Central Kentucky farmer uses tobacco funds and ingenuity to begin winery with a local flavor.
Despite challenging conditions in a “dry” county, vineyard enterprise holds promise for high-value profit.

By David Mudd
Posted August 10, 2006

Parental guidance: fermentation, but not distillational

Raised in a household that considered alcohol sinful, Zane Burton said he nonetheless developed an interest in making the stuff. “I remember a really bad batch of wine I made from apples when I was only 11 or 12. I just wanted to see what it was like, how long it would take, and how wine tasted.”

He said his father helped and allowed him to taste the finished product, but his only pleasure in it came when his son grimaced and agreed the rest should be thrown away.

“I made beer a couple of times, too,” he said, “and that was about the same. It wasn’t good, and I ended up throwing it out. But that was all right because I was really more interested in the process.

“I wanted to try making whiskey, too, but Dad said that was going too far.”

--D.M.

No tillage, fewer inputs, improving soil
characterize grape, grazing operations

Zane Burton’s wine-making setup testifies to his talent for finding new uses for old equipment.

He ferments fruit mash in two 1960s-era stainless steel refrigerated milk tanks, and the bar in his tasting room is topped with gleaming hand-hewn beams he salvaged from an abandoned farmhouse.

Soon he may have to apply some of that creative energy to finding a new job for his plow. Burton said he broke ground each season for his 15 to 20 acres of tobacco. But now that he’s traded tobacco for a vineyard, plowing’s a part of his past. That means fewer of the acres he once worked are open to erosion.

“When I think about sustainable farming efforts it all comes back to steps like that, to improve the land,” he said.

Burton said he believes it would be impossible for his vineyard—“or any other in Kentucky”—to be completely organic. He treats his vines with synthetic fungicides and pesticides because powdery mildews, root rots, and Japanese Beetles are threats as potent to his vines and grapes today as when they derailed Jean-Jacques DuFour’s pioneering Kentucky wine enterprise 200 years ago.

But he notes his applications aren’t as frequent or across as many acres as when he farmed tobacco. “I may never be strictly organic, but at least I’ve reduced my soil disturbance almost to zero,” he said, “and my applications of inputs are a lot less, including synthetic fertilizers.”

He noted some experts contend vineyards require no fertilizing at all, while others suggest applications every five to 10 years. Burton opted to fertilize his five-year old vineyards for the first time this season with a synthetic blend, but suggested he’ll wait at least that many years before another application.

“And that’s a whole lot less than I did when I was growing tobacco,” he added. Burton said his most sustained effort to improve his land started before he ever thought of planting grapes. “I’ve got a lot of pasture for my beef cattle, but I’m still not shy about buying hay from off the farm.”

The cattle eat it and spread it as fertilizing manure, which is “a lot like importing extra fertile acreage,” he said.

“My granddad always said, ‘when you sell your hay, you’re selling the good of your farm.’ I keep mine here, and bring in what others are willing to sell.”

And his farm’s improving soil proves the point, he said.

--D.M.

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 regions.

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 territory.

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 www.sinkingvalleywinery.com 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 precinct.

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 grapes, actually.”

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, too.”

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 grew larger.

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 plots.

“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 it.”