Chrisman Mill’s Distillery Tour & Wine Tasting
The late-day sun shone through the french doors of Chrisman Mill Vineyards and Winery’s restaurant, Fuego Grill. The glimmering wine glasses on the tables in the Tuscan Room beckon the distillery tour guests to take their seats, where food and wine pairing samples wait.
“Taste and sip, taste and sip,” encourages co-owner and Fuego chef, Denise Nelson. Everyone gladly takes Chef’s advice and tries, one by one, what is on the plate and from the glass, as she describes each dish.
The first glass holds the Chrisman Mill Vidal Blanc, a slightly sweet Sauvignon Blanc-style white wine paired with our first bruschetta: a mound of roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions atop herbed mozzarella, spread across a rustic piece of french bread. A sip of Vidal Blanc follows the first bite, and the flavors absolutely pop in your mouth.
The luscious, dark purple Old Vine Zinfandel is second in line. It perfectly complements the next bruschetta option: herbed cheese spread over rustic french bread, topped with the most tender slice of Marksbury Farms’ filet mignon, and a sprig of fresh dill garnish. The red Zinfandel is a dryer option, with a barely-there sweetness, creating a sublime alignment of flavors.
Our final stop is La Madre, or, the mothership of dessert wines. This alluring amber-colored liquid has a tantalizing dessert pairing: a miniature amaretto cupcake, crowned on top with white chocolate cream cheese ganache and stuffed with amaretto almond ganache on the inside. La Madre is lacey and decadent, with a depth of flavor that transforms on your tongue every 30 seconds—from a lightly fruity, golden raisin profile to a long, nutty finish, enhanced by both hazelnuts and walnuts.
Our host and tour guide, Chrisman Mill Vineyards’ co-owner and vintner, Dr. Chris Nelson, sits at the head of the table.
Chris just took us on an extensive tour of the winery, where like flies on the wall, we saw the inner workings of their finely-tuned winemaking process first-hand.
From the crusher-de-stemmer machine to boxes of wine bottles, bags of wine corks, and tanks that hold up to 1000 gallons of wine—it is clear to see Chrisman Mill is a well-oiled machine. Years of independent study and research, hard work, and passion yield the bounty on the table in the restaurant. And, there are plenty of stories to accompany their journey.
Chris tells stories about researching the secret to distilling rum in Jamaica, weaves a tale of hummingbird lore, and shares more insights about the path that brought them to make Kentucky wine.
His meticulous approach to enology—the science of winemaking—includes years of trial and error, many hits, and a few misses. Chris’ attention to detail is ideally suited to this craft, as he says, “There’s some science—and art to it, for sure.”
A flawless tasting experience like this is not something that comes together overnight. As we learned during the distillery tour, every aspect of the Chrisman Mill Vineyards and Winery enterprise has been a labor of love for this dynamic duo for over 20 years. In fact, there is an even longer history than that. For Chrisman Mill Vineyards, it’s all about heritage.
From Home Winemaking to Heritage Wines
Chris’s knowledge about wine and distilling runs deep. His self-study began during his pre-med college days at Texas A & M, where the legal drinking age was 19. He began making wine at home in his spare time, saying, “My first wine was a Cranberry wine—it was awful!” Regardless, he was bitten by the bug and read up on the craft of winemaking, and continued experimenting at home.
Chris met Denise 4 years later when he was a junior in medical school. They traveled often and began making wine together—even crafting a particular batch of Reisling for their bridesmaids and groomsmen when they got married. Their shared passion for winemaking, good food, and exotic travel became the spark of an idea: maybe someday they could operate their own vineyard.
After completing medical school, there were only three places in the United States with openings for a pediatric doctor specializing in infectious diseases. One of those locations was Kentucky. Chris and Denise moved to Lexington in 1996, where they lived for a year before discovering a beautiful spot of land for sale in Nicholasville. It gave voice to their dream of having a vineyard of their own. “It was like destiny, moving here,” Chris said.
The History behind Chrisman Mill
For those who don’t already know, Jessamine County is home to the site of the first commercial vineyard ever in the United States. First Vineyard, which still produces wine today, is located on its original site established in 1798. Chris confesses, “We didn’t know any of that when we moved here.”
