Nebraska Wine: Omaha & Lincoln Trails

Greetings From Nebraska — Discover Omaha & Lincoln

What wasn’t much more than a cow town in the mid ’60s is now closer to boom town. Just over a half million people call Omaha home, and the Gateway to the Cornhusker State is now a dynamic, energetic city — the nation’s 43rd largest.

Nebraska, of course, is well known for its agriculture, supplying an abundance of food crops from the bountiful farms dotting the landscape. As you’ll soon see, grapes are among the crops thriving here, particularly in the eastern portion of the state. The confluence of the Platte and Missouri Rivers creates lush valleys and an ideal environment for a burgeoning number of Nebraska wineries just waiting for your visit.

Let’s take a closer look at the Nebraska wine industry, and explore Omaha and beyond.

Nebraska Wine

Nebraska, much like other Midwestern states, has a long tradition of grape growing and winemaking. Just before Prohibition, more than 5,000 acres of grapes proliferated the Nebraska countryside. Since the mid ’80s, Nebraska’s wine industry has taken flight and now wineries are springing up in all regions of the state.

And while most people associate Nebraska’s terrain with miles of flat cornfields, that image is misleading at best. It’s interesting to note that Nebraska actually has several different microclimates. This is especially true in the state’s eastern portion, home to Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska’s two largest cities.

Nebraska now boasts more than 25 wineries, and almost all rely on Nebraska-grown fruit and grapes to create wines that are rapidly becoming known and respected by wine consumers and the wine press alike. We discussed the Nebraska wine industry with Carey Potter, Executive Director of the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association, who shared some promising news about the industry. Plans are taking shape to officially designate one or more Nebraska wine trails, with cooperation and support from the Nebraska Division of Travel and Tourism.

People often ask us, “How can wine from one Midwestern state be much different than another?” The answer is simple: the soil. Different climate and geophysical conditions yield different flavors to the grape, and it’s a fascinating discovery to experience the end result.

All told, we visited five wineries in the Metro Region of Nebraska, encompassing Omaha, nestled along the Missouri River, and Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital city less than an hour away.

Come along with us as we learn more about Omaha, Lincoln and Nebraska wine.

Discovering Omaha

It’s about as convenient as it gets to reach Omaha. Located directly in the middle of the country, you’ll find Omaha off Interstate 80 driving east-west, or Interstate 29 north-south.

And once you’re here, you’ll realize why so many people speak fondly of Omaha. The downtown is compact and easy to navigate, with numerous choices for dining and entertainment. History is celebrated here, even as the city evolves and goes high tech. Most of all, smiles are genuine and the Midwestern hospitality is alive and well.

We arrived mid-morning, eager to take in some Omaha sights before an afternoon of wine tasting.

The focal point of downtown Omaha is the Old Market District, a revered historic area with original brick streets filled with shops and restaurants. We were planning for dinner in the Old Market, so we set off for Lauritzen Gardens, on Omaha’s south side and near the Henry Dourly Zoo.

Lauritzen Gardens, Omaha’s primary botanical gardens, is a 100-acre oasis of tranquility, ideal for a little exercise on foot. Wander amongst the rose gardens, Victorian garden, arboretum or the floral display hall. After lunch at Johnny’s Cafe and Steakhouse, a wonderful history-laden Omaha tradition since 1922, it was time to explore Omaha’s ongoing relationship with the Missouri River on the River City Star Riverboat.

On the Missouri River

On this one-hour Missouri River cruise, you’ll glide along Omaha’s riverfront parks, including the Lewis and Clark Landing. This 23-acre park site is one of Omaha’s gathering spots, featuring a boardwalk on top of the river wall, marina and nightly live music in season. You’ll also pass the Heartland of America Park and Fountain, the Omaha skyline, and downtown Council Bluffs Iowa just across the river.

Omaha Area Wineries

With the better part of an afternoon ahead of us, we hit the road to explore two Omaha area wineries.

Just south of Omaha, the metro area evolves into a rich river valley, with expansive farms beckoning along the way. It’s easy to see why agriculture prospers here, as the Missouri River and fertile soil combine to provide a bountiful harvest.

Just 15 minutes south of Omaha in the midst of this lush valley, you’ll find Soaring Wings Vineyard. Since 2003, the Shaw family has been operating this 11-acre winery and vineyard on land that was a former Native American settlement. Numerous artifacts have been found on site, and farming has been the primary pursuit since the 1800s.

