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A Fine Time For Nebraska Wine

[This is part of a series of articles  focusing on one of Nebraska’s key entrepreneurial areas: the food industry. Check back frequently as we explore local food producers, restaurants and the growers.]

Wine-making predates Western civilization by 4,000 years or more. But as old as it is, it’s still offering new opportunities for entrepreneurs in Nebraska.

Vintage NebraskaWith 25 wineries in the state and a raft of gold and silver medals to prove their worth, one might think the Nebraska wine industry to be in the prime of its life, but in truth the wine industry in Nebraska is barely even up and toddling. It was only 1994 when Ed and Holly Swanson opened Cuthills Vineyards near Pierce, Neb., thus reviving Nebraska’s long-dormant wine-making tradition.

Nebraska has historically had a small but vibrant wine-producing industry, but in 1919 it was crushed under the weight of new prohibition laws that outlawed commercial viniculture in America. By the time Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, America was in the grips of the Great Depression and the Midwest was in the dustbowl.  That was tough, but what really did Nebraska’s wine industry in was that when Prohibition was repealed in 1933 Nebraska limited wine production to 200 gallons per household and forbade Nebraska’s wineries from shipping their products or allowing wine consumption on their grounds. The industry was essentially legislated out of existence once again.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the Nebraska Farm Wineries Act, which at long last lifted some of the restrictions off of wine production in Nebraska, moving the production cap per vineyard from 200 gallons to 50,000 and allowing Nebraska’s entrepreneurs of the vine a chance to flourish. Even so, it wasn’t until Cuthills arrived on the scene that Nebraskans were finally ready to break into the business of selling wine.

Nebraska Wine maker

James Arthur - 2009 Edelweiss

Cuthills is still thriving, and it now has plenty of company. While some of Nebraska’s newly founded wineries are struggling, many others like James Arthur Vineyards near Raymond, Neb., Superior Estates near Superior Neb., and Whiskey Run Creek near Brownville, Neb., are taking their place with national and regional wineries as legitimate competitors for a small but growing percentage of in-state wine sales.   

James Arthur, the founder and namesake of perhaps Nebraska’s most recognizable winery, said his vineyard already has displays in every Hi-Vee grocery store across the state as well as numerous other sales outlets extending into Iowa.

“My hope, and the way we’ve planned it out, is to become a regional winery in the next 10 years,” James Arthur winemaker Jim Ballard said.

Not only are Nebraska’s wineries pumping out more fermented grape juice than ever before, but much of it is of very high quality. James Arthur Vineyards has produced wines that have won gold and double gold medals in wine competitions across the country, while Superior Estates’ Tornado Alley line recently earned similar honors at the Indy International Wine Competition in Indianapolis.

But it’s not easy to reach that level of success, according to Superior Estates co-owner Kelly Meyer, especially given the fledgling status of Nebraska’s wine producers when compared to some of their more established peers.  There’s a lot of groundwork to be laid before intrepid Nebraska entrepreneurs should even consider entering the business.

Superior Estates

“As with any business, make sure you do your homework before you get started,” Meyer said. “There are a lot of things to learn along the way. Just like with any industry, there are a lot of unknowns still. For our industry in Nebraska, with it being so new, you’ve really got to look and research what’s the best for this area, and that’s really hard to do when the industry is so new. So you have to look at other areas of the United States that can grow the same thing. Taste their wines and visit them to see how that works for them.”

“As with any business, make sure you do your homework before you get started” – Superior Estates co-owner Kelly Meyer

A strong focus on marketing has been particularly effective for local industry leader James Arthur Vineyards, which spends tens of thousands a year to get its name out and travels around the state to wine tasting events.  James Arthur Vineyards and Superior Estates also have set themselves up as destination locations. James Arthur offers concerts on the grounds as well as tours, wine tastings in its classy main building and hosted business meetings for $150 a day. Both Superior Estates and James Arthur hold weddings on their grounds and Superior Estates has its own wedding hall, something Meyer says helps draw people to her winery even though it’s not located as near to Nebraska’s southeastern population centers as some of its competitors.

An organized and feasible business plan is indispensible for success in any business.

An organized and feasible business plan is indispensible for success in any business, according to Meyers and Arthur, who were both veterans of the business world before they owned vineyards. Organization and detail-oriented planning is key, as is hiring of quality staff who take a personal stake in making sure the job is done right.  While Superior Estates went all the way to South Africa in its quest to find a quality wine maker, James Arthur stayed closer to home, keeping the business mostly in the family and the employees mostly University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduates and Nebraska natives. Arthur’s son-in-law James Ballard and his daughter Barb manage the day-to-day operations at the winery. He says he’s constantly receiving compliments on how good the service is and how well-run the winery is.