New York. California. Kentucky.
As wine regions go, the Bluegrass State hasn’t been
much in the spotlight for a really long time. But a former
tobacco farmer is using creativity, persistence, and local
fruits to change that.
A little over 200 years ago, Kentucky was home to the first
commercial grape vineyard and winery in the United States.
French vintner Jean Jacques DuFour had traveled the young
nation extensively and was convinced Kentucky offered conditions
that mirrored those in his country’s best wine-producing
Poor management and his imported vines’ lack of resistance
to domestic pests and pathogens doomed DuFour’s venture.
But the book he wrote about his experience—including
passages about his unshaken belief that the state’s
soils and climate were ideal for grapes—led others to
establish vineyards in his wake, and many were richly rewarded.
Kentucky became a leading wine-grape producer throughout most
of the 19th Century, just behind New York and the California
Agricultural and economic disruptions surrounding the Civil
War took their toll on that status, however. And while grape
production rebounded, it then suffered a fatal stomping with
the nation’s early 20th century experiment with abstinence.
Grapes are their own fermenters; they’ll convert their
sugars to alcohol without human intervention if left on the
vine long enough. So Prohibitionists made sure vineyards across
Kentucky and elsewhere were destroyed along with distilleries,
breweries and taverns.
By the time widespread Prohibition ended, corn whiskey—relatively
easy to distill discreetly up in the hills and away from prying
law enforcement—had become the alcohol of choice in
Kentucky. It would take the legislature another 45 years to
relax its Prohibition-era restrictions on commercial winemaking,
and even longer for real interest in reclaiming the state’s
once impressive grape culture to ferment.
But now a resurgence is under way, sparked at least in part
by the diminishing prospects of another signature Kentucky
agricultural product, tobacco. A decade ago Kentucky had only
four licensed vineyards. There are now at least 40. And of
the farmers now toiling in those vineyards, many once earned
comfortable incomes from tobacco.
Unlikely wine pioneer
Zane Burton, a 39-year old farmer in the small south central
community of Plato, is one of the most recent, and in some
ways perhaps the unlikeliest, to join their ranks.
One surprising aspect of Burton’s Sinking Valley Winery
enterprise is its existence at all in Pulaski County, where
Prohibition actually still hasn’t gone out of favor.
Pulaski is “dry,” like many of its neighbors.
Until Burton proposed his operation in 2003, it hadn’t
sanctioned the sale of alcohol in nearly 75 years.
His winery’s tasting room—the all-but-collapsed
former Plato general store and post office he refurbished
himself—is still the only place in the county where
alcohol can legally be purchased. And that’s only after
Burton and his wife Amy, despite strong and vocal opposition
from nearby church congregations, convinced a majority of
voters in their precinct to approve it. Both credit the victory
to the number of friends and family members they have in the
But family—at least Zane’s—provides another
unlikely element. He was raised by parents fully supportive
of their county’s dry status. They’ve never touched
a drop of alcohol, as far as he knows. Even now, Burton says,
his mother helps him prune his vines in the spring, and she
picked his grapes at harvest time. “But she still won’t
touch a drop of my wine.”
How a vintner sprang from committed “teetotallers”
Zane can’t be sure, but he suggests it comes down to,
“economic need and a quirky personality.”
Personality aside, the economic need for the Burtons and
their three young daughters was real enough. After he returned
home from college in the late 1980s and tried his hand at
aircraft maintenance for a time, Zane realized, “what
I really wanted to do was raise tobacco and cattle, just like
my dad did and his dad before him.”
Initially, he leased acreage for his cattle from his parents
and another relative. He also leased tobacco allotments from
other farmers, arrangements in which he planted and managed
the acres they were allowed to cultivate under a multi-state
tobacco price support system, and shared the income with them.
Stressed by cattle and tobacco
Looking back on that period, Zane shakes his head at the
demanding labor and uncertainty he contended with. “I
was always in a truck, going back and forth” among two
cattle farms and several tobacco allotments.
Cattle prices weren’t as inviting or steady in those
early years either, before factors such as the popularity
of the Adkins Diet boosted beef sales. After a few seasons
of disappointing returns, he phased out of the calving system
in favor of a less management-intensive back grounding operation,
in which he bought weaned steers and heifers and raised them
to market weight.
“That was better as far as the amount of work I had
to do, but prices were still pretty low, and from 1992 to
1998 I made more of my living off tobacco. I raised up to
about 40,000 pounds a year by then.” With the supported
price hovering above $1.50 per pound in those years, Burton
said he cleared as much as $30,000 in annual profits from
his tobacco efforts.
But, he noted, the “writing was already on the wall
by then, too.” Congress had begun abolishing the tobacco
price support program, and Burton knew he wouldn’t see
returns like that again. His mainstay was eroding quickly,
and he knew he had to try something else.
Pausing now, on a late spring morning, while pruning his
two acres of trellised Foch, Vidal Blanc, Norton, Cayuga,
Niagara, and Riesling vines on their north-tending slope,
Burton volunteers, “this is a pretty bad place to grow
The vineyard sits near the center of the 33-acre farm he
and Amy were able to purchase in 1996. He allowed that his
soil’s good enough—with respectable fertility
he’s working to improve—and he has good drainage.