The tasting room and outside veranda here are an ideal way to while away a few hours on a sunny afternoon. From either inside or outdoors, you’ll take in a panoramic view of the surrounding valley. You can buy Soaring Wings wine by the glass, partnered with Nebraska made cheese, sausage and other delicacies. Local art adorns the walls, and Soaring Wings hosts live music acts on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons.

Stepping up to the tasting bar, we were delighted to see so many varied styles to sample. Soaring Wings wines have won nearly 150 medals in international competitions, so chances are anything you select will please your palate. Our favorite was a slightly dry red, the Special Reserve St. Croix. Made with grapes that thrive in eastern Nebraska’s river valley, this wine is rich and satisfying, with a dark fruit bouquet.

For all you Riesling fans, go for Winter White, Soaring Wings’ most popular wine. This wine offers a touch of sweetness, balanced nicely with the crisp characteristics of a good Riesling. For a slightly sweeter red, there’s Mystic Red, absolutely bursting with fruit.

Farther south, about 50 minutes from Omaha in Nebraska City, sits Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard. This popular destination has a long history, dating back to 1925.

Set on 90 acres of fertile Missouri River Valley farmland, Kimmel Orchard and Vineyard is dedicated to agricultural education, agri-tourism and historic preservation. Their on-site research facility hosts programs and classes from the University of Nebraska, and there are numerous events for the general public throughout the year. Kimmel is also a primary partner for the Arbor Day Foundation.

On our visit, we toured the vineyard and learned which grapes thrive in this corner of Nebraska. You’ll find vines of LaCrosse, Concord, Chambourcin and Vignoles. Elsewhere along a special two-mile trail that meanders through the site, you’ll encounter cider pressing demonstrations, as well as fruit and vegetable harvesting. Stop and enjoy the view at one of the many benches or picnic tables.

You can easily spend the better part of a day at Kimmel Orchard, capped off with a stop at the Apple Barn for some wine tasting. For white wine fans, try the LaCrosse, a semi-sweet gem with aromas of melon and pear. Or have some fun with the Apple Wine, produced from cider apples grown right here.

Saving the best for last, we shifted into red wine mode with Kimmel Orchard’s DeChaunac. This French hybrid grape produces a dry red wine that’s bold, rich and full bodied. Equally satisfying was the Chambourcin, one of our personal favorites. This wine offers a fine balance of dark fruit flavors with a lively spicy kick.

Omaha at Night

With happy hour and dinner in our sights, we headed back to downtown Omaha, destination Old Market District.

As the very heart of Omaha, The Old Market offers unique shops, local restaurants to suit any taste and budget, plus enough arts and entertainment to keep you busy for hours. The four-block area features renovated warehouses, old fashioned lighting and authentic brick streets. Rich in history yet modern and contemporary, The Old Market is Omaha at its best. Places to visit include: Artists Cooperative Gallery,

While at The Old Market, stop to shop at Everything Them, a colorful gallery featuring prints, jewelry and historic memorabilia. Or, pop in for a cold one at Barry O’s Old Market Tavern. For a world class wine list, there’s M’s Pub, an Old Market staple for more than 30 years.

Omaha has long been known as a haven for great steaks and, with that in mind, we stopped at the Upstream Brewing Company for drinks and dinner. Housed in a renovated firehouse, Upstream’s name is derived from the original Native American meaning of the word “Omaha,” meaning upstream or against the current.

Upstream is very casual and comfortable. Choose main floor seating next to the brewery, the rooftop deck or at the lively bar. From the menu, we recommend the Artichoke and Asiago Cheese Dip, served with garlic beer bread, as a starter. Or, try the Smoked Gouda and Blonde Ale soup. For an entree, dive into a perfectly seasoned Filet Mignon or go the comfort route with Beer Braised Pot Roast. We are also told the Pecan Crusted Rainbow Trout with honey bourbon glaze is a terrific choice for seafood lovers.

The beer here is exceptional. We started with a row of tasters, a 4 oz. sample of everything. An easy quaffer is Gold Coast Blonde, while the American Wheat is a top notch Hefeweizen, and the Firehouse ESB is a malty delight. For something a bit more edgy, try the fresh and hoppy India Pale Ale or the thick and creamy Blackstone Stout, named after a landmark Omaha hotel of yore.

After dinner, you can explore other nightlife options in The Old Market, or take a carriage tour around the area. Away from downtown, there are numerous nightlife, entertainment and eating options on Dodge Street, Omaha’s primary east-west thoroughfare.

