Think about sipping a drink in Louisville, Kentucky. More than likely, a bourbon on the rocks or Mint Juleps at Churchill Downs leap to mind. Well, the times they're a changin'. During the past decade in the Derby City, a rising interest in quality spirits, beer, and most interestingly, wine has emerged. There are only 116 Master Sommeliers across America in 22 states (mostly in California and Nevada); Louisville is home to two of them.
Master Sommelier Brett Davis, though not a native, has grown to love his adopted city. He attributes the willingness of diners trying new wines to the historic culture of drinking that Bourbon helped cultivate. "Louisville is the production center for bourbon, so the overall knowledge of all things alcohol [here] is elevated. Natives are open to trying different things, especially wine." While other small metropolises across the country have capitalized on the craft beverage movement and the enthusiasm behind it, several factors apart from bourbon's influence highlight the opportunities and challenges of fostering wine culture in Louisville.
Julie DeFriend, who passed the Advanced Exam for the Court of Master Sommeliers in August 2013, is one of the shining stars and community leaders of the Louisville wine world. As sommelier of the AAA Five Diamond Oakroom, she has observed the willingness to learn about wine—in a state that is still two-thirds dry. She says the key to reaching people lies in creating "wine lists that are interesting, while keeping them concise and budget friendly."
For Defriend, a particular challenge in the Louisville market is the time crunch. "Everyone's wearing multiple hats [here], myself included. There aren't really any people in Louisville who are only the somm," she says, hinting at the many other management responsibilities heaped upon the city's somms. "It's not enough to curate an interesting wine list. Staffs need training, programs need to be rejuvenated and refreshed; it can be taxing," says Defriend.
Barramundi, Ginger-Chile Butter, and Citrus-Chile Purée paired with Spätlese Riesling, Schlossgut Diel, Dorsheimer Burberg, Nahe, Germany, 2006
Duo of Foie Gras paired with Pinot Noir, La Paulee, Scott Paul, Dundee Hills, Oregon, 2010
Sommelier Julie DeFriend of The Oak Room – Louisville, KY
Domaine Lafond, Roc-Epine, Tavel, France, 2012 at La Coop Bistro
Bananas Foster Bread Pudding with Bourbon Barrel Ice Cream paired with Pineau des Charentes, Pierre Ferrand, France
Master Sommelier Scott Harper of Bristol Bar & Grille – Louisville, KY
In spite of limited time and budgets, the industrious and cohesive community of somms is engaging the public in a variety of ways. They're developing palates with wine-by-the-glass flights and also through wine dinners, because an educated drinker is a more avid and adventurous drinker—which is better for everybody. DeFriend says, "I'll be the first to tell anyone I started on White Zin, many moons ago."
The evolution of Louisville as a wine city can be seen in the growing number of restaurants employing sommeliers (or managers with wine training), in the already strong and supportive community of wine professionals, and in the increasing number of individuals pursuing degrees and careers in beverage service. Aaron Wilson, the 29-year-old sommelier at La Coop Bistro, will sit for his Advanced Exam in April 2014. He originally came to Louisville 10 years ago to pursue a culinary degree at Sullivan University. Like so many in the wine world, Wilson originally had his sights set on becoming a chef. His alma mater now offers a degree in beverage management, and he's currently part of the active tasting group of area somms, guided by their resident Masters. Brett Davis has mentored almost all of them (Defriend included) and believes that more Masters will be coming out of Louisville in the not too distant future—as a result of both the tasting group and all of the opportunities available in the field, and for self study.
Scott Harper is a Louisville native and became a Master Sommelier the same year as Davis, 2009. He's a managing partner at the Bristol Bar & Grille restaurant group. He believes that diners in Louisville are far more savvy and knowledgeable about wine than people might think. Harper propagates his wine expertise through classes at his restaurants that are open to the public and to industry professionals three times a year in partnership with Bellarmine University. He's seen first hand the evolution of the Louisville wine scene. In the late 90s, Southern Wine and Spirits as well as Republic National came in and shifted the market, but medium and small sized-distributors have since come out of the woodwork, offering options. "Between all these different distributors, many of which are operating from Ohio as well as Kentucky, you have a tremendous opportunity to source almost any wine you want," says Harper.
As for the future of wine consumption in Louisville, Harper says: "In the next few years, consumers here will move to more elegant wines, such as unoaked, higher acidity Chardonnays; craft beers, and not just overly hopped ones; and spirits from microdistilleries that are on their way to competing alongside the larger [nationally known] producers." Both Harper and Wilson have had success in selling wines from lesser-known European regions such as Campania in Italy and Languedoc-Roussillon in France. "Louisville has had a great restaurant scene for a while," says Harper. "It was previously strictly chef-driven. Now we are seeing a much greater influence from the front of the house collaborating with their great chefs. Farm to table is nothing new here, but unlike in bigger cities, your dollar goes a lot farther." And with tastes open to change, access to great wines, and a close-nit group of somms led by Masters, Louisville's wine reputation only has room to grow.