Jump off the 9-to-5 treadmill, check your stress at the bridge "” or at the ferry to Augusta "” and head across the Ohio River through the rolling hills of Kentucky for what could be one of the most romantic weekends around; if you are partial to sipping wine, enjoying art, local crafts and candlelit dinners, tasting chocolates and cheeses, staying in a balconied B&B overlooking the river ... and discovering the history of bluegrass winemaking.

Yes, winemaking.

We're used to bourbon being Kentucky's drink of choice, but in the 1870s, Bracken County was the leading wine producer of the U.S., furnishing more than 30,000 gallons annually, half the national production at the time. There's a historical roadside marker testifying to this little-known fact.

"And Kentucky was the fifth-largest grape producer in the United States until prohibition," says Dinah Bird-Westerfield, who owns Hawk Wood Hall, a luxury B&B, and the Baker-Bird Winery near Augusta, a fascinating example of the five wineries on the Northern Kentucky Back Roads Wine Trail. All are within an hour of Cincinnati. There are more than 70 bonded wineries in the state and about 50 vintners to boot.

Who knew?

It turns out that while hordes of Germans were flocking to settle in Cincinnati to brew beer and run pigs through the streets, many others were drawn to the rolling hillsides along the Ohio River that were so similar to their native Rhineland in topography, soil and temperature. State agricultural records show that there were as many as 200 acres of grapes grown between 1856-57 in Bracken County alone, says Bird-Westerfield.


Several wet summers with black rot and powdery mildew hurt the grapes, she says, and that, coupled with the discovery of Burley tobacco, which was more fungus-resistant than others, prompted farmers to turn to tobacco. Now, 150 years later, many are coming full circle.

The land is still the draw for wineries thanks to Eden Shale soil, prized by great wineries. Formed under a pre-historic inland sea that once covered the area and combined with limestone, this soil plus a rocky, hilly terrain make this a premier area for the drainage that healthy, robust grapes require.

Bird-Westerfield didn't intend on owning a winery, a B&B and championing Kentucky farming. She grew up on a farm (in Texas, for Pete's sake) and now works in investments.

But she married an Air Force pilot, which took the pair all over the U.S. Along the way, she began classes in 2001 at the University of California Davis, one of the nation's top viticulture and enology schools, before moving to Ohio when her husband Martin was transferred to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. She continued commuting to classes at Davis, and they bought a weekend farm near Foster, Ky.


One cold November day in 2003, she was driving near Foster to pay taxes and saw a "winery for sale" sign. One u-turn later, she came upon the farm and magnificent stone-block winery. Originally settled by German Abraham Baker in the early 1800s, it ended up as part of an estate sale.

"I was shocked," Bird-Westerfield says. "I gasped because it's a phenomenal building. The building itself was unique, 12,000 square feet, 40-foot ceiling, stone walls three feet thick, a wood-frame attic and tin roof."

She called the real estate agent and though her husband was sure the building would be a money pit "” something she doesn't deny "” they bought it. She began her winemaking career in earnest, working with the local extension service, the University of Kentucky's wine-growing experts, tapping the skills of local farmers and volunteering to work at vineyards.

She became bonded, licensed by the state as a small-farm winery in 2009, built a balconied, Tudor-style B&B nearby, where they now live, and became part of the Back Roads Wine Trail when it started last year. "We all work together," she says, with each winery showcasing its own personality (see listings).

Though she grows a little test vineyard and is planting more, her goal has always been to spotlight the local grape growers instead, using their fruit to produce wines. She still volunteers at the vineyards so she knows where to go for the best reds and the best whites. She also gets a pick of the grapes for a "custom crush" sold at the winery.

They sell six wines, including the Frappe Julep, a sparkling wine served in the "Southern julep fashion." All the profits go toward fixing up the building and keeping it all going. "I don't know of any place in America where a cellar this large, this old, is open to the public," she says.


Weekend visitors can kick back and taste wine, walk the vineyard for a hands-on lesson about growing grapes, visit the mini-museum filled with local history and artifacts, watch the award-winning documentary on Kentucky wines, or sit in the courtyard and imagine what it was like for the citizens who took refuge from the rebels in the massive wine cellar during the Civil War's 1862 Battle of Augusta. The cavernous cellar is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Civil War Heritage Trail, and though there's no proof of its part in the Freedom Trail, it's not hard to imagine it as a part of the Underground Railroad due to its proximity to Ripley, Augusta and Maysville, hotspots of the flight to freedom for runaway slaves.

The winery store is stocked with products from nearby and across Kentucky, including homemade BBQ sauce, hand-crafted chocolates from Augusta ("the best I've tasted," she says), Kentucky-made salsa, jellies, cheeses, crafts and jewelry.


Their plans for the summer include showcasing home-grown products and nearby places just about every weekend, including cheese and wine, and chocolate and wine pairings in May; wine, cheese and fruit pairings with nearby Lavender Hills of Kentucky June 11 and 25; Sculpture in the Vineyard July 23 and 30 with works too large to fit in a normal exhibition space; candlelit German dinner in the cellar Aug. 13; speaker Beth Morrison, director of The Getty Art Museum Los Angeles, on the "Importance of Farm Animals in Illuminated Manuscripts," Aug. 17; a celebrity artist exhibiting a special collection Aug. 10, and more.

