Nebraska Viticulture History/Background

Nebraska – the Next Napa Valley?

By Paul E. Read
Professor of Horticulture/Viticulture
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska

When I tell people that I am serving as the resource person for Nebraska's developing grape and wine industry, they often smile or laugh and say, Nebraska? Why would there be grape and wine production in Nebraska? To understand the answer to this question, one must understand a bit of history.

As was the case for neighboring states such as Minnesota and Iowa, early settlers brought their favorite fruit trees, vines and other crops with them from the Eastern States. Nebraska was no exception. Grapevine cuttings of varieties favored in the early to mid 1800s were brought to the Nebraska Territory and vineyards were started by these intrepid pioneer horticulturists.  In addition, wild grapes (Vitis riparia) were in abundance along the river valleys in much of the Nebraska Territory. It was common to collect these wild grapes for fresh consumption, jams, jellies, pies and of course, wine.

A small but flourishing grape and wine industry was present by the late 19th Century with approximately 5000 acres being reported at the turn of the century for the 11 counties comprising Southeast Nebraska.  However, the advent of World War I, followed by the Constitutional Amendment known as PROHIBITION, led to the demise of a high percentage of the grape and wine industry in the state of Nebraska.  During the period that prohibition held sway, 1919 to 1933, some grape growing continued on a small scale, primarily for home use such as fresh eating, jams and jellies, and juices.

Timing is Everything!

When prohibition was repealed in 1933, one logically might have expected that the grape and wine industry would have resumed some significance, but by 1933 the country was in the depths of the Great Depression, and in the Midwest and prairie states the dust bowl conditions further exacerbated the economic woes of farmers and citizens in general.

Furthermore, with many of the rights related to management of alcoholic beverages left to the states, many states chose not to liberalize the laws that might have permitted establishment of wineries.  (Of course, states such as California and New York moved quickly to liberalize their laws and encourage the resurgence of their wine industry.)  However, Nebraska did not do so and as a result the federal allowance of a household being limited to production of 200 gallons of wine per year was the law of the land in Nebraska.  In addition, laws were put in place that prohibited shipment of wines, either intrastate or interstate, and prohibited consumption on premises, so even had wineries been established they would not have been able to indulge in normal commerce nor allow people to consume their wines in a picnic area or similar setting.

Because of the dire economic circumstances of the 1930s, no former grape growing family dared take the risk of putting in new vineyards for wine production when vineyard establishment would be so costly and monetary return unlikely for the first three to five years.  ANew Deal@ economics further fostered farmers focusing on production of commodity crops such as wheat and corn, which had guaranteed price supports, as well as price supports available for several other commodities.  Therefore, surviving farmers in Nebraska chose not to pursue production of fruit crops in general (and especially grapes)  when they could be guaranteed a modest living because of the price support system that was put into place in the 1930s.

Further interruptions to the flow of what might have been a logical sequence of events leading to reintroduction of entrepreneurial opportunities for production of grapes and wines included the advent of World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, and the Viet Nam era. Another deterrent to exploration of grapes or other alternative crops was the continuing relative profitability of price-supported commodity crops. However, during the decades of the middle part of the twentieth century, many surrounding states further liberalized their laws to provide permissive legislation for the establishment of a wine industry. Unfortunately, it was not until the mid 1980s that the Nebraska Farm Wineries Act went into effect. This law changed the upper limit of wine that could be produced by an individual from the aforementioned 200 gallons per household to a maximum of 50,000 gallons for a farm winery. The effort to spearhead the passage of this legislation was led by Jim Danielson, an erstwhile grape grower with approximately ten acres of grapes planted in the early 1980s near Plattsmouth, Nebraska. Although Danielson did not have designs on beginning a winery himself, he often spoke to others to encourage them to grow grapes and consider the potential for wineries in Nebraska. Also, in the early 1980s Professor Donald Steinegger began vigorous pursuit of cultivar trials of grapes on the Lincoln campus of the University of Nebraska.  These early trials provided valuable information for neophyte grape growers then and later.

