I had a luscious dry red wine in my hand, but my host assured me the best part of the Baker-Bird Winery was beneath my feet.
I was already standing in a stunning, 19th century stone tasting room, but underground rested a piece of history that was 40 feet tall, 40 feet wide and 90 feet into the hill. I’d driven more than 130 miles to Augusta, Kentucky, to see what’s believed to be the oldest, largest wine cellar in the country. This unique spot on the National Register of Historic Places is the only winery in the country that survived a Civil War battle.
The hand-dug, stone wine cellar with walls more than three feet thick didn’t just survive a dark point in American history — it also played a crucial role in it.
Confederate armies invaded Bracken County on the Ohio River in 1862 during the Battle of Augusta, and they burned more than 50 buildings to the ground.
As the men in the village fought, the women and children in the town crowded into this underground tunnel that was large enough to hold more than 5,300 barrels — 1.7 million bottles — of wine. The raiders are said to have eaten grapes off the vines as they tore into town.
When Dinah Bird, the owner of the winery and its sister business the B. Bird Distillery, invited me to Augusta to see the cellar, I imagined crawling through a cellar door that leads to a dark, cramped space beneath a home like you’d see in an old movie with a tornado scene.
Instead, I found myself walking through a regal iron gate at the base of a hill surrounded by a stunning stone arched ceiling that felt more like a church in terms of architecture than a cellar. There are older wine cellars than this in the northeast and there are larger, more moderns ones in California, but you won’t find another wine cellar this big and this antiqued anywhere else in the country.
The space dazzled me with its breathtaking simplicity.
And quite frankly, so did Bird and her knowledge of the property and its past.
The Texas native purchased the winery 10 years ago as a bridge project to her retirement, and now she’s the first known person to make wine on the land since the late 19th century. She runs a small, boutique operation that sells maybe 400 cases of wine and 100 cases of bourbon a year. The winery and distillery welcome about 5,000 visitors each year to sample its products and hear the history of its land.
It’s a weekend and evening job for her, she told me. She manages a small staff of 17 employees, and she still works full-time as an investment banker.
That might seem a bit odd, but running a winery has always been part of her dream, and the project is part of a deal she made with her husband more than 30 years ago.
He was a military pilot, and she agreed to travel with him during the first 20 years of their marriage as long as she got to dictate the next 20 years after that. In those first two decades, she juggled a variety of interests and careers. She worked as a pathologist for a little while and then she went back to school and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in business. At one point, she even studied winemaking at the University of California, Davis, not too far away from the United States’ sought after wine country in Napa and Sonoma.
When his 20 years were up, she wanted to move to the country so they bought 300 acres of land in Northern Kentucky. She always hoped to start winemaking, but she figured she’d end up doing it in an old tobacco barn. That’s the primary crop in that area.
Then she spotted the historic winery for sale just seven miles from their farm.
It took a few more years and a couple of price drops later before she was able to purchase the winery 10 years ago.
She named it “Baker-Bird” after herself and its original founder, Abraham Baker, Jr., or “Mr. Baker” as she affectionately called him throughout my tour. That’s how the European winemakers do it, she told me. She hoped putting the original owner’s name on the business would help draw out some of Mr. Baker’s descendants, who could help her fill in the gaps with the winery’s story.
As we walked from the stone tasting room into a smaller room in the attached house, she gestured to photos distant family members had sent her. She had copies of marriage bonds and marriage certificates. Between her own research and tidbits from Baker’s family, she mapped out much of the family’s history as well as what life was like at the winery in its heyday in the early 1860s.
She learned that Mr. Baker’s grandfather, John Baker, was born in Germany and came to America at the age of 13. He was a distiller, who fought in the American Revolution, and like many people in the spirits industry, he migrated to the Kentucky frontier after the Whiskey Rebellion.
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The distiller purchased the land where the winery is today in 1798. She discovered his bourbon recipes had been tucked away in the Bracken County courthouse for more than 200 years, and she used those documents from 1805 and 1808 when she launched the B. Bird Distillery side of her business in 2018.
Two generations after his grandfather moved to Augusta, Mr. Baker paid $10 for his winemaking license.
A historical marker on the property declares that around the time of the Civil War, half the wine that was consumed in this country came out of Augusta, Kentucky. Germans played an important role in that area because they knew how to plant vineyards, grow grapes and make wine.