Their home, the Hawk Wood Hall B&B, sits on a hill nearby overlooking the river. The six rooms all have river or forest views, balconies and deluxe extras. There is a formal dining room, a two-story balcony, solarium, living room and appointments that include Audubon works, a fireplace framed with hand-hewn beams from a barn on the property dating to the 1820s and walnut wood trim milled from trees on the property.

Guests wake to the aroma of homemade bread from the oven of Chef Jane Tongret, who whips up signature stratas made with local eggs.

"It's so peaceful here," says manager Cindy Hopping, who retired to Augusta a few years ago. "The river makes everything seem so timeless."

"I wasn't planning on doing any of this until my husband and I retired," says Bird-Westerfield, who commutes to Cincinnati daily. "But we found the winery, ran into people to run the B&B, and the wine trail started. One thing led to another, and we're so grateful. It's all a community project.

"I have a passion for farming and the people here. I want people in the city to come out and see things like the Lavender Hills of Kentucky (a family-run lavender farm). That will get people to visit them close-by. Maybe we'll spotlight a nearby apple orchard in the fall, anything to make people aware of local farmers and their products.

"That's the emphasis. Before you can buy locally you have to be aware of what's out there."

Baker-Bird Winery, 4465 Augusta/Chatham Road (KY route 19), Augusta, Ky.
(859) 620-4965, www.bakerbirdwinery.com.


Each of the five wineries, most founded after 2000, has its own distinct style, including historic buildings, Kodak-moment countryside scenes, live music, gourmet and down-home menus, local crafts, special event venues, nearby B&Bs, and don't forget the wine sampling.

Just ask for a Back Roads Wine Trail VIP Passport from any of the five wineries, get it stamped at each visit and pick up a Back Roads Wine Trail coaster at the end of the trail. (Check each winery's site for dinner, music and special event information at www.kentuckywine.com).

Atwood Hill Winery & Vineyard
1616 Spillman Road
Morning View, Ky.
(859) 356-1936

This sixth-generation family farm was established in 1918 and produced tobacco until 2005 when owners Julie and Nelson Clinkerbeard turned to grapes. Cart and walking tours are available, or you can lounge on the porch with a view of the farm and
sip one of their red, white or fruit wines. Live music in summer and food available.

Tastings 5-9 p.m. Fridays, 1-9 p.m. Saturdays and 1-6 p.m. Sundays.
$5 cover.

Camp Springs Vineyard
6685 Four Mile Road
Camp Springs, Ky.
(859) 448-0253

A cozy winery and farm, owned by Linus Enzweiler and sons Chris and Kevin, started in 2005 and now has more than 1,900 vines "” and still planting "” with weekend tastings and special dinners about once a month whipped up by Carlye Enzweiler, including a Mother's Day dinner special. Enjoy white, red, fruit and flower wines, and be sure to ask about the wine jelly.

Tastings 5-9 p.m. Fridays, 1-7 p.m. Saturdays and 1-6 p.m. Sundays and by appointment. Eight for $5, four for $3.

StoneBrook Winery
6570 Vineyard Lane
Camp Springs, Ky.
(859) 635-0111

Dennis and Bonnie Walters, turned the 1890s-era farmhouse on this previous dairy and beef farm and blacksmithing center into a winery and tasting room for sampling its white, red, fruit and honey mead wines. You'll find Saturday dinners (grilled chicken, ribs and pork tenderloin) reservations only most weekends, plus walking and hayride tours.

Tastings 5-9 p.m. Fridays, 1-6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Five for $5.

Seven Wells Winery
1223 Siry Road
California, Ky.
(859) 816-0003

Father and son Bill and Greg Wehrman planted 400 grape vines in 2004 and now count more than 3,000 vines and five acres with seven different grape varieties. Their wines include six white and red varieties.

Tastings 5-9 p.m. Fridays, noon-8 p.m. Saturday and noon-6 p.m. Sundays. Six for $5.


Vinoklet Winery & Restaurant
11069 Colerain Ave., (513) 385-9309,

Romantic restaurant and vineyard on 30 acres of scenic hills and ponds, the only working winery with a vineyard in Hamilton County. Four white, one blush and three red wines. Dining includes an à la carte menu Wednesdays and Thursdays and a grilled dinner Fridays and Saturdays. Closed Mondays. Tastings daily.

Henke Winery & Restaurant
3077 Harrison Ave., (513) 662-WINE (9463),

Joe Henke has been making wine since the mid-1970s, including his award-winning 2009 Henke Vin De Rouge. Live entertainment four nights a week, an art exhibit, full menu and their own Henke Java from Coffee Underground. Four white wines, nine reds, one blush, one sparkling. Tastings $1. 5-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3-11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday.

Harmony Hill Winery
2534 Swings Corner/Point Isabel Road, (513) 734-3548,
Bill and Patti Skvarla's boutique winery stresses "wines that don't taste like anything you have tasted before." Their 70-acre nationally certified Wildlife Refuge Farm has live entertainment, walking trails, a quirky animal collection, gardens, picnicking and an underground wine cave that's one of only four similar structures in the nation. Eleven wines are offered. Check website for summer hours and schedule.