Wine Travel – Nebraska’s Blossoming Wine Country

Nebraska is well known for its agriculture, supplying an abundance of food crops from the bountiful farms dotting the landscape. As a bonus for wine lovers, grapes are among the crops thriving here, particularly in the eastern portion of the state.  The confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers creates lush valleys and an ideal environment for a burgeoning number of Nebraska wineries just waiting for your visit.

Let’s take a closer look at the Nebraska wine industry, and explore Omaha and beyond.

Nebraska Wine

Nebraska wine

Nebraska, much like other midwestern states, has a long tradition of grape growing and wine making.  Just before Prohibition, over 5000 acres of grapes proliferated the Nebraska countryside.  Since the mid 80’s, Nebraska’s wine industry has taken flight and now wineries are springing up in all regions of the state.

And while most people associate Nebraska’s terrain with miles of flat cornfields, that image is misleading at best.  It’s interesting to note that Nebraska actually has several different microclimates. This is especially true in the state’s eastern portion, home to Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska’s two largest cities.

Nebraska now boasts over 25 wineries, and almost all rely on Nebraska grown fruit and grapes to create wines that are rapidly becoming known and respected by wine consumers and the wine press alike.  We discussed the Nebraska wine industry with Carey Potter, Executive Director of the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association, who shared some promising news about the industry.  Plans are taking shape to officially designate one or more Nebraska wine trails, with cooperation and support from the Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism.

People often ask us, “How can wine from one midwestern state be much different than another?”.  The answer is simple – the soil.  Different climatic and geophysical conditions yield different flavors to the grape, and it’s a fascinating discovery to experience the end result.

All told, we visited five wineries in the Metro Region of Nebraska, encompassing Omaha, nestled along the Missouri River, and Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital city less than an hour away.

Come along with us as we learn more about Omaha, Lincoln, and Nebraska wine.

Discovering Omaha

Discovering OmahaIt’s about as convenient as it gets to reach Omaha.  Located directly in the middle of the country, you’ll find Omaha off Interstate 80 driving east/west, or Interstate 29 north/south.

And once you’re here, you’ll realize why so many people speak fondly of Omaha.  The downtown is compact and easy to navigate, with numerous choices for dining and entertainment.  History is celebrated here, even as the city evolves and goes high tech.  Most of all, smiles are genuine and the midwestern hospitality is alive and well.

We arrived mid morning, eager to take in some Omaha sights before an afternoon of wine tasting.

The focal point of downtown Omaha is the Old Market District, a revered historic area with original brick streets filled with shops and restaurants.  We were planning for dinner in the Old Market, so we set off for Lauritzen Gardens, on Omaha’s south side and near the Henry Dourly Zoo and Rosenblatt Stadium, home to the College Baseball World Series.

Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha’s primary botanical gardens, is a 100 acre oasis of tranquility, ideal for a little exercise on foot.  Wander amongst the rose gardens, Victorian garden, arboretum, or the floral display hall.  After lunch at Johnny’s Cafe and Steakhouse, a wonderful history laden Omaha tradition since 1922, it was time to explore Omaha’s ongoing relationship with the Missouri River on the River City Star.

On The Missouri River

On this one hour Missouri River cruise, you’ll glide along Omaha’s riverfront parks, including the Lewis and Clark Landing. This 23 acre park site is one of Omaha’s gathering spots, featuring a boardwalk on top of the river wall, marina, and nightly live music in season.  You’ll also pass the Heartland of America Park and Fountain, the Omaha skyline, and downtown Council Bluffs Iowa just across the river.

Omaha Area Wineries

With the better part of an afternoon ahead of us, we hit the road to explore two Omaha area wineries.

Omaha Area WineriesDriving south from Omaha, the metro area evolves into a rich river valley, with expansive farms beckoning along the way.  It’s easy to see why agriculture prospers here, as the Missouri River and fertile soil combine to provide a bountiful harvest.

Just 15 minutes south of Omaha in the midst of this lush valley, you’ll find Soaring Wings Vineyards.  Since 2003, the Shaw family has been operating this 11 acre winery and vineyard on land that was a former Native American settlement.  Numerous artifacts have been found on site, and farming has been the primary pursuit since the 1800’s.

The tasting room and outside veranda here are an ideal way to while away a few hours on a sunny afternoon.  From either inside or outdoors, you’ll take in a panoramic view of the surrounding valley.  You can buy Soaring Wings wine by the glass, partnered with Nebraska made cheese, sausage, and other delicacies.  Local art adorns the walls, and Soaring Wings hosts live music acts on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.

Stepping up to the tasting bar, we were delighted to see so many varied styles to sample.  Soaring Wings wines have won almost 150 medals in international competitions, so chances are anything you select will please your palate.  Our favorite was a slightly dry red, the Special Reserve St. Croix.  Made with grapes that thrive in eastern Nebraska’s river valley, this wine is rich and satisfying, with a dark fruit bouquet.

