Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Grape Experience

August 27th
WindCrest Winery

Since visiting WunderRosa Winery, I have been interested in experiencing harvesting first-hand. My intention was to help out at WunderRosa, but as harvest season began to peak, I started to worry that I would miss out if I didn't jump on the next opportunity that arose.

Many vineyards reach out through social networking sites when they need extra help for harvesting. Dale at WindCrest advertised his need for help several days in advance, so I quickly volunteered. The last weekend of August must have been a busy one - as the week progressed a few other vineyards also reached out. On Friday, WunderRosa contacted me about helping, but since I had already agreed to help Dale, I politely declined, asking them to please keep my contact information for next year.

Typically, vineyards only get a few days' notice when the grapes become ready. This is because they need to monitor the fruits' Brix level, which is a measurement of the grapes' sugar development. When the Brix count reaches the desired level, the grapes need to be harvested quickly,

While I usually sleep in a bit on Saturdays, I woke up at 5:30 the day of the harvest. Instantly, I was taken back to the many summers my friend Tosha and I picked sweet corn. We woke up early and were in the fields before the sun was up. The mornings were usually foggy, and the field was wet with dew and dense with mosquitoes. In an attempt to wake up, we would sometimes hit each other with corn stalks, and chat away until my mom would yell "Less talking, more picking!"

Remembering my experiences in the cornfield, I put on jeans, an old T-shirt, and most importantly, a light waterproof jacket. Sure enough, as I drove to Raymond at 6:00 am, a heavy fog clouded the country, and I knew the field would be wet.

When I arrived at WindCrest, I filled out half a page of paperwork. Pickers could choose to be paid or volunteer - I chose to be a volunteer, because I mostly just wanted the experience. Each picker was given a group number, shears, and a bucket. After a short orientation, we split into our groups and began harvesting.

Once we filled a bucket, we'd take it to the guys on the four wheelers.

Although we had been instructed in the orientation to take our time, be efficient, and essentially pick everything, many of the paid pickers took off at a run to gather the easy bunches. The paid pickers were getting paid by the bucket, so they took off and grabbed all the easy clusters to fill their buckets faster.

As a volunteer, I took my time and cleaned up after those who ran ahead. The paid pickers may have picked double and triple what I picked, but I feel that the volunteers worked harder. There were a few paid pickers who followed directions, but for the most part the volunteers did the more difficult tasks. I spent most of my time inside the vines, harvesting grapes that were more difficult to get to.

 From beneath the vines.

After we had been picking for about half an hour, a rooster started crowing. At that moment, I decided I was going to have chicken for lunch - I was drenched in dew and tangled in vines before the rooster was even awake. As the morning progressed, I forgave the rooster for reminding me of my lack of sleep. It felt good to be back in the field.

Each time I was ready to dump a full bucket, I gave the WindCrest staff my group and number (mine was 2-13), so they could keep track of how many buckets we filled. The buckets had to be absolutely full, because that's how they kept track of the grape tonnage. I personally picked three and a half buckets, which amounts to about 70-75 pounds of grapes.

I did try a grape straight from the vine, and I definitely understand why Edelweiss is my favorite wine. The grapes are very sweet, much more so than any you can buy at the grocery store. I was so excited when I found out we would be picking edelweiss, and I wasn't disappointed.

Edelweiss, edelweiss...

Eighty-seven pickers helped with the edelweiss harvest that morning - there were hardly enough buckets to go around! Altogether, we picked a little more than 14,000 pounds of grapes.

That's more than an elephant weighs.

Because of the huge turnout, we were done by 11:00 am. I turned in my shears and bucket, peeled off my drenched jacket, and sat for a moment, feeling accomplished. I was able to chat with interesting people, learn new things, and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the work that goes in to every bottle of wine.

It was a grape experience.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Full of Hot Air

August 13th
Nebraska Balloon and Wine Festival

My good friend Alysia came back from San Francisco for the summer for an internship, so we made it a point to stock up on girl time and to catch up. There was no better way to bond and beat the heat than to relax in her brother's pool and sip wine.

Alysia always seems to know about upcoming events, and thankfully she always invites me along to the ones that pique her interest. After spending a good portion of the summer listening to me talk about Nebraska wine, she knew that I would be interested in checking out the Nebraska Balloon and Wine Festival in Omaha.

