Stephen P. Makk, MD, MBA, displays the fruits of his labor at his Kentucky vineyard.


Published 9/1/2007
Carolyn Rogers

Kentucky doc returns to winemaking roots

Many orthopaedic surgeons like to unwind with a nice glass of wine at the end of a busy week. Stephen P. Makk, MD, MBA—a Louisville, Ky.-based orthopaedist—is no exception. Rather than pick up a bottle at the local wine shop, however, Dr. Makk simply heads to his vineyard, taps one of his Hungarian oak barrels, and decants the fruits of his own labor.

Winemaking roots
Eleven years ago, Dr. Makk and his wife, Melissa, decided to plant a small vineyard on the family farm, located about 20 miles outside of Louisville.

For both Makks, winemaking is “in the blood.”

“My wife and I are both direct descendants of European oenophile stock,” Dr. Makk says.

As a 14-year-old boy in his native Hungary, Dr. Makk’s father earned money bundling vineyard prunings and selling them to the local butcher, who used them as fuel.

“Melissa’s great-grandparents arrived on a boat from Italy with eight children, the American dream and, yes, a wine press—which is still in the family,” Dr. Makk says.

Some of Melissa Makk’s favorite childhood memories involve running through the grapevines on her family vineyard. When she was a little girl, her great-grandfather—who spoke in broken, heavily accented English—used to chase her around with a fly swatter when she’d try to eat the ripening grapes.

“Every grape she ate was one drop less wine that he would get to drink later on!” Dr. Makk says.

“With all of this European wine-making and entrepreneurial ancestry in our genes, a vineyard was a no-brainer,” he adds. “My dad also jumped into the fray and has been very enthusiastic and supportive.”

“Little acre of paradise”
Once the decision was made to plant a vineyard, the Makks spent a full year researching and planning before planting a single grapevine.

First, they had to identify the proper parcel of land on their farm. The small plot they selected sat on the crest of a hill, running north to south on one of the highest points in Oldham County. They were thrilled when their selection was later confirmed as the best available plot by a Lexington-area winemaking expert.

There are several options for trellising the grapes, so the Makks had to make their choice before planting. They ordered the grapevines eight months prior to planting season because many varieties sell out early. California nurseries won’t ship vines as far east as Kentucky, sothe Makks ordered their vines from New York.

Marking the field and preparing the soil for planting was next.

“We determined the proper spacing both between the rows and between the plants for the specific varieties, and set up a trellising system that would minimize labor,” Dr. Makk says. “Melissa and I stretched 3.5 miles of high-tensile wire and attached it with hundreds of staples on our little acre or so of paradise.”

Finally, in the spring of 1997, the grapevines arrived via U.P.S. in a coffin-sized crate. “Then the clock started ticking to get them in the ground to minimize transplant shock,” he adds.

“Oh no, not the vineyard!”
On a sunny, blazing-hot spring day, Dr. Makk, his wife, and his then two-year-old daughter Olivia set out to plant 400 grapevines by hand.

“We managed to get every grapevine in the ground and watered that day, and it only took about 11 hours,” he reports.

Olivia, who was bored before they even arrived at the farm, learned her first repeatable phrase that day: “Oh no, not the vineyard!”

“That phrase has been passed down to her younger brothers, Davis and Hunter, and it can still be heard early on Saturday mornings when there’s work to be done in the vineyard!” Dr. Makk says.

The family continues to do all of the vineyard work themselves. “We do all the pruning, the repairs, and the weeding, as well as the planting when it needs it.”

The winemaking process can’t be rushed, which meant the Makks had to wait until the year 2000 for their first harvest.

“It takes about three years from the time a grapevine is planted to the time it really starts to produce grapes,” Dr. Makk says.

In the first two years of a vineyard, the primary goal is to develop large, healthy vines with large root systems. “Producing a crop is detrimental to the development of young vines, so you actually discourage the vines from fruiting,” he explains.

When the crop finally ripens, however, it makes all of the work and the waiting worthwhile.

“Harvest day is a blast!” he says.

On harvest day, the grapes are picked, crushed, and de-stemmed, and the fermentation process is started. Major fermentation takes about a week, but may be continued longer—especially with reds—to impart flavor from the skins.

The wine is then transferred into carboys—big glass bottles that hold 3 to 10 gallons—or into oak barrels for as long as the winemaker deems necessary.

Kentucky-made wine
“You have to be an optimist to plant wine grapes in Kentucky,” Dr. Makk says.

Although the Bluegrass State was once the second leading wine-producing state in the country—and home to the nation’s first commercial vineyard and winery—growing grapes in such a humid climate presents several challenges.

“Our spring and summer humidity and rain encourage certain molds and fungi, especially black rot,” he says. “Despite weekly pesticide sprays, too much moisture can lead to crop losses.”

Other potential crop-killers include deer, skunks, birds, dogs, and other assorted vermin—all of whom love to snack on ripening grapes.

“So even if you’ve worked hard, sprayed, pruned, and weeded faithfully throughout the summer, you can still lose your crop,” he says.

“Six Acorn Vineyards”
Selecting a name for the vineyard was actually the easy part. The surname “Maak” is Hungarian for “acorn”—and there were six people in Dr. Makk’s family growing up—so their family farm has long been known as “Six Acorn Farm.”

In keeping with that tradition, “Six Acorn Vineyards” was the obvious choice. Theirs is not a commercial vineyard, however, so you won’t run across the “Six Acorn” label on any store shelves.

In a typical year, Six Acorn Vineyards produces about 50 gallons of wine. Last year, however, was not typical.

“We produced zero gallons last year,” Dr Makk says, with a tinge of disgust in his voice.

What happened?

After a bout of black rot earlier in the year, they had replanted several of the rows.

“We ended up with about 10 rows of some pretty good stuff,” he recalls. “My sons and I went out to pick it early one Sunday morning, but decided to give the grapes another week to ripen.”

When they returned, the birds had eaten the entire crop.

“There wasn’t a single grape left!” he says. “It was terrible…We’ve got to figure out how to combat that this year.”

The taste test
“Although they’re not exactly on par with wines from California, pleasing wines can be made from Kentucky-grown wine grapes,” Dr. Makk says.

When people taste his wine for the first time, the reaction is almost always the same: “This is better than I expected for wine made from grapes grown in Kentucky!”

“And I actually consider that a compliment,” he says.

Because the classic French grape varietals that most people think of—such as Chardonnay and Petit Syrah—don’t grow well in Kentucky, the Makks grow French and Italian American hybrid grapes. The red grape is comparable to a Pinot Noir, and the white is similar to a Gewurztraminer, Dr. Makk says.

“Labor of love”
Growing grapes and making wine
is a labor of love for the Makk family.

“I enjoy it immensely,” Dr Makk says. “Working on the vineyard is relaxing and helps keep me balanced. As I always say—working in a vineyard is cheaper than buying blood pressure pills!”

He also appreciates winemaking because it is a reflection of the land.

“Grapes tend to have the character of the land that they are raised on—the French refer to it as ‘terroir,’” he says. “Working on the vineyard is fun and it ties me to the land…It got me interested in the family farm again.”

Advice for wannabe winegrowers
If you want to take up grape growing, “do your homework and plan well in advance,” Dr. Makk advises.

“If you’re interested in viticulture, the most valuable book I’ve read on the subject is From Vines to Wines by Jeff Cox,” he adds. “It’s simple and packed with usable advice.”

Or, if you’d like to make wine but aren’t particularly interested in viticulture, you can order grapes straight from California and make “very respectable wines” with minimal winemaking skill, he says.