Established in 1775, the original Chrisman Mill processed cornmeal, grains, and flour on into the early 1930s. Though their farm is not located on the site, it is located nearby, and the Nelson’s took the name for their new venture. And, in turn, they dedicated themselves to the preservation of the memory of the Chrisman Grist Mill and also to actively participating in the deep-rooted heritage of winemaking and local sustainability in Jessamine County.
As the Chrisman Mill website explains, “From the inception of our winery in 1997, we have been captivated by the sense of history, community and connection to the earth that grist mills represent in the landscape of what it means to live in Kentucky, so we decided to name our winery after this local historical landmark. We are proud of our land’s history and feel a commitment to preserve the memory of days gone by.”
The Nelsons also rehomed a millstone from the ruins of the original structure to pay homage to its legacy.
Hummingbird Ridge Distillery | Streamertail Rum
After 22 years of operation, they have dodged quite a few bullets in their day and happen to be the last of the old guard of vineyards and wineries established in the state during the 1990s. “We’re lucky to even be sitting here talking,” Chris says soberly. It’s not just the various wild animals who return to the farm year in and year out with more creative ways to make a dent in the vineyard’s grape crop. Sometimes the unpredictability of life and the chaos of mother nature also intervene.
The Nelsons have amazingly bounced back after being struck—twice. The first punch was a defective wine filter that compromised the integrity of 250 cases of wine. It left them nearly broke with 250 cases of vinegar, wondering what course to take next. Soon after that, a Polar Vortex weather system blew through Kentucky, completely obliterating their prospective harvest. “Polar vortex hit, our business was tanking. It was a real soul-searching time,” Chris said.
Hundreds of bottles of ruined wine and a dropped lawsuit later, Chris gambled on a possible solution that could put the struggling business back in the black. “What do you do with 250 cases of bad wine? You make brandy.”
Chris had already entertained ideas about distilling liquor, but at the time, it was illegal in the state of Kentucky without a license. Through magic, a miracle, or sheer coincidence, Kentucky changed the laws in 2017. Within four months, Chrisman Mill received their distilling license and hit the ground running. Chris found a distiller in Tennessee who was willing to make an equipment trade with him. So, Chris got an integral part of an old moonshine still that he currently uses in his distilling process. “It’s both high tech and hillbilly,” he smiles.
He then got to work distilling—transforming—all the spoiled wine into what would become their next venture.
Hummingbird Ridge Distillery now produces a line of Jamaican-inspired ‘Streamertail Rum.’ The tasting room now offers fresh rum cocktails. And all that spoiled wine? Well, this summer, two lines of brandy—apple and pear—will demonstrate to guests how lemons make lemonade.
Then and Now
After releasing their first vintage in 1999, the Nelsons have crafted numerous types of wine, experimenting with varieties of whites, reds, fruit wines, and mead. They also have a chocolate wine released in limited numbers that creates quite a demand. And, over the past 22 years, Chrisman Mill has earned over 200 awards for their wines with Norton Reserve, First Vineyard Reserve, and Honey Mead coming out on top.
Visit the Chrisman Mill Vineyards & Winery website to know about their upcoming tours, classes, and spring restaurant hours. Visit the tasting room to indulge in the latest batch of rum or purchase a bottle of wine. Stay awhile to enjoy the view with a fresh rum cocktail in hand and discover what their organic bakery has to tempt you.
Chrisman Mill Vineyards and Winery 2385 Chrisman Mill Rd Nicholasville, KY 40356 www.chrismanmill.com
Order online: https://vinoshipper.com/shop/chrisman_mill_vineyards
Other locations to purchase Chrisman Mill Wine:
Liquor Mart of Nicholasville 2233 Lexington Rd. Nicholasville, Kentucky 40356 (859) 241-1706
Bypass Liquor 451 Keene Centre Dr Nicholasville, Kentucky 40356 (859) 887-1248
Orchard Liquors 104 Blueberry Ln Nicholasville, Kentucky 40356-2390 (859) 881-3266
And, lastly, if you would like to know more about Kentucky’s winemaking traditions and explore more vineyards and wineries across the state, pick up P. Faye Collin’s informative and insightful book, A Wine Lover’s Odyssey Across Kentucky.