Bracken County Wine

Historical Marker #1213, located in Augusta, KY (Bracken County) remembers the rich history and
revived tradition of winemaking in Kentucky.

In the early decades of America’s independence, a few primary concerns occupied the minds of the citizenry. How should they structure their government? How would tax system and the military operate? And most importantly to some—is there any land on this continent that can be used to make wine?

Until the early-19th Century, most wine in North America came from imports, as the East Coast seldom had suitable soil or climates for vineyards, and the lands west of the Alleghenies were still considered frontier. Wine thus had to be shipped from distant Europe to be enjoyed, until one man took initiative.

Jean Jacques Dufour (known as John James Dufour in the United States) was born to a prominent winemaking family in the Swiss canton of Vaud in 1763, and later wrote that from the early age of fourteen, he had been dismayed by reports of the scarcity of wine in the American colonies. After studying viniculture in his home country, he immigrated to the US in 1796, despite having very little money to work with and coping with a significant physical challenge—his left arm ended at the elbow.

Nonetheless, Dufour began researching and networking in the United States, eventually travelling to Lexington, Kentucky, home of many distinguished and well-connected Americans who could help his cause. There, he founded The Kentucky Vineyard Society in 1799, whose members were devoted to furthering grape cultivation in the state. Henry Clay was a notable member, and served as the group’s attorney for a time.

Dufour, joined by a few of his brothers from Switzerland, planted his first vineyard, with labor completed by enslaved Black individuals, in the Big Bend area of northern Kentucky on the Indiana border. By 1801, the endeavor had largely failed, because despite the fertile Kentuckian soil, black rot and mildew thrived in the wet, temperate climate. However, Dufour noted that two of the thirty-five grape varieties he had planted had grown well, and his vineyards, planted with those two varieties, yielded a little wine to sell in 1803. The revenue was not nearly enough to cover the expenses of those two years, and the Kentucky Vineyard society disbanded in 1804 amid massive debt. Dufour then returned to Switzerland to repair his family’s finances, although his brothers stayed with the vineyard, which grew into a modest and sustainable business.

Wine production remained stagnant and scarce in the state until the early 1840s, when Cincinnatian winemaker Nicholas Longfellow made an offer to buy any and all grapes grown in the Ohio River Valley. Motivated by this promise of business, and armed with several hardy new varieties of North American grapes, a steady flow of German immigrants from vineyard families along the Rhine River began to settle in Northern Kentucky, with many moving into Bracken County.

Over the next two decades, wine production in Kentucky increased dramatically, from around 2,000 gallons in 1840 to 136,000 gallons in 1860, much of it from Bracken County. 1862 would witness a significant slump, with production dropping to around 36,000 gallons, due to a wet season that once again brought black rot and mildew, and the outbreak of the Civil War.

By the 1870s, however, production had sprouted back to life, especially in Bracken County, which produced 30,000 gallons a year on its own, making it one of the leading counties in wine production at the time.

Prohibition, which began in 1920, brought a temporary halt to all wine production in Kentucky, and only as recently as the 1990s has the practice resurged in the state. In Bracken County, the Baker-Bird Distillery opened in 2009, on vineyard land originally owned by Abraham Baker during the wine boom of the 1850’s. Its vineyards are the oldest in the nation, and Baker’s original wine cellar, the last survivor of its kind in the state, still lies on the property and is marked by a KHS Historical Marker.