We spent most of our Saturday walking around Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, because the Balloon and Wine Festival didn't start until evening. Seven hours at the zoo wasn't enough time to see everything, but we were able to see the main attractions, including my favorites, the Lied Jungle and the Cat Complex. It was the last weekend of freedom before school started, so the zoo was pretty packed.

Every time I go to the zoo, I feel like I've been dropped into somebody's Zoo Tycoon creation. My zoos were always pretty awesome, but it's hard to compete with the reality of our own Henry Doorly Zoo. It's only missing dinosaurs.

After we had pretty much wore ourselves out at the zoo, we headed over to the Balloon and Wine Festival. There were several food vendors, business booths, and about a dozen different vineyards in attendance. Alysia made me feel like an actual wine connoisseur by listening to my suggestions about which wines to try, and I managed to sample a few new ones as well. At dusk, the balloons light and launch.

Unfortunately, we weren't able to stay for the hot air balloon launch, because Ribfest was going on back in Lincoln and we wanted to check out some BBQ-y goodness as well. The ribs were awesome, but next year I'll make sure to go to each event separately so I can get the full experience.

Nebraska Balloon and Wine Festival's Website

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wild Colleens

Aug 10th
Stop #12: Deer Springs Winery

Back in May, when we first began our wine tour, Katherine and I had tried to make Deer Springs one of our first stops, because it is located right outside of Lincoln. We were disappointed to discover that they were closed, and resolved to try again another time.

On our second visit, Deer Springs Winery was not only open, it was packed. In a side building, several people were hard at work bottling wine. In the tasting room, there were several small groups of people enjoying wine and picnic baskets. A few groups took their picnics outside - it was a beautiful day out. I, however, didn't quite feel like becoming a picnic for the mosquitoes, so we enjoyed our tasting inside. We didn't get much time to talk to Jennifer, one of the owners, because she was busy pouring for her guests.

Deer Springs had attended the Wine Under the Pines event at Kimmel Orchard the day before, and I tried their Traminette because it was a wine I hadn't crossed before. The Traminette became an instant favorite, as well as several other wines including their Bianca, Wild Colleen, and Brianna. We loved the name Wild Colleen, which means "wild Irish girl" - although I'm a bit more Irish than Katherine, we're both wild about wine.

Katherine and I followed our usual routine, each picking different wines from the list and then sampling each other's. This is the best way to sample all the wines, instead of limiting ourselves to choosing only five or six.

This is also the best way to catch mono, according to my mom. But her advice never deterred my habit of sharing drinks in high school, and some things just don't change.

Wine is meant to be shared.

As we were doing our tastings, we debated whether or not we wanted to share a picnic basket. Our inner Yogi Bear won out, so we each bought a glass of wine after we'd finished our tastings and shared a basket. The basket included cheese from the UNL Dairy Store, locally made summer sausage, a baguette, and a few pieces of Baker's chocolate. The picnic basket was the perfect snack, and Deer Springs was the perfect end to our weekend.

Favorites: Traminette & Wild Colleen

Deer Springs Winery's Website

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Celebrating the Wine-ter Holidays

If, like me, you weren't crazy brave enough to go shopping on Black Friday, you may still have a few people to cross off your holiday shopping list. Throughout my wine tour, nearly every stop has had a gift shop full of great presents for wine lovers. There are always shirts, glasses, wine charms, gift baskets, and wine bottle holders, but a few locations had unique items that would make any wine lovers' Christmas a little brighter. Here are a few of my favorite gift ideas:

Glacial Till's Ginormous Bottle of Wine

Ginormous is not an over exaggeration. The "Magnum", as the Murman's refer to it, is a six liter bottle of wine. Six. Liter. It's a great gift for hosts of holiday parties, or anyone who loves wine - a lot. The Ginormous (because I like the word and only get to use it so often) can be purchased in select varietals at the Ashland Glacial Till tasting room.

You had me at "Hello."

The Wino's Favorite Accessory

Wine-inspired jewelry can be cute, but the wine glass holder necklace is functional and practical. Katherine and I have often found ourselves awkwardly shuffling glasses, pens, tickets, and paper around because we couldn't hold everything and taste wine at the same time. This necklace holds most sizes of wine glasses, and would be perfect to have at the next Wine and Jazz Festival. We found these at Cedar Hills in Ravenna.

