For Omaha couple's winery, grapes flourish amid the cottonwoods

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Posted: Monday, October 7, 2013 12:00 am

TEKAMAH, Neb. — 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’ winery.

They were shopping for a scenic area for their business that was close enough to Omaha to let them to keep their day jobs in the health profession. Omaha and Sioux City, Iowa, are communities that know and enjoy wine, Deb said, and Tekamah is 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, 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 in 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 got 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, 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,” she said.

To encourage visitors to sample the flavors, the Barnetts serve about 15 wines and host wine and food pairing events. On selected Friday evenings in the summer and at special music events, visitors can enjoy wine and food under the shade of big cottonwoods at the winery.

Although a winery may seem sexier than a cow/calf operation, she said, the connection to the land is similar.

“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, and our role in helping do that is kind of cool.”

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