Omaha is a real foodie city, so if you’re looking for other local food options, you won’t be searching long. Three of our favorites are Brewburgers, Amato’s and Joe Tess Place.

On to Lincoln

After a morning filled with more Omaha area sightseeing, we hopped on Interstate 80 westbound for the short drive to Lincoln. You won’t need a mileage marker or your GPS to let you know you’re close to Lincoln. Just watch the horizon and you’ll see the Nebraska state capitol building rise into view.

Lincoln is a hardy, spirited town, home of not only state government but also the University of Nebraska. Football rules here, and there’s a lively ambiance on campus and downtown. With an overnight stay planned, we had ample time to explore the community.

Surrounding the Lincoln area are three of Nebraska’s most well known wineries. We were able to visit one on our first afternoon, and the remaining two the next day. But first, a little sightseeing was in order.

A View From Above and the Haymarket

Our first stop in Lincoln was the Art Deco style Nebraska State Capitol building, one of the most unique and stylish in the U.S. built from 1922 to 1932 at a cost of $10 million, the building’s majestic 400-foot-domed tower and low spreading base contain exterior and interior artwork representing the natural, social and political development of Nebraska. Be sure to visit the 14th floor observation deck for a nice view of Lincoln and the surrounding countryside.

It’s less than a mile across downtown to one of Lincoln’s premier attractions, the historic Lincoln Haymarket Area. Named after the original market square established in the late 1800s, this downtown Lincoln destination is a shopping and dining magnet. One of our favorite shops here is From Nebraska, a gift shop featuring all types of locally made products, including Nebraska wines. In fact, there’s even a tasting bar here, so you can do as we did and sample wines from wineries all across the state.

A Lincoln Classic, Prime Country and Mother Nature

Heartland Gondolas Gondola rides in Omaha’s downtown Heartland of America Park.

Joslyn Castle The Castle is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the first historic landmark Arboretum of Nebraska statewide. This 1903 Scottish four-story, 35-room house was designed by John McDonald on the original plated 5.5-acres existing in Omaha. Conservatory designed by Jens Jensen. Peonies, shrubs and numerous trees from the time of the Joslyns remain, including 2 Nebraska State Champions – the gingko and English oaks.

Afternoon plans called for a winery visit outside the city limits, so a quick lunch was in order. We learned of a small locally-owned fast food chain called Runza’s Restaurants. There’s a reason why Runza Restaurants are coined “A Lincoln Classic For Over 50 Years.” You’ve got to try the Original Runza Sandwich. It’s fresh dough stuffed with seasoned ground beef, rolled together, and baked … it’s sort of a cross between a wrap and a burrito. And absolutely do not miss Runza’s onion rings – they’re double battered, perfectly crunchy and oh so delicious!

It’s delightfully easy to get around in Lincoln, and a very short drive brought us to Prime Country Winery, a few miles southwest of Lincoln in the town of Denton.

Prime Country Winery is a true taste of Nebraska, as every wine is made with grapes grown on-site. The vineyard features DeChaunac, LaCrosse, Concord, Edelweiss and St. Vincent grapes, among others, with the end product being used in stand alone wines or blended varietals.

We felt the blush wines starred here, particularly the Denton Blush, a medium-dry wine made with an equal mix of red and white grapes. Thinking of a wine to pair with steak, we tasted and bought Nebraska Red, an assertive off-dry red made from Dechaunac grapes.

Prime Country offers upward of a dozen wines, ranging from white to red and dry to sweet. They’ll welcome your visit, year around.

Before heading back downtown, we stopped at a unique natural attraction at the intersection of Interstate 80 and 27th Street. It’s the Whitehead Saline Wetland, one of the rarest land types on earth. As we understand it, saline wetlands are formed by ground water rising to the surface after passing through layers of salt deposits left behind by ancient seas. This is a great area for bird watchers. Species sighted in here include green heron, blue winged teal, killdeer, marsh wren and many others.

The Return to Lazlo’s

Dinner didn’t take much planning, as we’d penciled in Lazlo’s Brewery and Grill, located at the Haymarket. This was a return engagement for us, having visited here twice several years ago. Lazlo’s is a lively, happening place serving excellent food and tasty house beer. We couldn’t pick a favorite from the roasty sweet Dark Side Vanilla Porter, the dark rich Collapsar Stout, or the citrusy Better World Belgian Wheat. For food and beer, Lazlo’s is tops! There’s another location in south Lincoln and also in the Omaha area.