If only it came with rhinestones...

Why Should Beer Drinkers Get All the Fun?

I actually discovered Woozies at Barb's Hallmark in Lincoln. Woozies are coozies designed to fit wine glasses and keep chilled wine cool. They are adjustable and come in fun colors and designs. Plus, "woozie" is fun to say.

The also have a great slogan.

Finally, if anyone is wondering what to get this particular wine lover, I think my new apartment could use one of these.

*hint hint*

Happy Shopping!

Glacial Till's Website
Wine Glass Holder Necklaces
Woozie Website
Wine Rack

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Passing Zephyr

August 10
Stop #11: Glacial Till Tasting Room

On our way back to Lincoln, Katherine and I decided to stop in Ashland to visit Glacial Till's tasting room. We had already gotten our passports stamped at their vineyard in Palmyra, but because of our great previous experience, we wanted to drop by their second location. So maybe this should actually be "Stop #10 1/2" or "Stop #2.2"...

Since we had already tried most of Glacial Till's wines, we didn't do another tasting. Instead, I was excited to try their newest wine, named "Zephyr" after Tim's smiling dog. I was so confident that I would enjoy the Zephyr, based on my fondness for all their other wines, that I didn't even ask for a sample before ordering a glass.

I wasn't disappointed.

Zephyr, as its name implies, is a crisp white wine. It reminded me of autumn, and I think it will be a perfect fall wine. I had imagined that it would be a touch sweeter, but I still enjoyed it very much. As we were sipping our wine, Katherine and I went upstairs to look around the art gallery. The pieces were unique, and as I always am, I was drawn to the photography.

After we had wandered around upstairs, we went back downstairs and watched a slide show of photos from Glacial Till. A friend of the Murman's, who was running the tasting room, answered our questions about the pictures.

I was amazed to learn that Glacial Till went from making about 7,000 bottles when they first started to making around 30,000 bottles - a huge leap in such a short amount of time.

Now that their wines are some of my favorites, they'll have to bottle a couple more.

Another favorite: Zephyr

Glacial Till's Website

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Time Flies

August 10th
Stop #10: Soaring Wings Vineyard

The previous night's thunderstorm may not have ruined our evening, but the booming of thunder and the intense lightening woke me up several times throughout the night. I also had a stand-off with Wendy's evil cat, which I eventually won. I came away unscathed (barely), but still, it was a small victory, and I woke up unrefreshed after a restless night.

Coffee and a breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and sausage revived me, and I plotted our day's plan of action while we waited for the vineyards to open. At noon, we thanked Wendy for the great day, waved goodbye, and headed north to Soaring Wings Vineyard in Springfield.

The building we approached was huge - so huge, we were discussing what it could be, not yet knowing that it was our destination. It was a beautiful day outside; the heat from the previous weeks was finally beginning to subside. Several people were enjoying glasses of wine outside as we went in for our tasting.

Soaring Wings in Springfield, NE

Soaring Wings is named for owner Jim Shaw's background in aviation. Jim was a pilot in the Air Force and for Delta Airlines before he began to seriously explore wine making. He and his wife Sharon have recently began brewing, and have just released a number of craft beers. Unfortunately, the beer wasn't quite ready when we stopped by. Many of their creations, both wine and beer, follow the theme of aviation with their names.

The two wines I was most excited to try, Red Phoenix and Blushing Hawk, were sadly sold out. They flew from the cases and into fellow wine lovers' glasses. I'll have to remember to try some sooner next year.

On a side note, a bit of advice: Don't eat a grape off the vine before it's ripe. Blech.

Good for photos, bad for tasting.

Favorites: Sunset Red and Ice Falcon

Soaring Wings' Website

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Blown Away

August 6th
Stop #9: Slattery Vintage Estates

Katherine's sister, Wendy, had told us about Slattery Vintage Estates, so we drove the short distance from Nebraska City to Nehawka. This time, our group had expanded to five - with wine, it's always the more, the merrier. We had heard that the tasting room was in the owner's house, so we weren't quite sure what to expect when we arrived.

We were blown away.

