ST. PAUL, Neb. — On a dry summer night last year, a storm with 50 mph winds howled across the Nebraska prairie.
Mick McDowell woke after 1 a.m. and noticed gusts had shifted the patio furniture outside the apartment he and his wife, Loretta, shared under Miletta Vista Winery, the hobby-turned-business they built together and named by combining their first names. Soon, McDowell fell back asleep.
An hour later, he was roused by his phone ringing and someone banging on the apartment door. He picked up the phone and heard: “Mick! You and Loretta have got to get out. The back of the winery's on fire.”
Six fire departments put out the fire suspected of starting when an ember escaped from a trash fire. The fire had moved into a storage area of cardboard boxes and into the winery's attic, resulting in a total loss of the winery and damaging most of the apartment and personal belongings.
It didn't, however, take away the McDowells' dream of owning and operating their wine business. They've spent the last year rebuilding Miletta Vista Winery, which is about 25 miles north of Grand Island, and last week resumed business hours. They're planning a grand reopening for next month.
Miletta Vista is one of 27 wineries licensed with the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission in an industry that just 10 years ago had four wineries licensed. The industry here is growing enough that, in December, the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association hired Jennifer Montgomery, its first full-time executive director.
Her role, she said, entails promoting Nebraska's wine and grape industry to make sure everyone knows “there's more than just corn” here.
A study from 2006 — that's the latest; the association plans to commission another in the coming year — indicated that Nebraska's grape and wine industry had a $5.3 million economic impact on the state, including $1.6 million in wages for 82 jobs. At the time, there were 20 licensed Nebraska wineries.
Iowa's industry in 2008, when there were 74 wineries, had a more than $234 million economic impact. Today, there are 100 licensed with the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division.
Those numbers compare with the 3,000 wineries in California, where 90 percent of the nation's wine is made, according to the national trade group WineAmerica. And while the U.S. has more than 8,000 wineries in all 50 states, the U.S. accounts for only about 10 percent of the world's total wine production, trailing Italy, France and Spain.
In 2012, however, the U.S. notably ranked first in wine consumption.
The U.S. wine industry has grown exponentially over the last decade, earning in 2011 about $9 billion in excise tax collections, said WineAmerica spokesman Michael Kaiser.
Midwest wineries are few compared with other parts of the country and differ from others because they grow hybrid hardy grapes that are able to withstand cold climates. They're not grapes familiar to many wine connoisseurs, Kaiser said, including types such as the red Marquette and St. Croix and white Edelweiss and Vignoles. Nebraska is probably better known for its white varieties.
“A lot of these businesses will get business through curiosity,” he said of Midwest wineries. “They have a loyal following, which is why the industries have become successful.”
Montgomery called Nebraska's grape and wine industry small but thriving. This year, the association printed 30,000 passport-style brochures of participating wineries and tasting rooms and in the past month had more than 500 hits or downloads of the information online.
“Size is no indication of quality,” she said. “Nebraska in the past decade has done a really good job of focusing on the quality of the wine.”
Those efforts include the first major wine quality assurance program, which was put into place about three years ago. There are plans this year for wines to be submitted to a chemical wine lab for analysis and to set up a Nebraska wine makers educational program that will address quality issues, said Max McFarland, who is chairman of the Nebraska Grape and Winery Board.
Nebraska's wine and grape industry is a kind of agribusiness that attracts people to communities. That can have a meaningful and positive effect on a town, particularly one the size of St. Paul, said Paul Read, a professor of horticulture and viticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“They may be drawn there to sample the wines, but if they do, they may wind up eating at the restaurant, staying at the bed and breakfast, buying gas at the gas station. There's more to it just than did they or didn't they buy five bottles of wine at the winery,” he said. “There's a real multiplier effect.”
McDowell anticipated about 3,000 visitors the first year Miletta Vista was open. Instead, it drew 6,000. About 7,500 visited in 2011, the winery's last full year before the fire.