For all you riesling fans, go for Winter White, Soaring Wings’ most popular wine.  This wine offers a touch of sweetness, balanced nicely with the crisp characteristics of a good riesling.  For a slightly sweeter red, there’s Mystic Red, absolutely bursting with fruit.

Further south, about 50 minutes from Omaha in Nebraska City, sits Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard.  This popular destination has a long history, dating back to 1925.

Set on 90 acres of fertile Missouri River valley farmland, Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard is dedicated to agricultural education, agritourism, and historic preservation.  Their on site research facility hosts programs and classes from the University of Nebraska, and there are numerous events for the general public throughout the year.  Kimmel is also a primary partner for the Arbor Day Foundation.

On our visit, we toured the vineyard and learned which grapes thrive in this corner of Nebraska.  You’ll find vines of LaCrosse, Concord, Chambourcin, and Vignoles.  Elsewhere along a special two mile trail that meanders through the site, you’ll encounter cider pressing demonstrations, as well as fruit and vegetable harvesting.  Stop and enjoy the view at one of the many benches or picnic tables.

You can easily spend the better part of a day at Kimmel Orchard, capped off with a stop at the Apple Barn for some wine tasting.  For white wine fans, try the LaCrosse, a semi sweet gem with aromas of melon and pear.  Or have some fun with the Apple Wine, produced from cider apples grown right here.

Saving the best for last, we shifted into red wine mode with Kimmel Orchard’s DeChaunac.  This French hybrid grape produces a dry red wine that’s bold, rich, and full bodied.  Equally satisfying was the Chambourcin, one of our personal favorites.  This wine offers a fine balance of dark fruit flavors with a lively spicy kick.

Omaha At Night

With happy hour and dinner in our sights, we headed back to downtown Omaha, destination Old Market District.

As the very heart of Omaha, The Old Market offers unique shops, local restaurants to suit any taste and budget, plus enough arts and entertainment to keep you busy for hours.  The four block area features renovated warehouses, old fashioned lighting, and authentic brick streets.  Rich in history yet modern and contemporary, The Old Market is Omaha at its best.Omaha At Night

While at The Old Market, stop to shop at Everything Them, a colorful gallery featuring prints, jewelry, and historic memorabilia.  Or, pop in for a cold one at Barry O’s Old Market Tavern.  For a world class wine list, there’s M’s Pub, an Old Market staple for over 30 years.

Omaha has long been known as a haven for great steaks, and with that in mind, we stopped at the Upstream Brewing Company for drinks and dinner.  Housed in a renovated firehouse, Upstream’s name is derived from the original Native American meaning of the word “Omaha”, meaning upstream or against the current.

The beer here is exceptional.  We started with a row of tasters, a 4 oz. sample of everything.  An easy quaffer is Gold Coast Blonde, while the American Wheat is a top notch hefeweizen, and the Firehouse ESB is a malty delight.  For something a bit more edgy, try the fresh and hoppy India Pale Ale, or my favorite, the thick and creamy Blackstone Stout, named after a landmark Omaha hotel of yore.

After dinner, you can explore other nightlife options in The Old Market, or take a carriage tour around the area.  Away from downtown, there are numerous nightlife, entertainment, and eating options on Dodge Street, Omaha’s primary east/west thoroughfare.

On To Lincoln

After a morning filled with more Omaha area sightseeing, we hopped on Interstate 80 westbound for the short drive to Lincoln. Back in the late 1990’s, we paid our first visit to Lincoln, Nebraska’s capitol city that’s less than an hour from Omaha.  You won’t need a mileage marker or your GPS to let you know you’re close to Lincoln … just watch the horizon and you’ll see the Nebraska State Capitol building rise into view.

Lincoln is a hardy, spirited town, home of not only state government but also the University of Nebraska.  Football rules here, and there’s a lively ambiance on campus and downtown.  With an overnight stay planned, we had ample time to explore the community.

Surrounding the Lincoln area are three of Nebraska’s most well known wineries.  We were able to visit one on our first afternoon, and the remaining two the next day.  But first, a little sightseeing was in order.  Let’s explore Lincoln

A View From Above And The Haymarket

Our first stop in Lincoln was the Art Deco style State Capitol building, one of the most unique and stylish in the U.S.  Built  from 1922 to 1932 at a cost of $10 million, the building’s majestic four hundred foot domed tower and low spreading base contain exterior and interior artwork representing the natural, social and political development of Nebraska.  Be sure to visit the 14th floor observation deck for a nice view of Lincoln and the surrounding countryside.

It’s less than a mile across downtown to one of Lincoln’s premier attractions, the historic Haymarket area.  Named after the original market square established in the late 1800’s, this downtown Lincoln destination is a shopping and dining magnet.  One of our favorite shops here is From Nebraska, a gift shop featuring all types of locally made products, including Nebraska wines.  In fact, there’s even a tasting bar here, so you can do as we did and sample wines from wineries all across the state.

