TEKAMAH — Deb and Rick Barnett knew when they came around the bend it was the perfect place to live out their dream.
With a winding lane shaded by decades-old cottonwoods, backed by a farm pond and fronted with the rolling hills west of Tekamah, the acreage was destined to become Big Cottonwood, the Barnetts' own winery.
They were shopping for a scenic area to set up their new business that was close enough to Omaha to allow them to keep their day jobs in the health profession. Omaha and Sioux City are communities of people who know and enjoy wine, Deb said, and Tekamah is conveniently situated midway between the two.
When the Barnetts saw the property, expanding their hobby of wine-making into a business became more of a possibility. Their options at that time, Deb said, were to either sit back for the rest of their lives and wish they had gone ahead with their idea, or to jump in with both feet.
So they jumped.
The Omaha couple began hand-planting four acres of the 42-acre farm to grapes in 2002, adding a wine production building and tasting room in 2008.
In addition, their days were packed with weeding and mowing the rows of new grape plantings, adding trellises, pruning and tying up the vines of the four white and two red varieties of grapes. Eventually, they scheduled picking parties to harvest the crop.
As new winery owners, they've learned from others in the industry, most notably Ed Swanson of Cuthills Vineyards in Pierce. They received advice about which varieties of grapes are best suited to Nebraska's climate, for example, and how to blend flavors of each grape into a new wine label.
They also learned how to market their wines.
One of the many helpful local businesses was Silver Hills Winery, located about six miles away. Not only do the two wineries share ideas, but customers as well, often referring guests to each other's winery.
"If they visit one winery, they may as well come visit us both," Deb said.
Surrounding the two wineries are farm fields and several cow/calf operations.
"Visitors often see the cows or hear them mooing, and we say 'Yeah, that's probably where your beef comes from. It's not just from a plastic-wrapped tray. It's important not to forget that," Deb said, reminding visitors.
Although a winery may seem sexier than a cow/calf operation, Deb said, the connection to the land is similar. The challenge of growing grapes versus other types of agricultural crops is that grapes require three to five years before their first harvest, and then a lifetime commitment, versus a crop that needs to be planted and harvested every year, Deb said.
And just like farming, early frosts, cool and rainy weather, hot summer days, and of course drought, all affect the yield and the flavor of the grapes and the resulting wine.
The timing of harvest is also crucial.
"You try to time the picking to try to catch particular flavors, such as the hint of pineapple in Brianna wine," Deb said.
To encourage visitors to come and sample the flavors, the Barnetts serve about 15 wines and host wine and food pairing events. On selected Friday evenings throughout the summer, and at special outdoor music events, visitors can meet friends to enjoy wine and food under the shade of big cottonwoods at the winery.
In addition to its own grapes, Big Cottonwood Winery is also supplied with grapes by several area growers.
One grower is located near Blair, and that's where members of Emmanuel Lutheran Church of Tekamah picked grapes for the church's communion wine.
A cross section of members assisted with the harvest, said the Rev. Travis Borkosky, pastor of the church.
Pickers ranged in age from 4 to 80. It was exciting to see them working and in fellowship together, Borkosky said.
Members not only picked the grapes, but brought them back to Big Cottonwood. There they watched as they were being crushed, becoming more familiar with the wine-making process.
The Concord grape wine made as a fruit of their labors has been used for several years at Emmanuel Lutheran.
The Barnetts appreciate the church members' efforts and interest.
"It's important to stay in touch with agriculture and to buy locally, if you can," Deb said. "The more Americans look to other countries for food and other products the more we lose what's good about this country, keeping small country businesses in place," she said.
"Connecting people to the land is positive," she said, "and our role in helping do that is kind of cool."
© 2013 The Norfolk Daily News . All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.