By Patti Nickel
The Commonwealth of Kentucky is so associated with being the birthplace of bourbon, that it’s difficult to connect any other spirit to the Bluegrass State. Yet, it was just a decade after Elijah Craig was credited with distilling the first bourbon in 1789 that First Vineyards in Jessamine County was planted by Swiss immigrant John James Dufour.
So successful was the vineyard that it became the first commercial winery in the United States. The industry flourished in Kentucky up until Prohibition. However, even with the ending of Prohibition in 1933, the state’s wine industry continued to ebb, while the bourbon flowed.
Lawrenceburg is, of course, known for two legendary distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, Wild Turkey and Four Roses. With the continuing popularity of America’s only native spirit, many wishing to sample that spirit may think that getting one’s first born into Harvard is comparable to getting a coveted distillery tour ticket. Luckily, for those still waiting (for the distillery ticket, not the admission letter from Harvard), Lawrenceburg offers liquid refreshment in the form of two wineries committed to revitalizing the industry in Kentucky.
Rising Sons Winery and Lovers Leap Winery are all about giving wine lovers “a total experience,” although that experience differs at each winery. Rising Sons describes its experience as “authentic,” while Lovers Leap touts theirs as “elevated.” Both experiences are well worth having.
Rising Sons Winery
Upon first entering the tasting room at Rising Sons Home Farm Winery, one of the first wineries to be federally licensed in Kentucky, you might be surprised to find a room full of inviting tables instead of the usual bar where it’s generally standing room only. Guest comfort ranks alongside excellent vintages for Francine and Joey Sloan, Rising Sons’s owners.
“We want everyone who comes in here to feel at home,” says Francine, who exudes southern hospitality at its best. Well, southern hospitality mixed with Italian ospitalita. “Joey’s grandparents came from Italy, so he grew up in a family that always had wine on the table,” says Francine. “In fact, Joey began stomping grapes in a little bucket when he was five.”
Two of their wines honor Joey’s grandparents. Maria’s Dolce Rosata is a fragrant rose, while Cataldo’s Salute, a dry red, won the 2016 Commissioner’s Cup as the best red in Kentucky. In order to be considered for this prestigious award, the wine must be produced using a minimum of 75 percent Kentucky grown fruit.
Visitors can taste these wines, along with varietals such as Chambourcin, Baco Noir, Diamond, Vidal Blanc, Concord and Norton. Every tasting includes a choice of five wines, which Francine encourages her guests to first sip on their own, and then with one of the food items (crackers, cheese, spreads and chocolate) that she uses as accompaniments to the wines.
“If you put together a wine and food that match perfectly, well, that’s a match made in heaven,” she says. For example, she explains that their Chambourcin grape is used in both a spicy, peppery dry red and a delicate rose. “This wine goes well with either a sharp cheddar or any grilled meat,” she says. Another of their wines, the Vidal Blanc, is a clean, crisp, light-bodied white. “Being semi-sweet, it brings out the apple/pear finish,” she says.
The one thing Francine is most committed to – aside from making visitors feel at home – is to dispel the notion that wine is intimidating and unapproachable. “We want to make it just the opposite,” she says. “Naturally, we like to teach people what to look for in a wine and what wines work best with what foods. “But in the long run, if they like it, that’s all that matters.”
In addition to selling the wines, Francine sells specialty items, such as the four wine jellies made from her own recipes developed with great care over the years. Visitors can take home the strawberry or peach sangria jelly, the paw-paw bourbon jam (a combination of Kentucky paw paws and bourbon), or Francine’s Fusion, which she describes as a fusion of all the winery’s dry reds.
If you are looking for a unique way to taste Rising Sons’s wines, you can sign up for one of the “Uncorked and Glazed Over” classes offered monthly by the winery in conjunction with Elements Clay Studio. Participants choose a design to paint on their pottery, have a light meal, and of course, drink wine. As Francine likes to say, “Good wine is meant to be enjoyed in various ways.”
Lovers Leap Winery
The road winding up to Lovers Leap Winery snakes through beautiful Central Kentucky farmland. It might be a bit vertigo-inducing to some, but what awaits at the top is worth the twists and turns. The winery offers the finest in exquisite Old World wines, as well as cutting edge New World wines produced from hybrid grapes straight from their own vineyards.
“People come from all over the world to sample bourbon, and the fact that we are right in the middle of the Bourbon Trail offers us a unique opportunity,” says Brian Sivinski, who has been president of the 60-acre winery for 13 years. “We want to give people something they won’t soon forget,” he continues.
Mission accomplished. Sivinski, winemaker Bryan Jones and the entire winery staff are committed to making every tour and tasting at Lovers Leap “an elevated experience.” Guests begin with an informational video – Sivinski admits he got the idea from similar videos at Four Roses and Buffalo Trace – “I asked myself ‘what do I want to see?’ “he says. Next up is a wall display showing the timelines of both the evolution of wine in Kentucky and at Lovers Leap. After the video and the wall display, it’s time for the tour. “Our tour guides are specially trained,” says Sivinski. “We want them to be able to answer any questions the visitors may have. “I don’t believe in secrets,” he continues. “We want our guests to see the entire process.”
To that end, they offer several different tours geared to the interest and level of expertise of each guest. Most take the 40-minute tour where, glass of wine in hand, they experience a year in the life of the winery. They start in the vineyard (“where it all begins,” says Sivinski), continue to the harvesting area and finish in the Barrel Room. A more intensive one-and-a-half-hour Winemaker’s Tour is led by winemaker Jones, and is described by Sivinski as “going down the rabbit hole of wine making.”
The ultimate tour is the two-hour Barrel Room Experience where their small batch reserve wines (10 in all – Chambourcin, Cynthiana, Vidal Blanc, Chardonnay, Malbec, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Mourvedre) are paired with food. A fourth tour starting this summer will focus on vineyard management.
As for this vineyard’s management, Sivinski and Jones not only share a first name, but a college field of study. Both graduated from the University of Kentucky with degrees in Fine Art. Their creativity is evident everywhere – from the expansive front porch overlooking the vineyards to the sophisticated lounge, but nowhere more so than the Barrel Room. The three chandeliers suspended from a vaulted ceiling that the men built themselves look as if they could have been purloined from a European castle. A long table which can be used for private tastings is the centerpiece of the space, while barrels line both sides of the room – barrels which Sivinski says, that unlike bourbon “need a lot of babysitting.” Finally, if you want to come in just for a tasting, $12 will get you a sampling of six wines, including several on the Reserve list and a complimentary souvenir glass.
As for his philosophy of wine, Sivinski says it is more than just a drink, however satisfying that drink is. “Wine,” he says, “is a lifestyle.”
Our Picks to Eat and Stay:
Since you will be consuming a lot of wine, you will be looking for a good spot to have a bite to eat, and maybe even a place to overnight.
If Rising Sons offers an authentic wine experience, one of Lawrenceburg’s newest cafés does the same for food. Big Jack’s Café is the place to go for comfort food such as soups, salads, sandwiches and sides. It also has a dessert menu and what some describe as “the best coffee on earth.”
To continue the elevated experience offered by Lovers Leap, check into Bourbon Barrel Cottages for the night. Your stay will be in one of the custom cottages, and you can relax on the porch or around your own fire pit – perhaps with a glass of your recently purchased wine.
For more information on any of these destinations, go to visitlawrenceburgky.com