The soil’s acidic too, at least deep down, where the
years of lime applications during the vineyard’s time
as a cornfield and pasture didn’t percolate. Acidic
is good for most of his varieties, he said, which send down
long tap roots into that subsoil. But he says his valley location
“holds frost,” in the winters, because the wooded
hillsides all around retard air movement.
“Frost can do a lot of damage real fast,” he
said. And even after the spring’s surge of growth he
had little trouble pointing to mature vines stunted, some
killed outright, over the winter. “It was a mild year,
Winters are the hard part
That limits him, Burton said. “I can count on the
annual pattern grapes are supposed to like; cool, wet springs,
and very hot, dry late summers. But getting the vines through
the winter is a lot trickier than it should be for a commercial
vineyard.” It’s another element that adds to the
unlikely nature of Burton’s enterprise, and he addresses
it with the same combination of determination and acceptance
he’s demonstrated since planting his vines in 2001—a
full two years before he knew whether enough local voters
would approve the sale of his intended product.
“It was risky,” he recalled, “but I figured
I could at least sell grapes to other wineries if they wouldn’t
let me make it here.”
True enough; other Kentucky vineyards are doing just that.
But with his tobacco income drying up and an interim effort
at growing heirloom tomatoes failing to generate as much as
he’d hoped, Burton knew he needed the added value he
could realize from making and retailing wine. And even if
they didn’t make a lot of money from tomatoes, he and
Amy were impressed at the number of customers who came to
buy directly from them rather than to the growers’ cooperative
marketing their product in nearby Somerset.
“I started thinking then, that if people would search
us out for tomatoes we could probably attract a lot more with
something more unique,” Zane said. And wine was certainly
unique to the agriculture landscape in Pulaski County.
Though their vines have been in the ground a full five seasons
now, it’s still too early to tell whether the Burtons’
Sinking Valley venture will succeed. That’s because
sales of their bottled wine began only last December. It took
that long for the vines to mature and yield usable fruit.
So far, however, those sales have been on track—a track
Zane has plotted many times over the years, as their stake
They’ve applied much of the money he received in buyout
payments from the phase-out of the tobacco program—nearly
$20,000 in the past several years—to the costs of building
and outfitting the facility he uses for fermenting, storing,
and bottling wine.
And as those activities have increased, he’s chosen
to reduce his cattle efforts. He’s down to 35 head this
season, after selling off more than 50 last year and 100 the
year before that. He’s feeding those he has on his farm’s
pasture and taking winter hay for them from a farm he continues
to lease from his aunt nearby.
All this means more of the Burtons’ economic well-being
has come to depend on what happens with the vineyard and winery.
And while success isn’t guaranteed, Zane says the numbers
are so promising it’s worth the risk.
More dollars, fewer inputs
“I can pull 3,000 gallons of grape juice from just
my two acres of vineyard per year,” he said. That’s
the equivalent of about 10,000 bottles of wine. If he can
command anywhere between $10 and $15 per bottle, that’s
an annual income of $100,000 to $150,000. And from that, Burton
can make more profit than he ever took from the dozens of
acres of tobacco he once managed across several scattered
“It takes a lot less driving and time on a tractor;
fewer inputs, too,” he said.
“I’m learning real fast that this is a very local-oriented
business,” Burton says. “I can make wine that
impresses the experts or wine that’ll sell right here,
and that’s what I need to pay attention to.”
So far, Sinking Valley’s customers have responded well
to whites such as Riesling, that tend to be sweeter than they
are dry. Amy said she has sold a fair amount of red wine as
well, particularly to people who say they’re acting
on their doctors’ suggestions that red wine promotes
heart health. And Zane has been gratified, given his early
disastrous experience with apples, by strong sales of wine
he’s making from fruits other than grapes.
“People are really enthusiastic about the idea of local.
I make blueberry wine from berries grown by a man in the next
county. I’ve made apple wine again with fruit from an
orchard just down the road, and I’ve got a blackberry
mash fermenting right now. They came from briar patches all
around here. And in just a couple of weeks I’m going
to make about 300 gallons of strawberry mash.
“As long as I can tell people the ingredients came
from right here, they seem ready to buy almost everything
I can make…if the price is right, too,” he added.
So far, for the fruit wines anyway, that price seems to be
about $10 per bottle. That’s low, considering the labor-intensiveness
of a small winery, but Burton insists he can still make a
profit from such wines because the ingredients tend to cost
a good deal less than grapes—even those he grows himself.
Zane said he’s going to be interested as his first
year of sales progresses, to see how the local angle plays
out. Sinking Valley’s not on a highway, but it’s
close enough to an interstate and a major state road, both
of which deliver nearly 500,000 visitors from as far away
as Ohio and Tennessee to nearby Lake Cumberland over the summer.
“If I can draw some of that crowd, I think I’ll
be able to sell more of my high-end wines. If not, I’ll
have to concentrate on keeping stocks of the less expensive
varieties and making even more fruit wines.
Either way, he said with a smile, “I can live with