By James Natsis
It seems quite fitting that the self-proclaimed “anti-winery” and the folks who claim to have done “craft beer before craft was cool” would dare to peddle their wares just west of Louisville’s “Ninth Street Divide.” Well, not only have they dared, but they have flourished.
The longstanding Ninth Street Divide demarcates the commercial rupture between Louisville’s downtown district and the less commercially inclined west side of the city. One exception to this schismatic tendency has been the long-established, iconic Caulfield’s Novelty Inc. at West Main and 10th Street. In 2002, River Bend Winery joined Caufield’s as a neighbor on the lonely corner of 10th and Market streets.
River Bend minority co-owner John Neace, who founded AssuredPartners NL (formerly Neace Lukens), slowly increased his holdings over the course of the following decade and eventually became the sole owner. In 2012, he rebranded the winery and changed the name to Old 502 Winery.
The current sales manager, Boaz Cook, was brought on during this transition period and wore many hats early on. He explains that Neace and his team recognized the unique opportunity they had as the only urban winery not only in Louisville but in the state.
“We know who we are,” Cook says. “And we know we are not a California or French winery. We are from Kentucky.” The former secondary-education-teacher-turned-hospitality-manager adds they seek to be “a Ninth Street Gateway” rather than part of a divide.
Neace knew where he was heading in the wine business, but he had his sights aimed elsewhere as well.
Falls City Beer was founded in 1905 as a response to the beer monopolies that controlled ownership, distribution and consumption in Louisville at the time. Current Falls City president Cezary Wlodarczyk recounts that the beer’s founder, Ben Schrader, said he’d make a better beer with the best quality ingredients.
“It’s the same story today with craft beer,” he points out. “This is what craft beer is all about.” Thus the claim they were essentially doing craft beer back then — “Craft beer before craft beer was cool.”
In 1978, Falls City discontinued its operations in Louisville, but the brand was sustained by Sterling until the mid-1990s. In 2010, David Easterly, a software technician and novice in the beer industry, resurrected the brand and established a Falls City tasting room on Barret Avenue. In 2014, Neace became a 50/50 partner and soon took over full ownership. Neace consolidated the wine and beer production by moving Falls City to the current location that had plenty of unused space for growth.
Neace recognized that in order to take his beer endeavor to the next level, he would need someone with a strong consumer goods background. Enter Wlodarczyk. The Polish native traveled a long path from the communist-run regime of his youth, through Mexico, Miami, back to his native Poland, to Louisville, back to Miami, and then finally back to Louisville where he took over the Falls City operations in June 2015. His experience working for companies like Procter & Gamble, Diageo and Brown-Forman made him a perfect fit.
The “Gateway” to the West End has taken strong root along the short two-block 10th Street stretch from Market to the Ohio riverfront. Kentucky Peerless Distilling Co., Old 502 Winery and Falls City Beer respectively offer on-site produced bourbon, wine and beer within a very short distance. In addition, in July 2015, Falls City and Old 502 opened a new restaurant in the same building. Over the 9 offers a quality culinary experience and carries Old 502 and Falls City products as well as a full bar.
Cook and Wlodarczyk are pleased with the path their respective companies have forged.
“In 2012, we produced 1,000 cases of wine,” says Cook. “This year we will be at 15,000!”
In order to meet this demand, Old 502 recently added four 4,600 gallon tanks. These stainless steel fermenters will primarily hold their lead brand, Bourbon Barrel Red. After fermenting, the wine ages in used bourbon barrels for 30 days, which produces a unique complexity of young red wine with traces of oak and vanilla along with a hint of bourbon.
Wlodarczyk is especially proud of Falls City’s revival of Kentucky Common Beer. At the time of its suppression during Prohibition, the Common style was consumed by 75 percent of beer drinkers in the Louisville area. Common-style beer has an inverted relationship with bourbon, explains Wlodarczyk. Bourbon requires a 51 percent minimum of corn combined with barley and rye, whereas the Common uses a 51 percent barley minimum.
The Ninth Street Gateway soon will undergo physical changes that will provide an attractive streetscape corridor from the Frazier History and Louisville Slugger museums, to the corner of 10th and Market. The communications manager for Metro government’s economic development arm, Louisville Forward, shared an update on the project:
“Louisville Forward’s advanced planning team issued a RFQ (request for qualifications) for the Ninth Street underpass in the 900 block of Main Street. At this time, we have received seven submissions that fit the requirements in the RFQ. Moving forward, we will be organizing a review panel that consists of representatives of Metro, KYTC, Downtown Partnership, arts professionals and members of the neighborhood to go over the submissions. The panel will select up to five design teams. Those selected teams will be invited to submit a concept proposal for the project.”
The Ninth Street Project will strengthen the pedestrian link underneath I-64, improve connectivity on West Main Street and transform an underused area into a welcoming thoroughfare with art and light. The most recent version of the West Louisville Strategies for Success document that highlights various projects in the area can be found here.
About James Natsis. James Natsis, Ph.D, is a professor in the History Department at West Virginia State University in Charleston, W.V. He also lives in Louisville. Natsis is a world traveler and former Peace Corps volunteer.