Nebraska Wine: A Growing Market

by Andy McGuire, Extension Educator

Early to bed and early to rise,
Makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Who does not want to be healthy, wealthy, and wise? Today, however, it seems not as easy as the old saying would have it. If it were, farmers might be faring far better than they are. So, what to do? As farmers begin to look at alternatives to corn and soybeans, a few brave souls are considering growing grapes in Nebraska: not just any grapes, but grapes for wine.

Is there really a demand for Nebraska wine? After all, California is known for wine production (about 90% of the U.S. total) and Nebraska is known for beef. Well, maybe, but let’s look at the case that drinking wine (or growing grapes) could make Nebraskans healthy, wealthy, and wise.

Recent discoveries in Iran suggest that man has been making wine for at least 7000 years. And for many of those years, wine lovers have been proclaiming the benefits of their passion. However, only recently have scientists found real evidence that drinking wine (or other alcoholic beverages) can benefit human health.

Almost every study of the effects of alcoholic beverages, including wine, has found that moderate consumption is associated with a decreased risk of heart attacks and sudden death. In some cases the decrease was as much as 25-30%. As the wine industry will tell you, this is very significant because heart disease in the number one killer in the United States.

This does not mean, however, that there is a cause and effect relationship between alcoholic consumption and better health. As the researchers point out, the cause may turn out to be something other than the actual consumption of alcohol such as lifestyle, demeanor, or other dietary habits.

There are other studies that show that moderate drinkers live longer than non-drinkers and heavy drinkers. For those of you who are unsure where you fit in to this, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in acknowledging the beneficial effects of alcohol consumption, has issued guidelines. Moderate consumption for men is no more than two drinks per day and for women, no more than one drink. And if you really want to get technical, a drink is defined as a 12-ounce beer, or 5 ounces of wine. So, either healthy people drink moderately, or moderate drinking can keep you healthy.

What if you happen to be unhealthy and end up in the hospital? Well, surveys have found that at least half of all American hospitals serve wine to their patients. Even nursing homes are serving wine. There are several reasons. First, wine can stimulate the appetite. It can also have a sedative effect, but the main reason that wine is served at hospitals and nursing homes is that patients request it, and doctors, recognizing the potential benefits, usually comply with the requests.

While it appears that a little wine may help you stay healthy, what about making you wealthy?

Ed Swanson is the owner/winemaker of Nebraska’s first winery, Cuthills Vineyard, near Pierce. Over twenty years ago, while in Arizona, Swanson found that he liked fine wines. A Nebraska native, Swanson later returned but found it hard to locate fine wines in the Cornhusker state. So he decided to make his own.

Swanson now produces between 2500 and 4000 gallons of wine and mead each year, depending on the harvest. He makes red, white, blush, and sparkling wines, along with the mead.

"Mead is a good product to have in this climate when [grape] production is down," said Swanson. "It is made entirely from honey and is good for cash flow."

Swanson began by experimenting with French grape varieties but had poor results. It was only when he discovered hardy varieties bred by Elmer Swensen in Wisconsin that he found grapes that would do well in northern Nebraska. Now he grows over 50 varieties and has his own breeding program.

Swanson tends about 7 acres of grapes himself, with four acres in full production and two more coming on this year. "I foresee a shortage of [Nebraska grown] grapes in the next couple of years. I could use more grapes myself," says Swanson, "but I never tell anyone that they could make a living growing grapes."

Climate is the key factor. Midwest grape growers brag about the harsh conditions they face: "Minnesota, where the vines can suffer." Swanson, referring to the large winter temperature fluctuations and lack of a protective snow cover, says, "Nebraska, where the vines will suffer."

Recent weather has been kind, however. "Last fall was the best we have seen," said Swanson. "We even got to see the leaves on the vines turn color." They normally freeze while still green and fall off. "We took lots of pictures because it may be a while before we see that again."

While Swanson thinks there are opportunities for grape growers in Nebraska, there are problems too. Startup costs for vines, irrigation and trellis range from $6,000 to $10,000 per acre. There are few adapted varieties to choose from. The first harvest comes after 4-5 years with full crops taking 6-7 years to realize. This is not the kind of thing that the average farmer wants to take on.

"You need a passion for it, to get you through the bleak times, and there will be those times," says Swanson. But, if nothing else, wine lovers have a passion for the fruit of the vine.

In Southern Nebraska, whether they are wine lovers or just farmers trying to profit from selling grapes, nearly a dozen grape growers have started or are planning to start vineyards. They will be providing grapes for Nebraska’s only other producer of wine, James Arthur Vineyards, near Raymond.

The newest IMPACT group, the Southeast Nebraska Alternative Crops Association, is also looking into grape production. There is at least the potential for profits; Swanson says he pays about $1000/ton and that yields, depending on the site, variety, and type of trellis, range from 2-5 tons/acre.

Wealth, then, in the case of wine and grapes, may be subject to interpretation. For some, a good bottle of Nebraska wine may suffice, while others would like to see a good return per acre.

The same goes for the claims of the wisdom from a bottle. Does wisdom come with drinking wine or does drinking wine come with wisdom?

There is scientific evidence that consumption of alcoholic beverages can, again in moderation, have beneficial effects on thought, memory, Alzheimer’s disease, stress, and depression. Ben Franklin, that frugal revolutionary, said, "Wine makes daily living easier, less hurried, with fewer tensions and more tolerance." But does it make you wise? Here are some views on both sides:

"Wine makes a man more pleased with himself; I do not say it makes him more pleasing to others."
-Samuel Johnson

"Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise." -Proverbs 20:1

"God in His goodness sent the grapes, to cheer both great and small; little fools will drink too much, and great fools not at all." -Anonymous

Perhaps the effect of the drink depends on the drinker. If you want to do some on-farm research for yourself, the annual Wine and Wings Festival at Cuthills Vineyard is August 28th and 29th. Remember, only moderate replication is advisable.

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