by Jim Ballard
Turn back the clock to the early 1900s, and you will find Nebraska was home to hundreds of acres of grapevines dotting southeast Nebraska along the Missouri River. The practice and traditions of growing grapes was carried to the New World by immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Those grapes eventually were turned into delicious
wines that emulated the wines that were created in the Old World tradition.
However, the practice of cultivating grapes and turning them into fine wines soon started to falter. Due to prohibition, weather incidents and the increase of row crops in the area, the art of grape growing and winemaking in the Midwest, especially in Nebraska, became obsolete.
Nearly a century later, the “Nebraska Farm Winery Act” was put into effect by the state legislature and began a renaissance of Nebraska wineries that began in the mid 1990s. That opened the door for a number of entrepreneurial spirits to take their shot at the wine business. In fact, over the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of wineries across the state. Nebraska now claims 36 wineries practicing the age old art of winemaking. Creating delicious wines that are distinctively Nebraskan. Nowhere is this more evident than in and around the capital city.
Leading the way was James Arthur Vineyards. The winery opened their doors in 1997 at their home near Raymond, NE, becoming the state’s second commercial winery. A pioneer in the Nebraska wine industry, James Arthur Vineyards is still the largest wine producer in the state. Less than ten minutes from downtown Lincoln, the winery sits in the rolling hills of northern Lancaster County. Surrounded by nearly twenty acres of vineyard, the winery also brings in grapes from nearly twenty other growers from across the state, making their final product truly unique to Nebraska.
The idea of growing grapes was first planted in the head of James Arthur Jeffers by his son-in-law (and now their head winemaker) in 1992. Soon the first 100 vines, planted by hand with tender loving care, were firmly secured in the earth. As the number of vines planted grew, so did the idea of turning the family’s hobby into an actual business. After careful consideration and researching a number of other wine industries across the country, James Arthur Vineyards became a reality.
Today, the vineyard has literally grown into the thousands of vines that sit in close proximity to the winery, highlighted by a number of varieties that thrive in the often times harsh growing conditions of the Midwest. James Arthur Vineyards offers some the finest grapes used to produce their award winning wines.
In fact, the family owned and operated winery has built quite a resumé of honors they have received. Over the years the winery has earned “Best of Show” in the Florida State Fair International Wine Competition, as well as the Monterey International Wine Competition for their Vignoles. Recently their Sweet Charlotte was named “Best American Hybrid” in the Monterey Competition, while also being named “Best Varietal” at the Jerry Mead International Wine Competition. The winery’s most popular and most awarded wine, Edelweiss, has been featured in Wine Spectator and earned two prestigious Jefferson Cup Awards. Along the way there have also been a number of “Best of Class” honors and number of “Double Gold” medals that now rest in their trophy case.
Along with producing award winning wines, James Arthur Vineyards has a reputation for outstanding customer service. They have created memorable winery experiences through their delightful events and beautiful grounds. That experience can now also be found in Lincoln’s Haymarket, with the purchase of the From Nebraska Gift Shop at 8th and Q streets. The winery added a Tasting Room to the shop which features the Best of Nebraska made products. The winery has also added a new wrinkle to their offerings, by taking apples from the family orchard and creating Nebraska’s first hard cider.
While being the oldest and most established winery in the area, they are certainly not the only award winning winery.
Started in 2001, Deer Springs Winery is also a family owned enterprise located in the eastern part of Lincoln. Retired Navy officer Jim Partington thought growing grapes would be a perfect alternative agricultural crop to try at the family’s original homestead, so he began planting grapes.
Opened in 2007, the tasting room is in the quaint farmhouse that was renovated to reflect the charm and simplicity of the original structure. It sits on the land that was deeded to ancestor Patrick O’Halloran in 1874 by Ulysses S. Grant. The pine trees that surround the winery give it the peaceful atmosphere of days gone by, while still providing contemporary comforts.
Partington’s daughter, Jennifer Reeder, is the winemaker, and has created a plethora of wonderful tasting, award winning wines that are distinctively Nebraskan.
Located at 16255 Adams Street, the winery features live music on the weekends with a unique bucolic backdrop unlike any other winery in the state.
WindCrest Winery, also located north of Lincoln near Raymond, NE, has made the transition from primarily being a grape grower to producing and selling their own wines.
When James Arthur Vineyards begin looking for growers in the late 90s, Dale Lillyhorn was one of the first to jump on board. He and his wife Jan thought their 35 acres of land was ideally suited for the task. After establishing his vineyard and selling off his grapes for a number of years to James Arthur Vineyards, WindCrest became a reality in 2008 when the Lillyhorns opened their production/tasting room to the public. Open year round, visitors can sample a wide variety of wines inside or on the patio enjoying a picturesque view of the countryside.
Just south of Lincoln is where you will find WunderRosa Winery. Located near Roca, NE, off Wittstruck Road on Highway 77, you’ll find the 14-acre property which houses a tasting room uniquely shaped like an old Nebraska barn.
Claire Wunderlich grew up in the Roca area, and after spending 33 years in Texas, Wunderlich came back to the area with a dream of growing grapes and eventually opening a winery with his wife Linda. Vines went into the ground and soon his dream was becoming a reality. Unfortunately, Claire passed away before he could see the final fruits of his labor, however, Linda picked up the torch and now operated the vineyard and winery which opened in 2009.
All the grapes used for WunderRosa wines come from grapes grown within minutes of the winery, including 2½ acres of estate grown fruit.
Open Thursday through Sunday, WunderRosa provides entertainment throughout the year and is offers the perfect venue for private parties.
The latest addition to the Lincoln winery scene, actually has quite a bit of history in Nebraska winemaking and grape growing. The SchillingBridge Cork & Tap House started operations in Lincoln in 2014. The Cork & Tap House actually has its roots in Pawnee City where the SchillingBridge Winery started in 2004, creating award winning Nebraska wines. Not long after, SchillingBridge became the nation’s first farm winery/microbrewery combination.
Located at 575 Fallbrook Boulevard, the SchilllingBridge Cork & Tap House offers a variety of hand crafted wines and wine cocktails as well as their craft beers. The patio offers a mesmerizing fire table, stone fire pits and a brick pizza oven. For a truly memorable experience while bridging the gap between the wine connoisseur and the beer enthusiast, the SchillingBridge Cork & Tap House is the place to be.
You don’t have to travel far to find unique and appealing wines when visiting the capital city. The pioneers who brought their traditions to the Cornhusker state would be proud of the quality and passion that is demonstrated by Nebraska’s modern day winemakers. For visitors today, it’s an experience that will most certainly be savored.