Sipping wine amidst neat rows of grapevines, it’s hard to believe this is Nebraska, not Napa Valley. At Glacial Till Vineyard and Winery, near Palmyra, Neb., the sun is beginning to set as guests dine on chicken enchiladas, accompanied by a ruby red Chambourcin or a golden Seyval Blanc. Starting in the spring, events like this one are opportunities for more visitors to discover Nebraska wines. Wine and food pairings, live music events and a harvest festival attract crowds to the winery throughout the summer and fall.
Glacial Till began as a labor of love for amateur winemaker Mike Murman, a Nebraska entrepreneur who liked to make wine in the basement of his Lincoln home. Grapevines planted in 2003 have now grown into a full-scale wine making operation run by Mike’s three sons, John, Tim and Craig. Glacial Till opened to the public in 2009 and, two years ago, the Murman family opened a tasting room in Ashland, a location that is convenient for Lincoln customers who are reluctant to drive to the Otoe County location.
Glacial Till is named for the soil deposited thousands of years ago by glaciers that covered the North American Plains. The Glacial Till mission is to “craft the best wines possible from the ground up.” In their fourth year of operation, John Murman said the business is thriving and the wine is flowing.
“We’re getting there,” said Murman. “The first couple of years in a new business are tough but it’s getting better. Experience teaches you how the grapes will react, what to do with them once you have them.”
This year, drought was a challenge and Murman said his yield is about half of what he usually produces. But the lack of quantity is made up for by the excellent quality of the wine. An early spring brought warm temperatures and then a late freeze. Yields are down but the grapes were sweet and the quality of the wine, said Murman, “is great — the best I’ve seen.”
Glacial Till is part of a flourishing wine industry in Nebraska. There are now 27 wineries in the state and over 100 people growing grapes.
“There’s been tremendous growth in Nebraska,” said Jennifer Reeder, a board member for the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association and owner of Deer Springs Winery near Lincoln. “More than half of Nebraska wineries opened in the last five to seven years and people are finally starting to realize Nebraska is producing some really high quality wines.”
Deer Springs Winery has been open for six years, operating out of a farmstead that was deeded to ancestor Patrick O’Halloran in 1874. The deed signed by President Ulysses S. Grant hangs on the wall of the farmhouse that now serves as the winery’s tasting room. An old granary is the production facility for Deer Springs and Reeder and her family host evenings of music, food and wine in an outdoor gazebo. Deer Springs has three acres of vines and also contracts with other grape growers across the state.
“We started planting our grapes in 2001 and made wine as a hobby,” said Reeder. “It was a hobby that grew into a passion.”
Nebraska’s winemaking success is due to a number of factors, according to Paul Read, a horticulture/viticulture professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The Nebraska Farm Wineries Act passed by the state legislature in 1985 laid the groundwork for the industry by providing tax breaks to farm wineries and requiring that at least 75 percent of production come from Nebraska grown produce. Two more laws passed in 1997 opened the way for shipping Nebraska wines and allowed consumers to buy wine at a winery and consume it on the premises.
Read said producers have also learned what works in Nebraska and what doesn’t.
“Some grapes are winners in Nebraska and some are losers,” said Read. “And the weather is challenging. Spring is a roller coaster ride. You can have warm temperatures and then a freeze comes along and clobbers the grapes.”
Disease can be a problem in eastern Nebraska because of the humidity, while western growers fight with colder temperatures and a shorter growing season.
Read serves as a resource for Nebraska wineries and grape growers. Using his own research plantings, Read evaluates grape varieties and offers advice on what to plant and what to avoid. The university hosts workshops, field days and an annual conference. Over the years, Read said Nebraska wineries have evolved into a vibrant industry, producing award-winning wines in national and international competitions.
One of those wines is Prairie Sunset, a white wine from Deer Springs winery that won a gold medal in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition. Reeder said awards validate what’s happening in Nebraska.
“Our vineyards are maturing and we’ve learned what to grow and what to do with the grapes we have,” said Reeder. “It’s all coming together.”
Reeder said the next step for the industry is a statewide wine festival to showcase Nebraska wines. The Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association is looking for a venue for the event.
Meanwhile, Nebraska wines are appearing on grocery store shelves and some restaurant wine lists. And increasingly, Nebraska consumers are popping the cork on a bottle of wine produced in their home state. ❖