Records show in 1864 that 36,000 gallons of wine were shipped out of Augusta at $2.50 a gallon.
Bird paused and asked me to think about that. Most people in the country made maybe $1 a day at that point, which meant the wine from Augusta was worth a fortune.
In the 1850s and 1860s, there were several wineries in Bracken County, Kentucky, and Mr. Baker’s winery wasn’t alone on the Ohio River by any means.
It’s is, however, the only one that survived.
The wine culture in Bracken County changed dramatically after the Civil War.
Mr. Baker didn’t have enslaved people working in the fields, but several other landowners in the area did. Once those people were freed, many in the area struggled to afford the labor needed to tend the vineyards.
But even if you had labor, the wet summers in the late 1860s essentially destroyed all winemaking operations in Northern Kentucky. Black rot and bacteria went after all the grapes.
Meanwhile, across the river and two miles up, farmers found a strain of tobacco called white burley in nearby Higginsport, Ohio, in 1864. As the vineyards in the area struggled and died in the late 1860s and early 1870s, that became the primary crop in the area.
As far as Bird can tell, until she took over the winery, no one had made wine on the land in nearly 150 years.
Even so, she can imagine how it happened.
The rustic, yet inviting, stone tasting room has two open archways that lead outside, and the space likely served as Baker’s pressroom. Wagons would come through those entrances and drop off the grapes, and the workers would press them and load them in barrels.
Today, one of those archways leads to a mighty set of wooden steps that we walked down toward the cellar. Beneath the stairs rests a slope that appears just manageable enough that someone could have rolled a barrel of wine down it, relatively easily.
As we walked through the iron gate and into the cellar, I struggled to believe that Mr. Baker only used this space as a cellar for a decade or so. Documents show he spent $22,000 to build it.
I wondered if it ever held 5,300 barrels like it was designed to do.
Today, it rests empty except for a few decorative barrels down at the end. The winery and distillery predominately use it as an event space. When we’re not in the middle of a pandemic, Baker-Bird can host weddings with up to 200 guests.
It’s a popular space for surprise parties, too, because it’s usually easy to convince the guest of honor to visit the site for a wine tasting, and then surprise them with all their friends and family in the space below.
This May, Bird hopes to start hosting Sunday brunch in the cellar. On a hot Northern Kentucky day, the underground cellar feels cool and welcoming.
But really, the whole property feels inviting.
Back upstairs and across from the wine tasting room sits a new barn that’s home to the bourbon half of the operation. Inside a small, 50-gallon still takes those 200-year-old recipes from Baker’s grandfather and creates Bird’s line of spirits named for different parts of American History.
Her spirits are still very young, at most aged two years. She had to make the difficult choice two winters ago whether to buy a still for the distillery or get the heater fixed in her own car.
Two years later she has bourbon to sell, but it’s still chilly in her car when she makes the seven-mile drive from her home to the winery.
Near the bourbon barn, a few grapevines grow on the winery’s lawn. She planted those so that her guests can see how grapes grow in Kentucky. Eventually, she’d like to grow her own grapes, but for the moment, she sources them from other farmers in the area.
Ten years into her project, she’s proud of what she’s accomplished, but she knows the winery and the distillery have a long way to go.
In the meantime, though, she’s eager to share her wine, her young bourbon and the history of the land she owns. She wants people to recognize Mr. Baker’s place in Kentucky history as well as build on those roots to further wine culture in Kentucky.
Compared to its booming bourbon brother, the wine industry’s history in this state is all but forgotten.
It’s impossible to forget it, though, when you stand 40-feet below ground in that cellar and imagine 5,300 wine barrels Mr. Baker wanted to put there.
Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you’ve got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at [email protected] or 502-582-7137. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Baker-Bird Winery is the oldest, commercial winery in America that still has its original land in northern Kentucky and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It produces five white wines, including a Sweet Vidal Blanc, and four red wines, including a Cabernet Franc and a Chambourcin. The distillery on the property also produced two types of bourbon,
WHERE: 4465 Augusta/Chatham Road, Augusta.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: A Civil War battle. Hidden bourbon recipes. Kentucky wine cellar is one of country’s oldest