The house was huge, and the surroundings were beautiful. There was a pond full of goldfish, ducks waddling among the guests, fountains, and multi-level seating areas worked into the charming landscaping. Despite the heat, a little black dog sporting a mohawk was tirelessly playing fetch with the guests.

Slattery Vintage Estates in Nehawka, NE

As we were entering the seating area, Barb, the owner, was greeting everyone. We had noticed several large white tents, so we listened as she was chatting with the couple in front of us about them. The tents are rentable bungalows. Each bungalow has a bed, dresser, table, and chairs - and they're fully electric! I would love to go back and stay overnight. Throw in a bottle of wine (which, of course, you can) and that's my kind of camping.

Our group found a seat, and Katherine and I made our way inside to do a tasting. Unfortunately, they were not doing tastings that evening because they were hosting a special event. We were still able to get our tickets stamped with the purchase of wine, though. Currently, Slattery Vintage Estates does not offer their own wine. Their grapes froze a few years ago, and grapes take several years to mature enough to yield a large enough quantity to use in wine making. Hopefully, within the next couple years, they will begin to produce their own wine again.

The five of us shared a couple bottles of wine, and also split a pizza, meat and cheese tray, and brushetta. Chris Saub, our entertainment for the night, was great, and the whole atmosphere was relaxed.

Even when the storm rolled in.

"It was a dark and scary night..."

Barb came around to every table, assuring everyone that there was plenty of room under cover, so we all made our way under a large tent and continued to enjoy our evening. Lightening lit up the sky above, but for the most part, the storm went around us.

A little bit of rain isn't enough to dampen our spirits, especially when wine is involved.

Slattery Vintage Estates' Website

Friday, October 7, 2011

Bruises by the Bottle

Whenever wine is flowing, small accidents are bound to happen. If you then pack everyone into a cattle tank to stomp grapes, the likelihood of injury increases by about 37%, roughly.

Not only did I witness this phenomenon, I myself became an example of that made-up statistic during the grape stomp at Kimmel Orchard on August 6th.

The grape stomp was scheduled to begin at five, and anticipation built as everyone began to crowd around the cattle tank, which was wrapped in vertical wooden planks to make it look like a barrel. In the initial excitement and rush to get into the grape tank, everyone crammed in, due to an apparent irrational fear that the grapes would suddenly disappear. Children were supposed to get into the tank first, but the adults were more excited and clamored over them.

Katherine and I were finally able to squeeze our way into the tank, but could hardly move enough to actually stomp any grapes. We snapped a couple of pictures, then decided to get out and return after the initial wave of stompers retired. As I was getting out, someone jostled me in an attempt to regain her balance.

I, in turn, lost mine.

As I toppled forward out of the tank, I cracked the top of my foot on one of the wooden panels. When I rinsed the grape skins off my feet, I realized that I had a large gash from my stumble. I limped around for the rest of the night, wining and whining about my foot - but it didn't stop me from getting back in the tank later.

Things could have been worse. I hadn't put a lot of thought into my outfit selection that day, and had settled on a tank top and a white skirt. Thankfully, I didn't get any grape juice on my skirt when I fell, but another lady and her white capris didn't come out as lucky. She ended up falling inside the tank, and everything from her lower back to her ankles was stained with grape juice. A few of her friends helped her get out and rinse off, while her other friends took several pictures.

A bit of water and wine cured us both, and managed to heal our battered and bruised foot, bottom, and egos.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Channeling Lucy

August 6th
Stop #8: Kimmel Orchard Tasting Room
                         & Wine Under the Pines Event

Last fall, Katherine and I went to Nebraska City to see her older sister, Wendy. While we were there, in the home of Arbor Day, I mentioned that I had always wanted to visit an apple orchard. Maybe I hadn't always wanted to visit one, but I really did that day since we had passed a couple on our way. Wendy obliged, and drove us out to Kimmel Orchard, where I stalked around the trees, pretending I was an apple thief.

... No apples were actually stolen.

Once we'd wandered around the orchard, we made our way inside and discovered the tasting room. Kimmel Orchard was my first official wine tasting, and more importantly, it was there that I first learned about the Nebraska Wine Tour. It was too late for us to get started last year, but I knew it was something I wanted to do this year.

