in the stock market and watching it disappear,” Dossey explains. “So I decided to go ahead and open the winery.”
Going for humor, he came up with the name Purple Toed, because grape stompers have purple toes. But his “consultants,” the 22 women in his insurance office, nixed the idea as a reference to dirty feet.
“At least 65 percent or more of wine drinkers are women,” Dossey laughs. “So I listened to them and went with a play on words instead, Purple Toad.”
With the help of his brother-in-law, he built the facility, bottled enough wine for a projected two-to-three-week supply and chose a soft opening on a Wednesday instead of a splashy weekend affair, just to test the market.
“On opening day there was a line waiting,” he recalls. “By Thursday we were running low and began bottling again that night.”
Dossey, who is Purple Toad’s owner, winemaker, bottler, tour guide and vineyard manager and the past president and a founding member of West Kentucky Winegrowers Association, spends several evenings weekly and most weekends at the Lone Oak property doing what he loves, with the help of his wife, June, and an assistant.
Open Monday through Saturday year round, the winery offers tastings, rentable event space for 250 to 400, and musical entertainment several times a month.
Located a bit farther south, Black Oak Vineyard has tastings, tours, Friday evening “coffee house” get-togethers, summer concerts and festivals, and a vineyard and tasting room that are perfect for weddings.
Also established in 2002, the six-acre vineyard with 3,000 vines adjacent to an oak woodland is the realized dream of Dr. Jenny Franke and Dr. David Hall, who left Nashville practices in urologic surgery and interventional cardiology, respectively, to move to a 70-acre farm in the Princeton area in 2001.
A honeymoon visit with Franke’s relatives in northern Italy planted an appealing vision of families working together in the vineyard and enjoying wine over long informal meals, all in a seeming balance of agriculture, science and art. Like Dossey, Hall took enology classes at UC-Davis, began winemaking in 2002 and planted grapes from the University of Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station in Princeton. Because Caldwell County is dry, a special election was held in their precinct in 2005 to allow the establishment of a farm winery.
The couple supplements the seven varieties of grapes, blackberries and blueberries grown at Black Oak with grapes and juice purchased from other growers in Kentucky and California.
In contrast, Ruby Moon Vineyard & Winery south of Henderson uses only Kentucky grapes and locally grown fruit, such as peaches, in its winemaking. In 2003, owners Jamie Like and Anita Fraser purchased 5.9 Henderson County acres to establish a vineyard and eventually, a winery. Another dream was born.
“Awhile back, I got hooked on wines in small farm wineries,” said Fraser, co-owner with Like of Ruby Moon, which opened in 2006. “It wasn’t just the wines, which were excellent, but the ambience as well. Usually the owners were right there and seemed to love what they were doing. Now I’m doing that and absolutely love it.”
Working as a vintner allows her to use her degrees from Murray State: a horticultural degree helps in the vineyards, while chemistry comes in handy for winemaking. Employed by the Henderson school system, business partner Link adds Web design, public relations and advertising skills. Fraser works full time at the country property, where the winery also offers Kentucky-produced Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheeses and home wine- and beer-making equipment.
Open Tuesday through Saturday all year long, Ruby Moon hosts annual events, including an arts and crafts festival the first weekend in June. After hours, the Tuscan-inspired tasting room is rentable for groups up to 12, while a summertime patio accommodates 25.
Currently, Fraser is working on plans to construct a new building with a banquet room for 80 to 100 guests and to increase Ruby Moon’s winemaking capacities.
Watch out, Napa. West Kentucky is nipping at your heels.