Lincoln Area Wineries

After breakfast at Lamar’s Donuts and a nice long walk around town, it was time to drop in at a few Lincoln specialty stores, followed by a visit to two Lincoln area wineries, Deer Springs Winery and James Arthur Vineyards.

Upon a recommendation from a Lincoln local, we stopped at Shuster’s Meats, a Lincoln original offering interesting smoked meat, jerky and even pet treats. Pick up a pack of Doggie Franks, a special treat your friend will love. Then, a quick stop at Baker’s Candies in the nearby town of Greenwood for a box of their delicious milk chocolate meltaways. We also recommend a stop at the UNL Dairy Store, on the campus of the University of Nebraska, for an ice cream cone or a taste of one of their many cheeses.

The first winery of the afternoon, Deer Springs Winery, is located in a quiet country setting northeast of Lincoln. We were looking forward to visiting here because much like Prime Country Winery, most of the wines at Deer Springs are made from grapes grown on-site. A family run operation, Deer Creek’s tasting room is housed in a beautifully restored late 1800s farmstead home. There’s an outdoor landscaped area to sit and enjoy a bottle of wine or picnic, and various events are held in the spring and summer months.

Deer Springs offers a full line of reds and whites, so there are plenty of choices. But we particularly recommend two white wines, the Brianna and the Firefly White. Both wines are semi-dry with a tinge of sweetness, but the most impressive characteristic of both are the tropical fruit flavors. Prairie Sunrise was another winner, a bit drier, almost in the chardonnay style.

Our favorite Deer Springs red wine was a toss up between Prairie Sunset and Autumn Woods. Prairie Sunset is a blend of St. Vincent and St. Croix grapes, deep violet in color, with flavors of dark ripe plums. Autumn Woods checks in a tad drier, with smoky and spicy characteristics that had us thinking of a pairing with steaks or barbecue. Several bottles were added to our blossoming Nebraska wine collection!

Our final winery on this trip was Nebraska’s largest and one of the most well known, James Arthur Vineyards, open since 1997 in the town of Raymond and only 15 minutes from Lincoln.

Situated in the hilly countryside adjacent to a 20-acre vineyard, James Arthur Vineyards offers plenty of seating on their large covered porch or under the shade of three gazebos. Enjoy a bottle of wine outside, paired with one of several snacking baskets filled with specialty foods direct from local Nebraska purveyors.

We enjoyed one of the most interesting wines we tasted on our Nebraska trip this particular afternoon. It’s Snowy Egret, a white wine made from a grape called Geisenheim. Slightly sweet, with an unmistakable grapefruit aroma and tang, it’s a highly unique style. Best of all, proceeds for every bottle sold are donated to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.

Just as interesting was San Realto, a red wine almost in the Sangria style. The winery staff calls San Realto a red wine for people who don’t like dry reds. It’s made with DeChaunac grapes with a small amount of Concord grapes added for sweetness. And then there’s Gamebird White, slightly oaky and complex, made with St. Pepin grapes grown in the James Arthur Vineyard.

James Arthur Vineyards will ship their wines (depending where you live), so jump in, order some, and try a real taste of Nebraska. Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard and Winery: South of Omaha along the Missouri River.

Slattery Vintage Estates Vineyard and Tasting Room: In Nehawka, halfway between Omaha and Lincoln. Features a tasting room with Nebraska wines from area wineries and a gift shop with creations from local artisans. Walk around the vineyard, find a romantic spot by the fireplace or relax on the patio by the fountain. Other wineries worth a visit in Nebraska are Silver Hills Winery, located about 45 minutes north of Omaha in Tekamah and Big Cottonwood Winery, also in Tekamah.

Reflections on Nebraska

Discovering wine is a lot of fun, and Nebraska wine was a great discovery. Winemakers here are proud of their craft, and we were particularly impressed with their desire to use local grapes in their wine-making process. And with shipping regulations gradually easing, it’s more convenient than ever to try Nebraska wine. There are several wineries in western Nebraska, and a few more in the planning stages. The Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association is moving ahead with promotional ideas to help market and support the state’s wine industry, which will undoubtedly heighten the profile of Nebraska wines. Finally, we’d like to thank Carey Potter, Executive Director of the NWGGA, for her help in supplying suggestions and background information for this travelogue.

If your travel plans take you through the Midwest on Interstate 80, be sure to stop over in both Omaha and Lincoln. We truly enjoyed the great food, local attractions, and most of all the genuine Midwestern hospitality.


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