Monday, June 11, 2001

Dry county could stymie winery

Business hangs on vote over alcohol sales

The Associated Press

        SECO, Ky. — Jack and Sandra Looney will sell no wine before it's time. If a vote next month doesn't go their way, that time may never come.

        The Looneys have renovated the basement of a former coal company store into a winery.

        The problem is, Letcher County is dry, which prevents the Looneys from selling their “Mountain Maiden” brand to visitors at the renovated South East Coal Co. store.

        Kentucky was a leading wine producer in the 19th century before Prohibition wiped it out. Lately, it's been making a comeback. At least six wineries are operating in the state now and nearly a dozen are expected to open soon.

        The Looneys have gathered the required 80 signatures on a petition seeking the election at the precinct level. It will probably be held in late July.

        The couple says their four-year renovation project hinges on the outcome. “If this doesn't go through, then we will have to close,” Sandra Looney said.

        The vote can happen under a new state law that allows a winery in otherwise dry territory to sell its own product if local voters approve. Letcher County has been dry since the 1940s.

        The winery began as a project of the Looneys' daughter, Jeanie. She returned to Letcher County about four years ago after graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in food chemistry and science.

        The family began studying how to plant grapes on the old strip-mining operation where its Christmas tree operation now operates.

        As it turned out, pine trees go well with grapes, because they help reduce the occurrence of diseases that often plague grape- growing operations.

        The family has produced a chardonnay and a merlot. They're also testing specialty wines.

        The Looneys have about 1,400 gallons that could be ready for sale, and have four more 62-gallon barrels in storage. Sandra Looney said an independent wine taster estimated they could reap from $6,000 to $10,000 a barrel.

        They would probably charge about $12 a bottle.

        Jack Looney said his diverse business interests — he operates his own contracting business — have helped fund much of the project.

        The Looneys say their project is important because it could eventually provide dozens of jobs in an area where unemployment is high.

        “Most everyone who makes any money out of this place leaves,” Jack Looney said. “This is home. That's why we're interested in fixing it up and keeping it preserved. We'll be here no matter what.”


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