We returned to Kimmel during their Wine Under the Pines event. We chose to start out inside with a regular tasting, and because Kimmel and Arbor Day Farm share many of the same wines, we were able to try ones that we hadn't been able to at Arbor Day Farm. The woman who was hosting the tasting was pleasant to talk to. It was her first day of pouring and she laughed as she told us that she had been to Kimmel a few times and was asked by a staff member if she would like to serve wine. She did a great job! Katherine and I joked that we need to start hanging around tasting rooms and vineyards more (is that possible?) in the hopes of getting the same opportunity.

When we had finished our regular tasting, we wandered outside to check out Wine Under the Pines. This year, proceeds from the event went to the American Red Cross to aide those affected by the 2011 Missouri River flooding. Six vineyards and breweries participated, so there was something suited to almost everyone's tastes. There were also different cooking demonstrations, a pairing class, vineyard tours, and live music all day.

The biggest hit was the grape stomp.


August 6th would have been Lucille Ball's 100th birthday. I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate than to kick off my sandals, let my red hair down, and stomp some grapes. Children and adults packed into a tank full of grapes and squished - everyone had a smile on their face and grape skin between their toes.

After. Stomping grapes is strangely cathartic...

Later, after I'd rinsed off my feet, I asked one of the men at the Kimmel tasting stand what they do with the stomped grapes. He said they get thrown into a ditch. I laughed, and asked if he promised.

"No," he replied, winking.

To be on the safe side, I think I'll avoid any wines with commemorative Lucy labels.

Favorite: Vignoles

Kimmel Orchard's Website

Sunday, September 18, 2011

From the Horse's Mouth

August 6th
Stop #7: Arbor Day Farm Tasting Room

August is typically one of a vineyard's busiest months. Harvest is just beginning, and many vineyards host festivals and events to allow everyone to be a part of this special time.

Arbor Day Farm celebrated harvest season this year by hosting their Twelve Days of Summer event. Each day, Arbor Day Farm gave out different discounts and freebies with each purchase of a Tree Adventure. This was the first year of the Twelve Days of Summer, and it seems like it was a success - Arbor Day Farm has plans to make it an annual event.

Nebraska City is the home of the environmental holiday Arbor Day, from which Arbor Day Farm derives its name. Because of the abundance of apple trees, I was not surprised to see an apple wine on the tasting list. The apple wine had a great aroma and refreshing taste. Jody, who was walking us through our tasting, also let us try her apple cherry sangria. The crisp apple flavor blended well with the tartness of the cherry cider.

Most of the time, wines are named after the grapes they are made of. Sometimes, though, the name has a bigger story behind it. Porter's Pride, one of Arbor Day Farm's wines, is named after a former orchard owner and the horse that won the 1935 Triple Crown, Omaha.

Omaha, a chestnut beauty of a stallion, was the son of Gallant Fox. Like his father before him, Omaha grew from a losing season to become the a Triple Crown winning horse. He was the third Triple Crown winner, and was also the first winning horse to have been sired by a former Triple Crown winner. After an impressive racing career and traveling abroad, Omaha was sent to retire in Nebraska, and spent the rest of his days on Arbor Day Farm.

I hope he was able to enjoy all the apples he wanted while he was there. Omaha's story is able to stay alive through Arbor Day Farm and their Porter's Pride.

Favorites: Seyval Blanc and Cherry

Arbor Day Farm's Website

Friday, September 9, 2011

Lost in the Rhubarb

July 15th
Stop #6: Cedar Hills Vineyard

Once again, my "trusty" GPS led us to our destination via a slightly off-road route. It's been a wet summer, and the dirt road before us was one giant mud puddle. I closed my eyes, stomped on the gas, and squealed - all of which are probably discouraged in driver's ed class - but we managed to lurch through the mud without getting stuck. Barely.

My car was thoroughly covered in muck as we finally pulled into Cedar Hills Vineyard, just outside of Ravenna.

Cedar Hills Vineyard in Ravenna, NE

Cedar Hills offers so much more than wine, which makes it a unique stop on the wine tour. Along with several varieties of grapes, Cedar Hills produces other fruits including strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, which are used to make not only wine, but jellies and pies as well.

During our tasting, I was most impressed with the fruit wines. I have occasionally ran into strawberry and raspberry wines in Nebraska, but Cedar Hills' are exceptional. Cedar Hills also offers a few fruit wines that were new to me: Elderberry, Blackberry Dessert, and Rhubarb.