A Lincoln Classic And Prime Country

Afternoon plans called for a winery visit outside the city limits, so a quick lunch was in order.  We learned of a small locally owned fast food chain called Runza Restaurants from the Lincoln Convention and Visitors Bureau, and were able to locate a Runza branch on the way to the winery.

There’s a reason why Runza Restaurants are coined “A Lincoln Classic For Over 50 Years”.  You’ve got to try the Original Runza Sandwich.  It’s fresh dough stuffed with seasoned ground beef, rolled together, and baked … it’s sort of a cross between a wrap and a burrito.  And absolutely do not miss Runza’s onion rings – they’re double battered, perfectly crunchy, and oh so delicious!

It’s delightfully easy to get around in Lincoln, and a very short drive brought us to Prime Country Winery, a few miles southwest of Lincoln in the town of Denton.

Prime Country is a true taste of Nebraska, as every wine is made with grapes grown on site.  The vineyard features DeChaunac, LaCrosse, Concord, Edelweiss, and St. Vincent grapes, among others, with the end product being used in stand alone wines or blended varietals.

We felt the blush wines starred here, particularly the Denton Blush, a medium dry wine made with an equal mix of red and white grapes.  Thinking of a wine to pair with steak, we tasted and bought Nebraska Red, an assertive off dry red made from Dechaunac grapes.

Prime Country offers upward of a dozen wines, ranging from white to red and dry to sweet.  They’ll welcome your visit, year around.

The first winery of the next day,  Deer Springs Winery, is located in a quiet country setting northeast of Lincoln.  We were looking forward to visiting here because much like Prime Country Winery, most of the wines at Deer Springs are made from grapes grown on site.  A family run operation, Deer Creek’s tasting room is housed in a beautifully restored late 1800’s farmstead home.  There’s an outdoor landscaped area to sit and enjoy a bottle of wine or picnic, and various events are held in the spring and summer months.

Deer Springs offers a full line of reds and whites, so there are plenty of choices.  But we particularly recommend two white wines, the Brianna and the Firefly White.  Both wines are semi dry with a tinge of sweetness, but the most impressive characteristic of both are the tropical fruit flavors.  Prairie Sunrise was another winner, a bit drier, almost in the chardonnay style.

Our favorite Deer Springs red wine was a toss up between Prairie Sunset and Autumn Woods (love those names!).  Prairie Sunset is a blend of St. Vincent and St. Croix grapes, deep violet in color, with flavors of dark ripe plums.  Autumn Woods checks in a tad drier, with smoky and spicy characteristics that had us thinking of a pairing with steaks or barbecue.  Several bottles were added to our blossoming Nebraska wine collection!

Our final winery on this trip was Nebraska’s largest and one of the most well known, James Arthur Vineyards, open since 1997 in the town of Raymond and only 15 minutes from Lincoln.

Situated in the hilly countryside adjacent to a 20 acre vineyard, James Arthur Vineyards offers plenty of seating on their large convered porch or under the shade of three gazebos.  Enjoy a bottle of wine outside, paired with one of several snacking baskets filled with specialty foods direct from local Nebraska purveyors.

We enjoyed one of the most interesting wines we tasted on our Nebraska trip this particular afternoon.  It’s Snowy Egret, a white wine made from a grape called Geisenheim.  Slightly sweet, with an unmistakeable grapefruit aroma and tang, it’s a highly unique style and very drinkable.  Best of all, proceeds for every bottle sold are donated to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

Just as interesting was San Realto, a red wine almost in the Sangria style.  The winery staff calls San Realto a red wine for people who don’t like dry reds.  It’s made with DeChaunac grapes with a small amount of Concord grapes added for sweetness.  And then there’s Gamebird White, slightly oakey and complex, made with St. Pepin grapes grown in the James Arthur Vineyard.

James Arthur Vineyards will ship their wines (depending where you live), so jump in, order some, and try a real taste of Nebraska.

Reflections on Nebraska

Discovering wine is a lot of fun, and Nebraska wine was a great discovery for us.  Before this trip, we’d never tasted a Nebraska wine.  Winemakers here are proud of their craft, and we were particularly impressed with their desire to use local grapes in their winemaking process.  And with shipping regulations gradually easing, it’s more convenient than ever to try Nebraska wine.Reflections on Nebraska

At some point, we plan to come back and explore the rest of Nebraska’s wineries.  There are several in western Nebraska, and a few more in the planning stages.  The Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association is moving ahead with promotional ideas to help market and support the state’s wine industry, which will undoubtedly heighten the profile of Nebraska wines.

If your travel plans take you through the midwest on Interstate 80, be sure to stop over in both Omaha and Lincoln.  We truly enjoyed the great food, local attractions, and most of all the genuine Midwestern hospitality.

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