Commonwealth Journal

February 1, 2009

Local vineyards: The fruits of hard work

Two Pulaski County wineries won the right to sell their product by vote — and have grown steadily since

By SUSAN WHEELDON, CJ Staff Writer

Though they have been pioneers in once entirely “dry” Pulaski County, the owners of two local vineyards see their business much more simply.

Zane and Amy Burton, owners of Sinking Valley Winery and Jeff Wiles, owner of Cedar Creek Vineyard and Winery, were the first in Pulaski County’s history to open wineries, both went into the business because of their love for farming and to merely make a living.

“Really the first three years has been a little better than our business plan expected,” said Zane Burton. “However, we didn’t get the growth last year that we expected.”

Though Burton operates with a strategy in mind, in reality it was never a dream of his to produce wine or be the owner of the first winery in Pulaski County. The idea only came into play after tobacco farming began to decline. Previously, the Burtons depended on their tobacco crop for their income. As quotas were cut, they began to look into other alternatives.

In 1999, after touring several vineyards and wineries, the Burtons decided to take a chance and planted two acres of grapes. Over the next couple of years, the family tried some other alternatives, but found they didn’t work. Thus they looked to their grapes, which were slowly reaching full-bearing potential.

For the fruits of their labor to be sold on site, however, an option election in the Catron precinct of the county had to be held approving this exemption to Pulaski’s laws against the sale of alcohol. On April 15, 2003, the Burtons received enough votes, for wine to be legally sold in their precinct.

After much work to get ready, Sinking Valley Winery opened its doors to the public for the first time in December 2005. That day marked the first time Pulaski Countians were able to buy alcohol by the bottle locally in more than 70 years.

Meanwhile, Cedar Creek Winery was able to open after a local option election in the Mark precinct approved Wiles to sell wine in 2007. Wiles had decided several years earlier it seemed like a convenient option to be able to solely work on his farm and make a living.

“Opening Cedar Creed Vineyards is the combination of two of my life-long dreams,” said Wiles, “(those being) owning my own business and making a living off the land.”

While Wiles wanted to be able to make a living farming for the first time, Burton wanted to continue to be able to farm full-time, something he said, he doesn’t believe he would have been able to do without the winery.

“It just kind of came at a good time. By the time tobacco played out, the winery was up and running,” said Burton. “It was a good transition.”

Good, perhaps, but not without worry. Burton said it can be a scary industry, particularly the inability to know who else might open a winery. While there may be only two in Pulaski County, Burton feels like he can’t look at it in those terms.

“We’re a business like any other and you still have to be competitive on the world market.” said Burton. “Even though we’re in a dry county, it’s not that far to go to a wet county.”

However, Burton is happy with how everything has gone for his business over the first three full years the winery has been opened.

“We’ve had people (visit) from all over the world and most of the states,” said Burton.

Usually, however, customers are about 50 percent local and the other half tourists and travelers.

Since opening Burton’s production has grown from three types of wine to 14, with one new wine called Prohibition Repeal Red due to come out this year.

The one thing the endeavor has enabled he and his family to be able to do that they hadn’t planned for was buying the family farm just down the road from where they live.

After a year-to-year continuity was established, the Burtons hosted a few events with dinner and music last summer, and now are contemplating constructing an event facility on their property that other parties could rent for use. No decision has been made as of yet as to whether they want to proceed in that direction for sure.

“(Opening the winery) has been a learning experience to say the least,” said Burton. “I’ve learned how to run a business and I think that is a plus.”

Wiles, who has been selling his wine about half as long as the Burtons, has also been pleased with his business.

“I didn’t really have any idea how it would grow,” said Wiles. “I’ve been pleased with how it has grown in the second year.”

Wiles said the winery has attracted guests of local residents who paid a visit after hearing about the unique destination from their friends.

“I just (recently) got an e-mail from someone who was pleasantly surprised (with our wine) after someone sent him a couple of bottles of our wine,” said Wiles.

Cedar Creek Vineyards usually has between six and seven different types of wine available for customers to choose from.

Wiles too has held events at his winery and looks to host even more including weddings in 2009.

The natural resource has not gone ignored by the tourism trade. Southeastern Kentucky Tourism put out a brochure of both wineries, as well as the state Kentucky featuring them on a winery map.

A small winery license holder may produce 50,000 gallons per year and samples may be offered on the premises, not to exceed six ounces per person, per day.

Owners can sell the wine they produce either by the glass, the bottle or the case, and may transport their wine to wholesale license holders and to retail package or retail drink license holders.

Both Wiles and the Burtons stress that it’s not easy money — operating a winery is merely the life of a farmer, toiling the land for nature’s bounty.

“We’re making a living, so I guess we’re doing okay,” said Burton.