The drive up to Brooks Hill Winery is one of the area’s most scenic. Ascending the winding two-lane, rock-walled stretch happens quickly and makes your ears pop. At the top of the knob the view opens; several hundred feet below is the convergence of Bullitt and Jefferson Counties, an impressive vista that’s worth the drive by itself.
But you don’t make the drive just for lookin’, you drive about 10 minutes beyond the southern edge of Metro Louisville to taste wine, quality wine made right here in Kentucky.
My guide on this Bullitt County winery tour is Tom Kohler, a full-time CPA, amateur winemaker and studied oenophile who’s nudged me for months to join him on a visit to all four Bullitt County wineries.
I love good wine, have tasted a fair bit of it, but am in no way an expert. But like many, I have my doubts about Kentucky-made wines. There’s no Napa Valley terrain, no sculpted rows of grapevines as far as the eye can see, and no stone tasting houses built atop of caves chockfull of barrel-aged wine holding for years at earth-temperature.
“That doesn’t always matter,” Kohler says. “Good wine comes from good fruit and good winemaking.
“Just because this isn’t the Loirre Valley (in France) doesn’t mean you can’t make great wine here. We have good soil and — if you can believe it — pretty good climate. And we have some really good winemakers.”
The wine at Brooks Hill is made by Raymond Meyer, known to most as “Butch.” Meyer also makes wine for two other vineyards in the county: Forest Edge Winery and MillaNova Winery. The fourth vineyard is Wight-Meyer. Founded in 1996, it is the oldest commercial winery in Bullitt County and where winemaker Jim Wight runs the show.
Both men’s wines have won awards, but Meyer is arguably one of the most decorated winemakers in the country, winning some 900 awards for his vino.
“There are three major amateur wine contests in the U.S.: one put on by the American Wine Society, one at the Indiana State Fair, and one by WineMaker Magazine,” Kohler begins, adding that each contest judges about 3,000 entries from all across the country. “Butch has won best of show in all of them, and he’s done it twice in two of them. No other person in the U.S. can make that claim.”
Brooks Hill owners Mike and Karen Hatzell tend a small vineyard, operate a tasting house and an open-air recreation area where parties are held. A retired lawyer, Mike Hatzell, pours us tastes of several wines—Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Estate Lemberger and Old Vine Zinfandel, the vineyard’s most popular dry wine—and each is terrific.
But what sells the most here and at the other Bullitt County wineries are sweet wines, creations such as Lili’s Red and Lili’s White, each of which won silver medals at past Kentucky State Fairs. Unlike dry wines, which need aging to mellow and gain complexity, sweet wines need only four to six months rest until bottled. They’re inexpensive to make, and they’re sold at a good margin.
“That’s what 80 percent of the people who come here want,” says Hatzell, while pouring us a citrusy-spicy dandy of a Sauvignon Blanc. “You wish you could convince them to buy the better wine just for their sake, but it takes time to convince them of that.”
The growth in Kentucky wineries shows winemakers are eager to make that point. In 2000, there were six wineries in the Commonwealth. Today there are 69 wineries making 150,000 gallons annually. Their collective annual sales total about $50 million.
Winmakers here use a good deal of Kentucky-grown fruit, but they depend lot on crushed grapes hauled by train from from California, Washington and New York. Local grape production is increasing, but supplements will be needed for some time to keep pace with wine sales and provide variety.
“It’s still a very young industry here, but it will mature over time,” Kohler says while driving to MillaNova, which is just south of Shepherdsville. “If you go back to the time when people started making bourbon in Kentucky, I guarantee it wasn’t any good. It took time to improve it, and I see winemaking in Kentucky as similar to that.”
In terms of facility size and acreage, MillaNova is the largest of the four wineries. Its spacious tasting house, large indoor meeting space and a manicured green expanse dedicated to its vineyard combine to make it a draw for special events. Its website lists more than 30 retail locations in and near Louisville where its wines are sold, a much larger amount than most Kentucky wineries.
Following Kohler’s lead, I sip samples of Pinot Grigio, dry Riesling and a semi-sweet Riesling, all which are more than good enough for my table and something I’d proudly share with friends. The Sinful-Leah, a zinfandel (my favorite grape) is swell.
Since sweet wine sells in Kentucky, Kohler insists I try some here, and I choose the popular Maddie Bear Blackberry, which delivers a powerful, but not cloying fruit punch. I have to admit it’s kind of fun. Chase’s Red, made from Concord grapes, is a bit too sweet for me.
“The point is you see that even though they’re sweet, they’re still well made,” Kohler says. “They’re clear and they’re balanced, which is more than you can say for some wines” from smaller producers.
Ten minutes away is Wight-Meyer, situated at the end of a narrow, paved ribbon of asphalt and surrounded by deep woods. The bucolic setting is where Jim Wight and his wife tend a small vineyard and makes their own wines.
He pours us small tastes of a semi-sweet Vignoles that, when swirled, bears aromas of apricot and peach, not flavors I look for in a white. On the palate, however, it’s crisp and clean, not flowery, and I accept Wight’s offer of another taste.
Wight’s Chambourcin (a French-American hybrid grape) has won three gold medals and one bronze, and its taste explains why; it’s bright, clean, fruity and balanced from swish to swallow. Fish, chicken, cheese and even charcuterie would pair exceptionally well with this.
“You’d think this would be the one we’d sell the most of, but we’re like the others: sweet sells,” says Wight, who, like Meyer, is a retired engineer. “I’m pretty damn proud of that one.”
Our last stop is Forest Edge Winery, located on Hwy. 249 near Bernheim Forest and Jim Beam Distillery. The most modern of the four, its large wine bar can accommodate a sizeable crowd, and its tasting room has ample seating for a pack. It also has a sizeable and stylish retail section.
Brance Gould owns the facility with wife, Traci, who is Butch Meyer’s son-in-law, making the operation a tidy family affair. Since Meyer also makes the wine here, Kohler looks for selections on the list we haven’t tried, but the dry options are narrowing. The Merlot is terrific, as is the Pinot Grigio and the Rendezvous, a semi-sweet Riesling.
When Gould insists I try one of the operation’s top sellers, Chocca-Con, a Concord wine infused with dark chocolate, I cringe within.
It’s not my favorite. At all. And I decline to finish even my modest sample. I love red wine and I love chocolate, but ne’er the twain shall meet in a fermentation tank, say I. (And to be fair, we’ve sampled some 20 wines this afternoon.)
Gould smiles knowingly and says, “Not my first choice either. This is what I like,” nodding toward a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon in his hand. “But people go crazy for it and we sell it to them.”
On the ride home, Kohler says he believes the locals’ desire for sweet wines will change with time. Exposure to better dry wines and an improved understanding of how wine should be consumed—always with food, not as a standalone cocktail—will help to change their preferences. But only some, not anytime soon and only in increments.
“The only way that’s ever going to happen is when people drink more wine and better wine,” Kohler says. “People know about bourbon here, so there comfortable with it. They don’t expect know much about Kentucky wines, so they’re hesitant.
“When will that change? I don’t know, but it’ll get there.”