By: Hillary Delaney
In 1798, the Marquis de Lafayette sent his personal winemaker Jean-Jacques Durfour to select a location for a commercial wine venture, the first in the United States. Durfour chose Jessamine County, Kentucky to start his vineyard, and sent President Jefferson one of the first bottles of Kentucky wine in 1803.
Here in Boone County, Silas Dinsmore, a contemporary of Jefferson, encouraged his nephew James to relocate here from Louisiana to start a vineyard and farm in 1839. Silas and his son, Thomas, also lived in Boone County, cultivating vineyards in several locations, including Belleview and Laughery Island, which Silas sometimes referred to as “Grape Island”. There were many other Boone County residents growing grapes and making wine for commercial sale or personal enjoyment during the mid-1800s as well. One Verona resident, Robert E. Sleet, even reported an impressive production of 4,000 gallons of wine during the 1859 growing season, though it’s unclear if he sold it commercially.
Our local vintners were not without setbacks during this time, however. Both James and Silas Dinsmore reported issues with late-spring frost and “rot” caused by moisture and mold on the vines. There was also widespread blight reportedly destroying crops both here and abroad in the late 1850s. It would stand to reason that the onset of the Civil War may have had some impact on the wine industry, as well. Apparently many of the local crops survived, however, as Julia Dinsmore makes frequent mention of her own wine business throughout her journal entries dating 1873-6. The Dinsmore “wine house” still stands on the property.
Prohibition effectively put an end to the commonwealth’s wine business, and tobacco became king in Kentucky agriculture for decades. In recent years, however, tobacco settlement funds have helped to fund programs for farmers to learn to cultivate vines and successful venture into wine production. As a result, Kentucky vineyard land totals have grown from approximately 60 to over 600 acres since 1999. There is growing interest in “wine tours” and agritourism ventures built around Kentucky wine production, with over 65 commercially operating vineyards, including several located in and around Boone County. In addition to these businesses, there are local hobby farmers experimenting with grape cultivation, and retail tasting rooms offering Kentucky vintages continue open all over the county, from Rabbit Hash to the Florence Mall.