We here in Kentucky, we’re new at this winery thing. I mean, sort of. The state claims that it was home to the first commercial winery in North America, and while I, personally, don’t believe that for a second, I haven’t actually been able to disprove it. It comes down to your definition of “commercial” and whether a farmer selling a few barrels out of the back of his barn is a “commercial winery.” I say it is; Kentucky’s wine promoters say it’s not. And after years of haggling with representatives of Kentucky’s wine board about it, I’ve concluded that they care and I don’t, so I’ve stopped arguing.
Certainly, commercial wine-making has a long history here. The first internationally significant American wine was sparkling Catawba grown along the Ohio River, which advocates called “The Rhine of the North America.” And while wineries have come and gone, the most recent survey of American wine production, about to be published in Vineyard & Winery Management, indicates that Kentucky is the fifth largest producer of wine in the country, ahead of higher profile alt.wine locales like Texas, Missouri and Virginia.
So we’re not new with wine thing, overall. What we are new at is the modern conception of winery-as-entertainment-destination. Which is why I spent a good chunk of an Indian Summer afternoon sitting on the enormous veranda of the Elk Creek Winery in Owenton, about halfway between Cincinnati and Louisville. If there’s a more aggressive marketer of winery-as-entertainment than Elk Creek, I haven’t seen it. They have a gift shop, an art gallery, a cafe, event catering, and both indoor and outdoor wedding chapels. They have tastings and cooking classes and sell everything from dignified estate wines to boxes branded for University of Kentucky basketball fans. They bottle and brand wine for seasonal sale; currently they’re on a Halloween theme, selling Ghostly White and Bone-Dry Red.
It’s been my contention for a long time that in places like Kentucky what wineries are selling is a day-trip version of Napa Valley. It’s not necessarily about the wine, I said after enjoying a lovely Concert Under the Stars at a winery selling wines that were almost literally undrinkable. In the decade since then, wineries in Kentucky have learned a lot about making wine. They’re compensating for the hot, humid climate, and more vineyards are planting on rocky hillsides rather than in fertile valleys.
The wine, in short, is getting better — lots better — and the wineries are developing a wine culture that is, shall we say, distinct. There’s no place where that culture is more proudly on display that the veranda at Elk Creek, a basketball-court-sized expanse of recycled timbers and manly steel furniture. I’m out there with a $15 flight of Elk Creek’s five top reds and I’m seriously feeling the wine country love when in strolls a trio of men who look like characters out of King of the Hill. They’re in t-shirts and camouflage pants and Red Wing boots, and one of them has an honest-to-God walkie-talkie hanging off his belt. They’ve got a bottle of red and a bottle of white, and they’re chilling on the winery deck after a hard morning of sporting clays, which is a kind of firearms-based golf that Elk Creek offers over on the far side of the vineyard. They settle in next to a big group of bikers that’s pulled three tables together and are comparing notes on a half-dozen bottles of white.
Oh you gentle Californians, with your croquet and bocce on perfectly tended lawns. I’ve got news for you tanned and pampered wine lovers, spending psychic energy contemplating the development of American Wine Culture, imagining something a lot like France but with more Hawaiian shirts. There’s an indigenous American wine culture developing out here in flyover country, and while it has a fair number of affluent suburbanites in flowing linen, the winery-as-entertainment-destination business model is recruiting a mass of wine drinkers who aggressively reject the Napa aesthetic.
Sitting out on the Elk Creek porch, far under the wine business radar, I feel like I’m seeing the future of American wine. And it is, in all of its aspects, distinctly American.
TASTING NOTES: I tasted six Elk Creek wines.
2007 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) — Dark garnet to the rim, with a nose that is earthy, dark and flinty. It has the distinct quality of aldehyde that I associate with Silver Oak, which is entirely pleasant. The acidity is a little low, which is tpyical of warm-climate wines. Medium tannins and a medium/long finish. Good, solid wine with no obvious defects.
2006 Reserve Syrah ($40) — Dark, almost opaque, without a lot of nose. Its’ surprisingly light on the palate, with low acidity and low tannins. It has a sleek mouthfeel and short finish. Again, a well-made wine with no flaws, but also not much character. There are better values out there.
2006 Barrel Select Cabernet Franc ($30) — Dark, almost chocolate color. Not much nose. A kind of chalky mouthfeel. Medium/high tannins with some kind of sharp acidity at the attack.
2007 Estate Cab Franc ($35) — Medium garnet color, lighter at the rim. Aroma of smoke and sticks. Peppery on the palate. Medium/high acidity and medium tannins. Subtle and complex, with a little touch of green that is actually kind of pleasant. Short finish.
2007 Petit Sirah ($40) — Dark dark dark all the way to the rim. Not much doing on the nose. Full, round and well-balanced on the palate. This is a complete wine that would benefit from a few years in the basement to soften the tannins.
2008 Vidal Ice Wine ($30) — Deep amber color, very pretty. Aromas of honey and peach, very dense and pleasant. Unfortunately low acidity. It’s less sweet than a lot of ice wines, with honey and no cloying aftertaste. Very clean. Medium/long finish that lingers like a good memory.