Yes, I know that rhubarb is technically a vegetable...

I'm not the only one who was amazed by Cedar Hills' wines. While we were talking to the owners, Paul and Joyce Sears, I mentioned enjoying their wines at the annual Nebraska Wine and Jazz Festival in Kearney. Paul beamed with pride as he told us that for two years in a row, Cedar Hills has given out the most tastings at the Festival. Last year they came in second for most bottles sold, coming in second after the Mac's Creek, a large vineyard in Lexington. This year, Cedar Hills sold even more bottles and came in first! That's no small feat, and the quality and uniqueness of their wines made it possible.

We had a great time chatting with Joyce and Paul, and finished up our visit with a glass of Rhubarb wine and a slice of homemade strawberry rhubarb pie. As we were leaving, I turned off my GPS and asked for better directions. We took a more civilized road back home, wondering why we'd never made the half hour trip to Ravenna before, but knowing we would again.

Favorites: Raspberry Passion and Rhubarb

Cedar Hills Vineyard's Website

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Wunderful Time

July 8th
Stop #5: WunderRosa Winery

We spent July 7th celebrating Katherine's milestone birthday in Irish fashion by hitting up a few Irish pubs and going to the Dropkick Murphy concert in Omaha. The next day, we continued our celebration by switching from Irish Car Bombs back to wine.

The most challenging aspect of completing the Nebraska Wine Tour is that most of the vineyards and wineries are only open on the weekends. Neither Katherine nor I have nine to five weekday jobs, so it's always a struggle to coordinate and resume our tour.

Luckily, the people running the vineyards are typically very accommodating, and Linda at WunderRosa Winery in Roca is no different. I called the day before and asked if we would be able to come by a bit before she regularly opens. She agreed, which left us plenty of time for a tasting before Katherine had to get back on the road for home.

Roca is only about ten minutes outside of Lincoln, but we left early to allow time for us to get lost, which is always a probability when I'm driving and Katherine is navigating. However, we kept on track and were even earlier than we thought we'd be - but we weren't the only ones. A group of four had arrived right before us, so opening early seemed to work out well for everyone.

While we didn't get to talk with Linda for very long before she went out into the field, we did get to chat with her intern, Brandy. Like us, Brandy is fairly new to the world of wine, and is trying to make her way to as many local wineries as possible as well. Brandy has her own blog about her experiences, and was actually my inspiration for starting a blog of my own. Brandy also mentioned that harvest season was quickly approaching, which gave me an idea...

Wouldn't it be a great experience to be a part of the grape harvest?

As we left, my thoughts were of harvesting and crushing grapes, and of how I could get into it.

Favorites: Capitol View Red and 2010 HR Blush

WunderRosa Winery's Website

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Perfect Pair: Wine and Jazz

May 20th
4th Annual Nebraska Wine and Jazz Festival

While you won't get your Wine Tour passport stamped at the Nebraska Wine and Jazz Festival in Kearney, it is a great opportunity to sample wines from all over Nebraska without traveling across the entire state. Admission is moderately priced, and includes ten tasting tickets as well as a free souvenir glass. Other items, such as food and gifts, are available as well.

The Nebraska Wine and Jazz Festival typically brings in a dozen different vineyards and wineries, as well as several different musicians and bands. This year, there were wines from thirteen Nebraska vineyards. The festival also featured Thunderhead Brewery this year, which appealed to a wider audience, and is proof of the festival's growth and constant change.

I have been a dedicated attendee since the second year of the festival, and each year I have gained a more refined palate and wonderful memories.

My favorite memory from the Nebraska Wine and Jazz Festival was made in my first year of attendance, 2009. Pam, a friend of mine, had been asked to help out with overnight "security", and was allowed to bring helpers. Katherine and I quickly volunteered. Our job was to hold down the fort - or rather, the tent - and make sure nobody ran away with the sound equipment provided for the musicians. We passed the hours of the cold night by singing and dancing on the stage, watching movies on a laptop, and consuming ridiculous amounts of caffeine.

The late night proved to be worth it - for our vigilance, we were rewarded with free admission to the festival, and a tradition was born. We also discovered the most amazing white sangria, and I keep the recipe as secret as if it were passed down in my family for generations. The story of how we discovered the sangria is a secret too, but for different reasons... We don't want to be banned from the annual festival.

