How did the Nebraska wine industry get started?
If you ask a non-Nebraska what Cornhusker State is known for, you’ll likely hear the basic answers of corn, cows, and of course football. However, as Huskers, we know that our great state does not stop there.
Nebraska has a wonderful and unique history. The state is home to Arbor Day, the nation’s only unicameral, Kool-Aid, and the nation’s largest rainforest. Nebraska also developed and first used the 911 emergency system. The list goes on and on.
However, what perhaps elicits the most questioning looks is that Nebraska is home to a thriving wine and wine industry, with an interesting history of its own.
As a member of LEAD 16, I’ve encountered many surprised eyes as I traveled across the state, country, and even the world, sharing my experiences as a Midwestern winemaker and winemaker.
Great grape adventure
Our business started in 1994 when I convinced my father-in-law, James Arthur Jeffers, to plant 100 vines on his land near Raymond, Neb., as a hobby. The following spring they were still alive, so we decided to plant a few hundred more vines there. Soon our hobby led to James Arthur Vineyards, Nebraska’s largest and oldest winery, which opened in 1997 as the second winery in the state.
In 25 years of business, we have welcomed thousands of guests to our tasting room, including people from all 50 states and over 60 countries. Surrounded by nearly 20 acres of vineyards, we also source grapes from growers across the state, making our end product truly unique to Nebraska.
Growing grapes in what was once known as the Great American Desert is nothing new. In fact, there was once a thriving wine industry in the southeast corner of the state. The first settlers brought with them vines from the east of the country.
A small but thriving grape and wine industry was evident by the end of the 19th century, with around 5,000 acres reported by the early 1900s.
The ban takes effect
The onset of World War I, followed by Prohibition, led to the demise of the industry. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the country was in the depths of the Great Depression, and Dust Bowl conditions caused the once-thriving industry to quickly become an afterthought.
Nearly half a century passed before the Nebraska Legislature passed the Nebraska Farm Winery Act in the early 1980s, opening the door to agricultural vineyards. This has created a renaissance of vineyards and wineries across the state that has evolved over the past two decades.
Today, there are 36 wineries and nearly 400 acres of vineyards dotting the Nebraska landscape. In 2013, a study showed that Nebraska’s grape and wine industry had a $150 million impact on the state’s economy, making it a very viable and important non-traditional crop for the economy. State and number of its small communities.
As the industry began to take new roots, we discovered that we could not only grow grapes in Nebraska, but also make great wine. At James Arthur Vineyards, we’ve built quite a resume for the honors we’ve received. Over the years, we’ve won “Best of Show” honors (sometimes competing with tens of thousands of wines from around the world) in Florida and California.
The winery’s most popular wine, Edelweiss, has been featured in Wine Spectator and won two prestigious Jefferson Cup awards. Along the way, there have also been a number of ‘Best of Class’ medals and numerous ‘Double Gold’ medals.
The industry is led by the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association. NWGGA hosts an annual conference and is instrumental in marketing and promoting the industry. You don’t have to look far to find unique and appealing wines.
The pioneers who brought their traditions to the Cornhusker State would be proud of the quality and passion demonstrated by winemakers today.
Ballard graduated from the LEAD 16 class.