Western Nebraska Wines
Nebraskan wines have taken a great grape journey west, winning hearts and awards along the way.
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(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
THE LUXURIOUS LANDSCAPE of California’s wine country is legendary, but legions of western Nebraska visitors also raise their glasses to homegrown wines after drinking in the sights along the breathtaking valleys of the Platte rivers and a hidden winemaking gem nestled in the enchanting hills of Dundy County. Many of the Nebraskan grapes have roots in Wisconsin and Minnesota, which can’t produce those California classics, such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but western Nebraska’s winemakers don’t waste time whining over that. They’re too busy pouring local flavor in their bottles.
Western Nebraska wines are made from grapes that can survive killing frosts, a feared prairie wind, and an ultimate vineyard predator singing out, that rock, rockin’ robin. So let’s salute this great grape revolution, and start where the first shot was fired in this wine uprising, about 60 miles east of the region at the perfect place to begin a revolution – Lexington.
Mac’s Creek Winery & Vineyards
43315 Road 757, Lexington (308) 324-7968
“You could probably consider us the front door to the western part of the state,” said Seth McFarland, part of this dedicated family clan that owns the oldest operating vineyard and winery associated with western Nebraska wines.
When you now open that Mac’s Creek front door, you’ll find one of the biggest winemakers in the state, with about 80,000 bottles from these rows of vines that cover about half of the 17acre spread owned by Seth’s parents, Max and Theresa McFarland. They decided in 1999 to grow grapes on part of the abandoned feed lot they had purchased.
The odds seemed against them at first. Max and Theresa looked at their soil and saw a jungle.
“There were weeds about 12 feet high,” Seth said. “Nothing else.” Little by little, the soil and the tide started to turn. A winery and a concert gazebo soon were built, and a second generation of McFarlands joined in. There weren’t enough hours in the day for either Max – who still oversees the school psychology program at the University of Nebraska-Kearney – or Theresa, director of special education for Lexington schools, but Seth says his parents never whined to their three kids about the wine business.
Seth graduated from Lexington High in 1998 as a standout three-sport athlete and went on to earn college and graduate degrees from UNK. He later worked at the university as a human performance researcher but now relies on his own superhuman performance to manage the vineyard year-round, making the wine, promoting events and organizing distribution. He chuckled when asked who handles other parts of the business: “That’d be me,” is his refrain.
But the grape cavalry has come to the rescue. Seth’s brother, Barry, who lives next to the vineyard in the old family house off Highway 21, oversees Mac Creek’s business operations when not working his day job as assistant superintendent of the Lexington schools.
Then there’s younger sister, Abbey, who now handles the winery’s sales strategy, bringing back her bottled-up energy after returning from Iowa, where she was one of two funeral directors supervising the state’s organ donor program. Max and Theresa also pitch in, along with a bottling machine from Italy that can cork about 1,300 bottles per hour.
Seth has a right-hand man in all his winemaking operations in Lexington’s Carlos Diaz, who is the brother of Seth’s wife, Dora. Seth says this sweet, gentle mother of their two young children turns into a Marine drill sergeant for high school workers who pick the grapes in the summer.
“She cracks a whip,” Seth joked. “You do not want to upset that woman.”
Seth also has time in the fermentation process to produce some of the best-tasting grape juice your taste buds will ever encounter. He’s named the red juice after his 4-year-old son, Greyson, and the white juice in honor of Greyson’s baby sister, Ellie. “It’s straight out of the field and into the press and right here into the tank,” Seth said.
Mac’s Creek is sold statewide and gets order requests from staff at Chadron State Park when Seth and his parents travel west to cheer on their beloved UNK on the football gridiron. Seth isn’t shy about cheering on the region’s grapes. Mac’s Creek already has beaten worldwide competition to take two gold medals at prestigious California wine-tasting shows.
“I’m not afraid to put my wine against anybody’s anywhere in the world,” he said. “We make our own wines with our own grapes. They’re not the same as California, but they’re every bit as good.”
Feather River Vineyards
5700 S.E. State Farm Road, North Platte (308) 696-0078
It’s another frantic day in September, as the Brittan family races to wind up the grape harvest and begin making more than 6,000 gallons of their prized wine at one of the largest vineyards in the state. Jeff and Connie Brittan’s grape-stained fingers are proof of their labors of love, and their 27-year-old son, Conor, is somehow trying to squeeze a 25th hour into the day to bottle up this mission.
“Harvest time is like Thanksgiving dinner on steroids, but all the pots are 300-gallon tanks,” cracked Connie, a retired science teacher at St. Patrick’s High School in North Platte. She now calls upon her chemistry skills as the master winemaker here at this scenic winery and vineyard just south of North Platte.
Connie and her husband own Feather River and its 37 acres along with their close friends, Kurt Pieper, and his wife, Jeanne. It was actually Kurt who alerted his buddy Jeff to this land deal more than a dozen years ago.
“Actually, he bought it, but his wife found out about it later at the high school football game,” Kurt chuckled.
“I felt like I kind of told her,” Jeff said. “But she was kind of falling asleep at the time.”
Perhaps Connie Brittan is having the last laugh since her husband must now wait for her to say when it’s time to make out the wine list. She became the winemaker after Jeff and Kurt decided to turn the farmland into a vineyard instead of housing developments.
“I told him, I know I can grow grapes, but I can’t make wine,” Kurt said. “You’re going to have to get somebody to make the wine.”
“I think Jeff mistook the fact that I like to drink wine with the notion that I could make the wine,” Connie said.
But with Connie uncorking her chemistry knowledge, the winery opened in 2007 following her fermenting path, and Feather River now turns out about 38,000 bottles from each harvest.
“She’s way too modest,” Jeff said of her winemaking skills. “She has a great palate and she’s got a huge science background.”
Feather River is the name early settlers gave to the merged Platte waters floating near the lush Loess Hills of the Southern Platte Valley. The winery houses an upscale tasting room and bar, which overlooks a classy event hall and a cavernous winemaking facility. The scenic serenity offers visitors stirring views as they sip wine outside on the veranda while staring out at a Mother Nature canvas that rivals those painted by the French masters.