Although the Nebraska Wine and Jazz Festival is held in May and the climate is still a bit chilly, the wine, music, and friendship you'll find there will warm your heart.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Your Way - Or My Way

May 10th
Stop #4: WindCrest Winery

After visiting James Arthur Vineyards, we made the short trip to WindCrest Winery, which is also located near Raymond. We serendipitously arrived just as the owner was coming back in from his fields for a break.

Dale Lilyhorn has, so far, been one of my favorite people to visit. In his straw hat and pocketed T-shirt, he is the image of hard work, though one would probably assume he had been tending cattle rather than grapes.

As we were about ready to begin our tasting, Mr. Lilyhorn gave us an unexpected option: "You can do the tasting your way, or my way." "Your" way is the traditional tasting: choose six wines from his selection, and each sample would be of typical tasting proportion. "His" way, on the other hand, entailed a smaller portion of each of his twelve wines. By accepting this unique offer, the taster is allowed to step outside his or her comfort zone and experience something that he or she may not have otherwise tried.

We chose to do it his way, of course.

As we sampled all of his wines, Mr. Lilyhorn talked about each one, offering suggestions for pairings and answering our questions, both about the wines and himself. Mr. Lilyhorn opened his winery in 2007, after getting his start by growing grapes for his neighbor, James Arthur. When I asked if he had liked wine before becoming a grower, he smiled and gave us his answer - it was then that we realized we were in the presence of a kindred spirit.

"Oh yes. I used to make milk gallon wine in college. We used to hide it behind the furnace to avoid getting caught."

If you have the opportunity to visit WindCrest Winery for a tasting, do, and do it Dale's way. And when you come across a new favorite, make sure to buy a bottle, as it is not currently available in stores. It's well worth it.

Favorites: St. Vincent and Cherry Delight

WindCrest Winery's Website

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tasting OpPORTunities

May 10th
Stop #3: James Arthur Vineyards

James Arthur Vineyards in Raymond, NE

One of the most renowned Nebraska vineyards is the prestigious James Arthur Vineyards, located in Raymond. James Arthur is the largest vineyard in Nebraska, as well as one of the oldest. I had heard many people talk about JAV, seen it in stores, and finally sampled James Arthur Vineyards' wines previously at the annual Nebraska Wine and Jazz Festival in Kearney, but the best way to experience wine is to experience it at the vineyard.

When we first arrived at James Arthur, Katherine and I were struck by how beautiful the establishment was. The tasting room was elegant and rustic, and also houses a large gift shop full of items for wine lovers - or "wineauxs", a great term I discovered while browsing the gift shop. The tasting room was fairly busy when we arrived, and the sound of toasts and laughter filled the spring air.

Once a few of the other groups dispersed, we were able to chat with Barb Ballard, James Arthur's daughter, who is now married to the head wine maker, Jim Ballard. She was very friendly, and answered all of our questions about their vineyard and wines. When we mentioned that our palates have matured since we first started to enjoy wine, and are now better able to appreciate dry wines, she asked if we had tried their port style wine, Tropasti. We hadn't yet, so she quickly took our glasses and remedied that, then told us the story behind the name.

Because port has to come from Portugal to be a true port, James Arthur Vineyards came up with a creative and humorous way to bite their thumb at the rule. The name of their port style wine best illustrates their creativity. When read backwards, "Tropasti" reveals its clever hidden joke. The jibe continues on the wine label, where the word "port" appears at every opportunity.

One of my favorite things about Nebraska vineyards is that, no matter the size of the operation, the owners and growers welcome you personally and come together to share the joy of wine.

Favorites: 2 Brothers and Heartland White

James Arthur Vineyards' Website

Monday, August 8, 2011

Straight from the Finishing Tank

May 10th
Stop #2: Glacial Till Vineyard

Glacial Till Vineyard in Palmyra, NE

Having been thwarted by closed signs at two vineyards the day before, Katherine and I decided to strike out on our tour again. Our first stop of the day was near Palmyra. My trusty GPS got us most of the way there, but even though it wasn't exactly accurate, we could at least see our destination from where it left off. Glacial Till was a modest establishment, and we found ourselves in the position of not knowing which door to use. After circling the building, someone luckily stuck his head out of a door and directed us to the right one. The right door, which was the middle one, had a welcome mat in front of it. How did we manage to miss that? A different young man greeted us, along with his black and white dog, Zephyr.

