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Wine Thrives In Bourbon Country

August 11, 2011

John Johnson launched The Wine Rack retail shop in Louisville, Kentucky eight years ago with the idea of converting whiskey drinkers to wine. It’s working, as sales have risen every year since he opened. “Wine was very limited around Louisville 20 years ago,” says Johnson. “People here drank beer and Bourbon. But things have completely changed. Twenty-somethings are drinking wine, as are older people. Restaurants are all doing wine dinners, and shops like ours stage tastings. Customers can’t seem to get enough.”

Like other cities in the mid-south, Louisville has emerged as a hot wine market. Even in a bad economy, retailers are displaying $100 bottles of Bordeaux and California Cabernet and selling them briskly, and Johnson’s Thursday night tastings attract lively crowds of more than 150 people. Louisville has a population of almost 600,000, ranking it the 27th largest city in the country, and has a wider regional draw of about 1.3 million.

At Louisville’s L&N Wine Bar & Bistro, customers have a choice of 54 wines by the glass and can order customized wine flights in 2- or 6-ounce tastings. Len Stevens, who co-owns L&N with wife Nancy, also has bottles of the ultra-rare 2005 Harlan from California available for $550 a 750-ml. bottle. Everything at L&N is offered in Riedel stemware. “But I hate pomp and circumstance, as do most people in Louisville, so wine is served in a casual way here,” he says. “And we don’t mind the inexperienced folks ordering White Zinfandel, though we’ll work hard to transition them to something else.”

The most extensive wine list in the area is at the venerable Oakroom in the Seelbach Hilton hotel, a local treasure since 1905. Sommelier Julie DeFriend manages a cellar of 850 labels and 5,000 bottles, with prices ranging from $28 for the 2004 White Knot Chardonnay from McLaren Vale to $1,977 for a 2000 Château Pétrus. Once a month, on Friday nights, DeFriend invites around 25 guests to a 90-minute food and wine pairing, priced at just $28. She also stages formal dinners every three months for 60 people (priced at $55), usually with a coordinated theme rather than a specific winemaker. “We prefer themed dinners,” she says. “People here today are getting very savvy. They don’t want a commercial selling event. They want to come and learn.”

At the equally venerable English Grill up the street, housed in the historic Brown Hotel, beverage manager Ellen Crouch manages a list of 250 wines in a room dating to the 1920s. “Back around 1990, it was all wine coolers and White Zinfandel here,” she says. “Wine started to take off in Louisville during the late 1990s, and it’s grown steadily since.” Crouch offers up wine dinners once a month at various prices, with 90 people typically turning out for a dinner of five courses paired with wine. Her list, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner, ranges from the 2010 Girard Sauvignon Blanc at $35 to 1995 Dom Perignon Rosé at $595.

Across the street from the Oakroom, an up-and-coming steakhouse chain called Eddie Merlot’s (headquartered in Ft. Wayne, Indiana) started up local operations earlier this year in a 350-seat, stylish setting highlighted by a temperature-controlled wine storage room and an audacious list of high-priced gems including the 2006 Harlan Estate at $800 and the ZD NV Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Abacus XI at $850. The place is drawing a big expense account crowd, particularly around Kentucky Derby week.

Louisville’s big off-premise wine player is the Liquor Barn chain of four local stores, now Canadian-owned. Liquor Barn’s Springhurst store on Louisville’s east side sprawls over 35,000 square feet with enough space for a formidable walk-in wine cellar with labels including a 2002 Chateau Mouton Rothschild at $300 a 750-ml. and a 1995 Chateau Latour at $750. These labels sell with little effort, says store manager Matt Lyon. “Our customers know what they’re talking about,” he adds. Local retail stores credit a newer generation of servers and sommeliers who send customers home from restaurants with favorite new labels in mind.

The Bristol Bar & Grill operates five locations in and around Louisville, each offering a list of 100 wines by the bottle and three dozen by the glass. General manager Scott Harper says his customers are still drinking Bourbon, but that it’s a new routine for most. “People aren’t giving up their Bourbon. They’re simply giving up their second glasses of Bourbon and having wine with dinner,” he says. “And we have some who drink Bourbon after dinner. We serve Bourbon flights to make it interesting for them.”

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