Meanwhile, Ed Swanson began similar evaluations of wine-grape cultivars on private land near Pierce, Nebraska. Gradually, over a period of years, Ed weeded out a number of cultivars that were unsuitable and settled on several French-American hybrids such as "Dechaunac,"  "Marechal Foch," "Chancellor," and "Leon Millot," along with two of the new American hybrids developed by Elmer Swenson of Osceola, Wisconsin, "LaCrosse," and "St. Croix."  While evaluating dozens of cultivars for suitability in his location near Pierce, Ed Swanson devoured all of the literature he could find, attended workshops, and practiced wine-making over an extended period of time.  In the process he became an excellent viticulturist and an outstanding winemaker.  As a result, on December 17, 1994, Ed Swanson opened the doors to Cuthills Vineyards Winery, Nebraska's first and largest winery (at the time, it was not only the first and largest but the only post-prohibition winery in Nebraska!). Ed certainly was a true modern day pioneer for Nebraska's wine industry.

Subsequently, James Arthur Vineyards, a winery and vineyard operation located near Raymond, Nebraska, was opened by owner Jim Jeffers in 1997. James Arthur Vineyards, in addition to having its own estate-grown grapes, has initiated an ambitious and pro-active contract program in which growers are signed up to produce grapes on contract for the winery at James Arthur Vineyards. High quality wines were first produced at James Arthur Vineyards by winemaker Tim Moore and subsequently by winemaker Michael Black.

Wines from both vineyards have met with both local favor and have achieved national acclaim. Numerous awards have been won by wines from Cuthills Vineyards James Arthur Vineyards and by Lovers Leap Vineyards, a vineyard/winery located in Crawford,in such prestigious competitions as the Jerry Mead International Wine Competition, the American Society of Enology and Viticulture Competition, the New World International Wine Competition, and the Dallas Morning News Competition.

With the further addition this year of Blue Valley Vineyards near Crete, Nebraska's developing grape and wine industry has grown from less than 10 acres of commercial vineyards and no wineries in the early 1990s to nearly 300 acres of vineyards and four wineries today.

These wineries have focused part of their efforts on encouraging ties to the tourist industry and they have developed successful events at their wineries. Facilitating these thrusts have been the passage of legislation that went into effect September 12, 1997, that allowed intra-and interstate shipment of Nebraska wines and also allowed for consumption on premises.  Examples of some of the approaches taken by the wineries include Cuthills Vineyards' highly successful Wine and Wings Festival now in its sixth year, to be held in August 2001; and James Arthur Vineyards held a highly successful Renaissance Festival in which they feature some of their mead/honey wine blends. In 1998, Cuthills Vineyards installed a 50,000 square foot, award winning addition to their winery building, which included food-catering facilities, thus enabling them to provide additional services for special events at the winery. James Arthur Vineyards has held frequent dinner tastings at their winery, as well.

What About Research?

Partially supported by a grant from the Kimmel Foundation and further supported by the University of Nebraska's Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Department of Horticulture, three research/demonstration plantings were established in Southeast Nebraska to evaluate grape and small fruit production. These latter fruits include European and Asian pears, plums, cherries, red and black currants, raspberries, and blackberries. Additional research/demonstration plantings have been implemented as on farm trials in the Lincoln area, Scottsbluff and other locations. Focus areas for the grape plantings include cultivar and breeding line trials, rootstock physiology studies, vineyard floor management, winter hardiness and various vineyard management studies. The principal investigator for these projects is Paul E. Read, Professor of Horticulture/Viticulture.

Several individuals in different locations in the state have indicated their intention to establish a winery so it is conceivable that several new wineries will be established in the first few years of the Twenty-first Century. Nebraska-the next Napa Valley?  No, Nebraska's developing wine and grape industry will not put the Napa Valley out of business, but entrepreneurial opportunities abound in a land where rich soil and water resources and ample sunshine are available for their development. The next few years should be exciting times for Nebraska's developing grape and wine industry.

Further Reading

A Century of American Viticulture by Paul E. Read and Sanjun Gu