A local couple is turning their passion for growing grapes into what will become Marshall County's first commercial winery.
John and Karen Hlinka recently received licensure to operate a small farm winery from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission and say they plan to open Poca Terra Winery to the public in 2020.
After extensive research on grape varietals that grow well in western Kentucky's soil and climate, John and Karen, with the help of their daughter, Karoline, planted a small vineyard of Chambourcin vines, a French-American hybrid, on their property near the Oak Level community. The Chambourcin grape produces superb dry and semi-sweet wines that pairs well with a wide range of foods.
The vineyard is thriving, say the Hlinkas, exceeding expectations in both quality and quantity.
In addition to estate-grown dry red and rosé wines, Poca Terra Winery will offer dry whites, semi-sweet whites, sweet dessert wines and non-alcoholic juices and jellies produced from Kentucky fruit.
While sweet wines take just a few weeks to produce, dry wines take 12 months to several years to properly age. The grand opening of Poca Terra Winery will occur when the dry wines are aged to perfection.
In the meantime, John and Karen are working to enhance the natural beauty of Poca Terra's small-farm environment to create the perfect backdrop for enjoying their wines. This includes landscaping conducive to both small group conversations as well as areas that will allow for the enjoyment of live music at special events. A 1900-era stock barn will be converted into a tasting room and event center.
John is a civil engineer with QualEx Engineering. Karen is a soon-to-be retired biology educator and administrator with West Kentucky Community and Technical College. They plan to focus on the educational aspects of viticulture and wine making. There is much to learn about grape varietals, grafted versus non-grafted stock, pruning and training of the vines, the crush and fermentation processes, selection of yeast, the chemistry involved in winemaking and the fun of discovering optimal food pairings.
The story of Poca Terra, which is Italian for "small land," actually begins with John's maternal great-grandfather, Giovanni Bianchi, who emigrated from Italy to American in 1910. Soon after settling in Chicago, Giovanni purchased a wooden wine press, along with a manual crusher and wooden barrel. Giovanni's much-used wine press was passed to his son, Luigi. John remembers his grandfather purchasing California grapes from the farmers' markets, filling every available space of his car with crates, and using that same press to make homemade wine in the basement of his Chicago home. His wine was a natural part of the family holidays and gatherings and continues to be a part of the fond memories John holds of growing up in a large, extended family.
The old press and other winemaking equipment were passed down through the generations to eventually find their home at the Hlinka's farm in western Marshall County. For many years those old tools served only as conversation pieces. But in the back of John's mind grew a desire to continue with the family tradition.
In the summer of 2014, John and Karen were invited to help with the grape harvest at the vineyard of friends, Tom Curtsinger and Robbie Felker, who own Fancy Farm Vineyards and Winery. "Tom gave us some Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to practice with. Just for fun, we entered a bottle of each into a wine competition and won two medals, silver and bronze. Not bad for beginners," recalled John.
Poca Terra is located at 633 Gatlin Road, Benton, just off Hwy 408 near the Oak Level community. Everyone is welcome, including groups, to participate in the September Harvest Party. Follow them on Facebook at facebook.com/pocaterrawinery to stay informed on Poca Terra's progress and upcoming events.