Football. Corn. Steak. When you think of Nebraska, these are probably some of the first things to pop into your head. What about wine? Award-winning wine. Hmmmm…you didn’t think about that, did you?
Nebraska may not be the regional leader in wineries, but of the 34 wineries statewide, several challenge to be the best in their class. Nebraska wines routinely challenge wines from places such as Napa Valley, probably the United States’ top wine producing region.
If Nebraska Wine Tours has its way, Nebraskans and visitors will learn a lot more about the wines produced from grapes grown in the Cornhusker State. More than 100 farms grow grapes that are primarily used by instate wineries.
The tour company – run by Omahans Renae Kelly and Kristin Ballard – offers nine tours, ranging from tasting rooms to wineries/vineyards. The mother/daughter team has long been wine enthusiasts and decided they’d like to share their love and knowledge of wine with others. Steps to officially start their tour company took off a year ago.
Renae would organize wine tours for friends. She apparently did a great job.
“Renae, where’s the next wine tour,” she said they ask her.
Now, they can check the company’s website, www.nebraskwinetours.com. Renae and Kristin offer nine tours, covering the eastern half of Nebraska. The farthest west they travel is Grand Island. They prefer to keep tours to about six-10 people, allowing for more personal interaction, as well as time constraints at some wineries.
We spent an afternoon with the duo along the Haymarket Creek Crossing tour. The Lincoln-area tour consisted of three wineries and vineyards. You have to come prepared for a full afternoon, as each tour runs about five hours and covers 100 miles.
James Arthur Vineyards near Raymond is an impressive winery/vineyard. This marked our second visit. We were there a couple years ago with the daughters and their mom. That was an enjoyable visit.
This time around, we got a “backstage” tour of the winery and its grounds. James Arthur Vineyards opened in 1997, three years after planting its first set of grapes. It’s the second-oldest vineyard in Nebraska. Cuthills in Pierce is the first vineyard in the state.
James Arthur dedicates 20 acres for 10 varieties of grapes. About 70 percent of the vineyards’ grapes are grown for sweet wines.
“It fits in Nebraska and it’s what people tend to like,” said our guide, Megan. She’s been with the vineyards since high school. Sounds like a long time until you learn she’s in her early 20s.
Edelweiss is the top grape, and makes the most popular wine, she said. When you visit, you’ll recognize it in the cobalt blue bottle.
The vineyard consistently turns out award-winning flavors. Edelweiss won the top award in its category at the Los Angeles County Fair in 2005.
James Arthur strives to use its own grapes as much as possible, Megan said. Nebraska’s winery laws require vineyards to use 75 percent Nebraska-grown grapes in order to be called a Nebraska wine. James Arthur uses 60 percent of its grapes as a minimum for its wine, while using the rest from other Nebraska grape growers.
The vineyard resorts to oldtime farming for at harvest time, which usually runs July and August. Grapes are handpicked as much as possible, Megan said. It reduces juice loss.
We enjoyed a wine tasting opportunity. The winery’s Edelweiss was delicious. One of the best I’ve had since living in Germany. It has a green apple flavor. It’s created from Edelweiss grapes.
Edyn’s Blush is named after a daughter. The wine has a fruity taste. Created from a combination of Concord and LaCrosse grapes, it’s a pale red color. It had a great taste.
Not to be overlooked, the family named a wine after Edyn’s siblings. The 2 Brothers wine is created from LaCrosse grapes. It has a clear color, with a light yellow influence. It offers a flavor of tree fruits, such as apples or pears.
We sampled a dessert wine – 32. The dry dessert wine was created from Edelweiss grapes. The juices were frozen before creating the wine.
About 20 miles down the road sits Prime Country Winery. It’s a folksy location, run by an adorable elderly couple, Orville and Dorothy Gertsch. Orville is in his late 80s. He started in the wine business in 1998, planting his first vines. The winery started selling Prime Country wine in 2000.
Their top two grapes raised were St. Croix and Lancaster White. Their vineyard’s 16 acres suffered a traumatic event when the crops were destroyed by pesticide drift (contamination caused by chemical run-off or windblown spray). The Gertsches lost their entire crop.
It’s doubtful they’ll plant new vines, Orville said. He’d be in his 90s by the time they matured for winemaking. The couple have enough wine inventory to carry for a few more years, he said.
Wine tasting is a personal experience, Orville said. He’ll make suggestions for wines based on conversations with customers, but he stops short of choosing for someone. He doesn’t think others should choose for you.
“How do they know? How do they know what tastes good to you,” he said. “(Wine) tastes different to each person.”
Our final leg of the trip took us on a drive to Palmyra, about 20 minutes from Lincoln. Glacial Till took its name from the rich soil in the area, created during the ice age. The area offers a beautiful view of the vineyard.
Glacial Till produces some outstanding wines. From its Edelweiss (Vino Veritas) and Brianna (my favorite) to Port Style Prairie Fire, we didn’t sample a bad wine. They grow some tasty grapes.
In addition to the outstanding wine, Glacial Till dabbles in hard apple ciders. Three varieties – Original, Hopped and Hopito – vary in sweetness. Hopito has a bite to it.
Glacial Till uses seven acres to raise 6-8 varieties of grapes. The winery/vineyard is a family operation. Dad started it, and two sons are involved with the day-to-day operations. Tim was our host. He has an outgoing personality and it’s easy to see how he can socialize with customers. His brother John- who received a master’s degree in winemaking from the University of California-Davis – handles the quality assurance for the vineyard. He has a testing office near the main fermenting tanks.
Glacial Till has an events facility that can rented for celebrations, etc. During our stop, they were preparing to host a wedding reception.
The three wineries we visited have shown that Nebraska can be a player in the wine business. Nebraska vineyards have been in business for less than 25 years. Prior to Prohibition during the early 1900s, Nebraska has about 5,000 acres dedicated to growing grapes, so the wine business existed here a century ago.
After the end of Prohibition, Nebraska law allowed people to make only 200 gallons annually to sell. Since it takes 3-5 years to grow a decent crop of grapes, most farmers didn’t think it was worthwhile.
In 1986, the state legislature passed a law that increased the maximum production to 50,000 gallons annually. That made creating vineyards a good investment.
We’ve visited at least five wineries in Nebraska in recent years, and they all appear to be doing outstanding. Our tour with Nebraska Wine Tours was a fun and enjoyable jaunt. We recommend checking them out for special occasions.
Disclaimer: Thank you to Nebraska Wine Tours for the complimentary tour. However, all views and opinions are ours.