Western Nebraska Wines

Nebraskan wines have taken a great grape journey west, winning hearts and awards along the way.



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5 Trails Winery

104 North Oak St., Paxton (308) 239-4999

Patrick Gamet’s brother, Stephen, came up with the idea of buying farmland to start a vineyard to keep their dad, John, busy during his retirement.

By 2000, grapes were growing, and so was the business, which in 2008 added the winery, which produces about 2,000 cases of wine a year. Dad still pitches in and can be called on to wiggle his toes at the annual Labor Day party, where folks join in to stomp hundreds of pounds of grapes at the vineyard. Visitors from as far away as Australia have tried out the tasting room, which is across the street from the famed Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse.

“It’s a wonderful place to grow grapes,” said Pat, who gets about 20,000 bottles a year from the family vineyard operated 10 miles west of town by Stephen, a faculty member of the Viticulture Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

 

17 Ranch Winery

304 Main St., Lewellen (308) 778-5542

Over at Lewellen’s 17 Ranch Winery, owners Bruce and Ellen Burdick tout the slogan, “A Taste of the Sandhills,” and there are certainly some delicious sights along the way to this little village, including the nearby historic location of Ash Hollow State Park.

The Burdicks started the 17 Ranch Vineyard in 1999 at their working ranch, naming it after the livestock brand of 17 that has been claimed by the family for three generations. In 2006 they opened a winery in Lewellen after restoring an abandoned downtown building.“We had some California people through here that had good things to say about our wines,” chimed in Janet Schroeder, who helps run the winery.

She and her husband, Gene, are former schoolteachers and neighbors of the Burdicks’ ranch just a few miles north of this village, where grapes are grown and harvested.

Schroeder said the 17 Ranch vineyard uses brave grapes from upstate New York, which are expected to endure temperatures as extreme as 40 degrees below zero, but those grapes are also aimed at lassoing locals who might prefer beer to wine.

“By keeping our wines kind of sweet and fruity, we’re hoping the cowboys might like them,” she said.

After harvesting grapes at her ranch, Ellen makes the wine in the back of the winery, storing it in a 535-gallon tank and another tank that holds 385 gallons. Janet stresses that nobody tries to disturb Ellen’s wine mission. “That’s Ellen’s job, and she’s the only one that does any of that.” 

It takes about three months to turn the 17 Ranch grapes into bottled wine. There’s about 3,000 gallons of wine made at the winery each year, which would provide an annual supply of about 15 gallons for each of the village’s nearly 200 residents. Some of the Wild West classics at its wine bar are High Plains Red, Trail Dust, Prairie Breeze, Sandhills’s Rose and Ash Hollow Gold.

 

Sage Hill Vineyard & Winery

32621 Rock Creek Road, Parks (308) 423-9463

Near the Kansas and Colorado borders, one of Nebraska’s hidden winemaking gems is tucked inside the gorgeous Dundy County hills outside of Parks, not far from Rock Creek Lake.

“It’s a little piece of heaven,” said Carol Walker, who runs the show here with her husband and winemaker, Hal. The Walkers always enjoyed making their own home wines, and then Hal was able to begin building a dream in 2003 when they purchased 16 acres of pasture from a local rancher. They started to build the winery, using a generator for power and solar energy to bring water to the grapes from a deep well.

The winery opened four years ago, and now the cozy vineyard turns out 600 gallons of red and white wine, which would be quite an ample supply for Parks’ 20 residents to consume. Actually, most of the wine is enjoyed by customers from Kansas, just three miles away, and Colorado, 20 miles down the winding roads. Eastern Nebraska travelers also are pleasantly surprised.

“We get people from the other end of the state who are just delighted to come out and find us,” Carol said. “They cannot believe that this end of the state looks like this. They’re just amazed. We are in the banana belt of Nebraska. We don’t get the freezes that everybody else gets, or the late frost. But we do have delicious wine.”

You can get a free delicious bottle by renting the Winemaker’s Loft, which includes a full kitchen, bath, queen bed, futon and an outdoor patio where you sip wine while watching prairie chickens and turkeys wander about. And if you’re truly blessed, you might be rewarded with that magical sight the Walkers once were thrilled by out on the deck, as a doe gave birth to her twin fawns.

Don’t bother to bring a cell phone, because there’s no service in Parks. You’ll just have to be content to listen to the coyotes howl, while you and the wine get a chance to really breathe.

 

South Fork Vineyard

845 Road East D South, Ogallala (308) 284-6394

Near the South Platte River, the bees are buzzing, flowers are blooming and the grapes are bursting with flavor at South Fork Vineyard. Jackie Hopken harvests her grapes here with the loyal helping hands of husband, Rod, on this idyllic Ogallala land where pioneers and Pony Express riders once roamed over three historic frontier trails.

The Hopkens moved into their country home here in 1987, and with the help of their four children, Jackie decided to make room among all the flowers she was growing for the 3-acre vineyard. In addition to growing grapes, raspberries and blackberries, the Hopkens also produce honey from the bees Jackie tends on their 22-acre farm.

While the vineyard vision was Jackie’s, Rod also saw a lot of hard work with the project. “She does most of the work, and I do most of the repairs,” said Rod, who runs a construction business.

Although the family still considers it more of a hobby than a business, the vineyard’s labor of love produces up to 8 tons of grapes a year, and it now has branched out sales to several area wineries. The public is also invited to the September harvest, where there’s a gift shop, kite flying, picnics and a tour of the farm animals.


(This story originally appeared in the March/April 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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