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Omaha Magazine

The Grape Escape: Explore the State’s Wineries and Tasting Rooms

May 27, 2022 03:21PM ● By Niz Proskocil
overhead view of soaring wings vineyard

Photo by Bill Sitzmann    

Packing a passport is essential for any international trip. Wine lovers in Nebraska can pack a unique passport they won’t want to leave home without.

The Nebraska Wine Passport started in 2008. 

“When we first thought about doing the passport, we’d seen it being done in other states,” said Jim Ballard, owner of James Arthur Vineyards. Ballard was on the committee that initiated the first Nebraska Wine Passport, and his winery is still one of the stops. “There’s a lot of wineries outside the urban areas, and it’s a good way to get people out there as well.”

Nebraska wineries started popping up in the late 1990s, and by the mid-2000s there were enough in the state that owners wanted to actively market their assets.

“The nice thing about this, we realize it’s kind of an interesting concept,” Ballard said. “We are competitors, but we are encouraging each other. We can still be competitors and make the best wine or have the best event, but working together will make everyone stronger.”

Curiosity about Nebraska wine has grown in recent years and so, too, has interest in the wine passport program, said Kara Sousek, president of the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association, which runs the program. The association has designed the wine passport program to inspire Nebraskans and others to travel to wineries and tasting rooms across the state.

The 2022 passport, which can be requested online for free, features 23 participating wineries and nine tasting rooms. Inside each passport are maps, descriptions of the wineries, and other details.

“I think people use it as a guide to, number one, find out where the wineries are; and two, make a plan,” Ballard said. “Not everyone has the time or the resources to get to every one in the state, but maybe they are visiting family, or maybe they want to get out of town for a weekend. They can make visiting a winery one of their stops.”

While visiting the winery itself may be fun anytime, most of the wineries have special events throughout the year, and the passports can often—but not always—be used while visiting for a special event.  Amenities and activities vary depending on the destination, but could include live music, food pairings, tours, hikes, grape picking, workshops, and other events.

The farthest west the passport takes travelers is Papa Moon Vineyards, Winery & Cider House in Scottsbluff. While long road trips are fun, Omahans can use their passport for a more local day or evening of entertainment at wineries such as Soaring Wings Vineyard in Springfield.

Even those who don’t know much about wine can find a fun time for not a lot of money.

“I’d recommend a tasting, it’s our souvenir wine glass with five tastings for $8,” said Kelly Simpson, the interim tasting room manager at Soaring Wings. “Even if you know you want more of the dry side…or know you want more of the sweet side. We offer that all the time we are open.”

Prizes are also part of the fun. At each winery and tasting room, visitors can get their passport stamped. Those who collect 10 stamps can win a T-shirt. Collecting 15 stamps, or stamps at all participating wineries, enters the passport holder into drawings for wine-themed gifts. The drawings will occur in January 2023, giving travelers lots of time to partake of many boozy grapes.

In 2021, more than 700 passports, a record high, were redeemed at the end of the year for prizes, Sousek said.

“Interest has been growing exponentially over the years. It’s exciting. We love that this passport is here to help people learn about the local wineries,” Sousek said. “You can have a unique experience at each one.”

Richard Hilske and his wife, Amy, have participated in the Nebraska Wine Passport program since opening their winery, Cellar 426, in 2012. Visitors there can enjoy an array of food and wine options, along with a varying lineup of events, ranging from music and crafting to wine education classes. “It’s a great way to reach out to wine enthusiasts,” Hilske said of the passports. Those who don’t already have a wine passport can pick one up there.

Sousek, who is among the state’s growing number of grape producers, owns and operates Hundred Hills Vineyards between Raymond and Prague. Most grapes grown in the state, she said, are hardy varieties that are resistant to the cold and can withstand the harsh Nebraska winters. They include Edelweiss and light-skinned La Crosse grapes used for white wines, along with Petite Pearl and Frontenac grapes for reds.

Hundred Hills itself grows grapes for several Nebraska wineries, including some that are featured in the wine passport.

That’s good news for Ballard, who said, “We had no expectations of how long it would go. The most fun is, we’ll have people coming in here the first of January saying ‘Are passports out yet?’ Then there’s people who have no idea we do this. Folks who have never been to wineries across the state or tried Nebraska wine.”

Getting more Nebraskans to explore the world of wine in their state—now that’s worthy of a toast. 

Visit nebraskawinepassport.com for more information.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.