Whitesburg KY

28 people enjoy spirited tour of the Highland Winery

I arrived early at the old Seco Company Store and met with Jack Looney, proprietor and master vintner of the Highland Winery in Seco. The tour, sponsored by the Letcher County Tourism and Convention Commission, was advertised to begin at 10 a.m. on Nov. 15.

“Is anyone going to show up?” Jack asked. “I’m sure they will,” I replied. “A lot of people have expressed interest; the rain and snow flurries may keep a few away.”

At a quarter ’til 10:00 only five had arrived. At five minutes of the hour a stream of automobiles were making their way to the parking area. By 10:00, 23 were present and we mingled and got acquainted while we considered the itinerary for the scheduled events. Five other stragglers joined the group a little later.

A misty rain threatened the tour up the mountain to the Christmas tree farm and vineyards, so we decided to go to the wine cellar first where the aroma of the fermenting wine began to lift our spirits. We were in no hurry as Jack told of how he obtained the property and of the many hours and dollars he and his wife, Sandy, spent renovating the building.

“This was a very good grape producing year. My vineyards yielded 4,600 gallons of juice. That converts to about five bottles of wine per gallon. This was a very good year for fruit and nuts because the locusts ate the ants and the birds ate the locusts then the ants and birds didn’t bother the fruit,” explained Jack.

Jack explained that he grows nine varieties of grapes and makes more than 20 blends of wines. The grapes are ready for picking in late September and early October, depending on the variety. He takes a mechanical press to the vineyard and squeezes them on the spot and puts the juice in tanks to be transported back to the wine cellar. No, he and Sandy don’t stomp the grapes. The juice is sampled to determine the acidity and sugar content so he can add the right ingredients to make a very good wine.

The natural yeast in the juice comes from the film on the peel of the grape. The vintner must kill the natural yeast to keep it from turning the wine to vinegar. A brewer’s yeast is then added to start the fermenting process. An airlock is installed on the top of the tank so a person can actually see the bubbles of gas produced by the fermentation process. Initially the juice ferments violently but tapers off in succeeding weeks as the process slows.

Along the way Jack samples the wine regularly with a hydrometer to determine the alcohol content. He prefers approximately 11 percent alcohol. When the wine reaches the desired content, he adds a chemical to kill the good yeast and stop the fermenting process.

“What is the difference between a sweet wine and a dry wine?” you ask. “It has to do with the initial sugar content of the grape and/or added sugar and how long the wine is allowed to ferment. In the process, sugar turns to alcohol and the wine loses its sweet taste and becomes more alcoholic. It is then considered a ‘dry’ wine,” explained Jack.

After fermenting in the plastic tanks, the wine is put in white oak barrels for aging. The wood also enhances the flavor of the wine. When Jack ran out of space in the cellar he moved several barrels of wine to one of the old coal mine portals in No. 2 Hollow. The temperature inside the coal mine is about the same as the temperature in the wine cellar which is ideal for aging, about 55 degrees.

The airlock mentioned earlier has a dual purpose. Number 1, it allows you to determine visually that the fermenting process is nearing its end. The air lock is a ‘U’ tube device with water in it sort of like a trap in the kitchen sink. This allows the gas to escape and relieve the pressure in the tank. Number 2, it prevents air from the atmosphere from getting back into the tank and spoiling the wine. The bacteria in the air could cause the wine to turn to vinegar.

We then toured the exquisitely furnished hotel rooms as Jack and Sandy told stories of the history of the building and their quest to preserve a part of our heritage. Sandy is the self-proclaimed carpenter of their properties and pointed out many of the things she had built including the staircase to the cellar, some of the walls and structural beams and the bar where wine and beer are served. Many of the guests including me were in awe of the enormity of the project and very impressed that it had become such a success. The American entrepreneurial spirit is definitely still alive in Jack and Sandy Looney.

Our group then took a bus tour of the old South East Coal Company’s No. 1 mine portals in No. 1 Hollow. There are still vestiges of the old steel tracks which were used during the early 1900s to haul cars of coal out of the mine. One of the portals has concrete walls and roof which allowed the group to walk safely a few feet into the mine and see, with the help of a spotlight, some of the old coal pillars. The facilities on the surface is the site where the outdoor drama, When the Whistle Blows, was produced a few years ago by Jack and Sandra. Transportation to the portals was arranged by County Judge/Executive Jim Ward through the Senior Citizens program. Jim and his family also joined the tour.

We then retreated to the dining room where the bed and breakfast manager, Patty Pennington, had prepared a table of delicious finger food and Jack invited everyone to participate in the free wine tasting. I tasted the three wines labeled Miner’s Blood, Miner’s Sweat and Miner’s Tears and bought the commemorative package for nostalgic reasons and because they all taste great. After reading about the health benefits of drinking wine spirits in moderation, I resolved to imbibe more. The fact that it is made right here in Letcher County makes the proposition even more attractive.

After the reception and wine tasting Jack and I drove two 4- wheel drive vehicles up to the Christmas tree farm and vineyards on the top of the mountain accompanied by 10 brave souls. During the tour, Judge Ward picked out a tree for the courthouse and Bessie Shepherd, Rissie Mullins and I picked out one for the old Whitesburg Post Office building where the tourism commission meets monthly.

The misty rain and fogshrouded valleys certainly had not dampened the spirits of this group of adventurers. Judge Ward was very complimentary of the tour and commented that there are many facets of our way of life, our natural wonders and our history here in Letcher County that we can be proud of. “We just need to continue promoting them to make our citizens more aware of what we have and also bring tourists into our area to enjoy our many attractions.”

Incidentally, no one reported actually seeing the spirit of the old commissary. Allegedly, the friendly ghost of John Hart still resides in the building. There was an incident, however, that I was embarrassed to report. As we were leaving the wine cellar I waited until everyone was up the staircase before I turned out the light and ascended the narrow steps alone. There was very little light as I felt my way up the stairs. About half the way up I felt a cold air movement brush me and actually give me a little push to one side. I could have sworn I heard a voice say “excuse me”.

Jack will have Christmas trees for sale soon at the company store or he can arrange for you to choose your own live tree and cut it yourself. For more information about the Highland Winery/ Bed and Breakfast and Farm, you may call Jack, Sandy or Patty at 832-7968.

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