The dog smiled at us.

Glacial Till, unlike most other vineyards, includes a tour of their facilities with their tasting. We got to explore the holding tanks, and see the different machinery used to make the wines. Our guide Tim, one of the owners' sons, explained the different phases and equipment used in their wine making process. We happened to drop in on a bottling day, and watched as the workers, who consisted of family and friends, bottled, labeled, and corked the wine. After we had moved on to another room, we heard a bottle break, along with the chorus of groaning and joking that followed. Tim let us sample four different kinds of wine straight out of the finishing tanks.

After our amazing taste of our first "fresh" wine experience, Tim led us up a narrow, winding staircase to the top of the building. From there, we could see acres of grapes under a blue, cloudless sky. Zephyr joined us as we sampled a few of the wines. Tim chatted with us and graciously answered all of our questions as we were savoring his family's wines. He told us about a few upcoming events Glacial Till was hosting, and encouraged us on our wine tour.

Artsy, I know.

Although I'm only an amateur wine connoisseur, I was very impressed with Glacial Till's wines. There wasn't a single one that I didn't like. When Katherine and I had finished our tasting, we each picked our favorite and enjoyed a full glass and our surreal surroundings before descending back below with a promise to return.

Favorites: Edelweiss and Frontenac Rose

Glacial Till's Website

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Errant Knights - Our Quest Begins

May 9th
Stop #1: From Nebraska Tasting Room

After kick starting our morning with wings and fried pickles at Buffalo Wild Wings, Katherine and I decided to start our wine tour by heading down to the Haymarket area in Lincoln.

The From Nebraska store carries a wide variety of items (mostly) made right here in Nebraska. Tastings are available all day, and the list of wines represents a nice assortment of wineries. Many more wines are available for purchase, and can even be built into a gift basket for any occasion.

As we were sampling the different wines we'd selected, we wandered around the rest of the store. From Nebraska offers a great selection of items and gifts, including art, books, jellies, crafts, and wine accessories.

Katherine couldn't resist purchasing a wine holder that looks like a medieval knight, which was quickly dubbed as our mascot. With our new companion in tow, we felt like errant adventurers, and that our quest was off to a great start.

From Nebraska's Website

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Corkscrews and First Tastes

My kitchen is typically in a state of disarray - most utensils don't have a permanent home, because there isn't enough drawer and cupboard space to accommodate everything. I constantly have to dig to find what I'm looking for, with the exception of one thing:

The Corkscrew.

As the most used and most loved item in kitchen, the corkscrew has its own designated spot in one of my drawers, in a utensil tray that separates it from the clutter of silverware. Usually, the corkscrew is adorned with the cork from the last bottle of wine it opened. When it's time to open a new bottle, the cork from the old bottle goes into a large vase full of corks from the bottles I've enjoyed over the last couple of years. Corks take up less space than the actual bottles.

My first taste of wine came from a bottle without a cork - Arbor Mist has the screw off top. My second taste of wine was Merlot, which is the only glass of wine I haven't been able to finish. Wine is an acquired taste. Most people enjoy sweeter wines when they are first sampling wine. As one's palate develops, it becomes easier and more pleasant to enjoy drier varieties of wine.

After nearly choking on the Merlot, I was hesitant to try anything other than Arbor Mist for quite a while. Luckily, my friend Laura introduced her sister, Katherine, and I to Edelweiss, and I've been in love with the vine ever since.

As Katherine and I have attended different festivals and tastings together, our palates have evolved and become more refined. Although neither one of us are overly fond of very dry wines, we are at least able to sample them and appreciate them.

We first learned about the Nebraska Wine Tour last year, but it was too late in the season for us to begin. We were surprised by how many vineyards are in Nebraska, and even more surprised to see how many Nebraska wines have won national and international contests. Our goal this year is to travel to as many of the Nebraska wineries and vineyards as possible, and to fill our Nebraska Wine Tour passports with stamps from each location - not merely because of the wines, but because of the people behind the wines and the memories we'll make.

Here's to the journey each stamp on our passports represents, and to what's beneath the cork.