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
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
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
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
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
“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.”