Grow your own backyard vineyard
Story by Rodney Wilson
When you consider the geography of wine’s history, you no doubt think of France and Italy or, going back further in time, ancient Greece. Stateside, California’s Napa Valley immediately comes to mind, with its rolling hills and moderate climate. But did you know that the first commercial winery in the U.S. wasn’t in the Golden State, but actually was right here, in Lexington, Kentucky? Aptly called First Winery, the winery was established by John James Dufour of Vevey, Switzerland, who chose Lexington because of its access to the Kentucky River. Congressman John Brown, owner of Frankfort’s Liberty Hall, was a shareholder, as were Henry Clay and Gov. James Garrard, and there’s a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dufour thanking him for his spirits.
In terms of wine history, Napa’s got nothing on us. And if you thought you could only grow grapes in Pacific climates, think again. The Bluegrass State is a proven place to grow, harvest, and even ferment the sweet little fruits.
So to get started, what varieties of grapes can be grown in Kentucky? In short – native, hybrid, and European (though European grapes are the least hardy, but most desirable). Within those parameters, one can grow eating/jelly grapes varieties, such as ‘Buffalo’, ‘Concord’, ‘Catawba’, ‘Reliance’, ‘Marquis’, and ‘Niagara’, just to name a few) and wine grapes such as ‘Baco Noir’, ‘Cynthiana’/’Norton’, ‘Delaware’, ‘Vidal Blanc’.
Once you’ve chosen the type and variety you’d like to grow, it’s time to pick a site. Grapevines need full sun exposure, good air circulation, and well-drained soil. Ideally, grapes should be planted on land that’s above the level of adjacent land, encouraging cold air to drain away during cold snaps (though you should plant in the spring after the last frost). Given Kentucky’s hilly landscape, this could mean either a gently sloping tract or on a hillside.
You probably already know that grapes need a trellis system to grow on. You should choose what type of trellis system you’ll use before putting plants into the ground, though the vines won’t need support until the second year. Carefree durability is key, and your trellis should be built to last at least 20 years. The standard trellis system is a single curtain trellis, which calls for two wires stretched tightly at 3½ and 6 feet above the ground, supported by posts no more than 24 feet apart.
Two or three vines are set between posts – more can prove too great a load, even with occasional maintenance of wire tension with a turnbuckle – 8-10 feet apart. For small plantings, dig a hole 18 inches wide and 15 inches deep, then put topsoil into the hole to the point that the planting will be positioned as it was originally. Remove split roots, and cut back all roots to 10-15 inches. Spread the roots out, working them into the soil, and then fill the hole.
Grapevines need to be trained along the trellis. At the end of the first season, select the largest and strongest cane (or two if you’re doing double trunks) and cut the others away, which you’ll do again after the second growing season. Once the cane reaches the top wire of the trellis, top the cane at that height – buds will grow and you should rub all off, from top to bottom, except two or four at the top wire. Remove almost all of the flower clusters the second year to promote growth of the chosen shoots, or cordon.
During the third year, a grapevine is considered mature and should yield a decent crop. The cordon will stretch along the trellis wire and shoots will grow downward, with extra support from the wires below. Prune back the strongest shoots to just above the lower wire in late winter or early spring to prepare for next year’s growth.
Harvesting grapes is fun, though it can be a lot of work if you have a big crop. Make a day of it with friends and family if there is a lot to pick. Mature grapes have the highest sugar content, so look for good coloration when you expect maturity. It’s best to harvest in the morning after dew has dried. Grab a cluster and clip the stem where it attaches to the cane. Be sure to closely inspect the cluster and remove any damaged or diseased parts. Put your grapes in a cooler; they prefer temperatures of 32-41 F, at which they’ll last up to seven days.
In Grape History
The nation’s first winery was right here in Kentucky, the brainchild of Swiss immigrant John James DuFour, was built on land surveyed by Daniel Boone. The Lexington-area vineyards were discovered and re-established according to historical standards in the 90s by Lexington metro officer and builder Tom Beall, and entered into the National Historic Register in 2015. If you’re interested in visiting First Vineyard and Winery, visit their website for the latest information on tastings.