People have visited from 220 Nebraska towns, 49 states and 20 countries. McDowell hopes to exceed 8,000 visitors within the first year of reopening.
The absence of the St. Paul winery has been felt by locals of the community that's come to be known as “the town with the winery on the hill,” said Mike Feeken, executive director of the St. Paul Development Corp.
A rural town of about 2,300 people known for its farms and feedlots, St. Paul counts the medical center, school and county and city governments as its largest employers. Miletta Vista has brought a certain pride and diversity to the area, Feeken said. Since it opened, he's noticed people venturing to the town 130 miles west of Omaha just for a day trip.
McDowell, a Trumbull native who grew up on a farm and earned bachelor's and master's degrees in agricultural education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, first came to Howard County for a job in 1982 as a county extension agent. He later started selling real estate and eventually opened McDowell Realty, specializing in farm and home real estate sales and appraisals.
In 2002, he and Loretta started growing grapes for wine making after learning about it from a woman in their Rotary Club. They opened the winery in December 2007.
“If you've got that entrepreneurial spirit,” he said, “you're always looking for something.”
McDowell put the realty business aside while rebuilding the winery. Loretta McDowell continues to work full time as the Howard County treasurer. They share duties at the winery, alongside Loretta's son Casey Ryan, who works full time as a salesman. Miletta Vista employs three full-time workers, including Mick McDowell and Ryan, and 11 part-time workers, including Loretta McDowell.
Wine from Miletta Vista is made from about 15 percent of their own grapes grown on 5½ acres surrounding the winery. The rest are bought from Nebraska grape growers and, occasionally, from out of state.
In Nebraska, wine production is legal as long as 75 percent of the agricultural products used are produced in the state. That differs from Iowa, where wineries are allowed to import all of their fruit and juice but must ferment the wine in the state.
Last year, McDowell set up a temporary facility to continue processing wine and made it through the season with the help of Prairie Creek Vineyards in Central City, which also helped with processing and cold storage.
Miletta Vista has sold as many as 30,000 bottles of wine in a year and, in the months preceding the fire, was on track to exceed that. Sales were up 40 percent over the previous year. But about 30,000 bottles’ worth of wine was lost in the fire, including bottled wine and wine in tanks awaiting bottling.
Mick McDowell expects this year's grapes to be ready for harvest in early August, about two weeks later than usual. The drought caused last year's Nebraska grape harvest to be early and about 40 percent less than normal.
Miletta Vista is in about 135 Nebraska retailers stretching from North Platte to Omaha, north to Norfolk and south to Hebron. Its wine list includes 12 kinds, including Edelweiss, which won white wine best of show in an international wine competition in Florida, and Brianna, which won a white wine best of show in the U.S. National Competition in Sonoma, Calif.
Both wins came last year before the fire, making 2012 “a bittersweet year,” said Loretta McDowell.
Read, the professor, said that while the fire set back business and spirits at Miletta Vista, it's not going to alter the product quality.
“This is going to be like a Phoenix rising from the ashes,” he said. “I expect his wines to be better than ever.”
With the winery their first priority, the McDowells still live in a rented home but plan to someday return to the downstairs apartment.
“It just turns your life upside down, not just for a week and not just for a year, but probably for a lifetime,” Mick McDowell said of the fire. “But you just go on. That's all you can do. You keep going.”
A crew of local contractors has expanded the winery some 2,000 square feet, making the production, warehouse and retail spaces a total of about 4,700 square feet. They've rearranged the kitchen and tasting room and added more seating and parking. The winery now has a capacity of nearly 300.
The McDowells are eager for the normal hustle and bustle of visitors. Built 350 feet above a valley on a hilltop, the view from the winery is 25 miles any direction and overlooks the North Loup River. From there, people can see cattle grazing and hear meadowlarks singing.
McDowell said he's ready to again share the view — something the fire couldn't take away — with others.
“It's been fun to see people come from all over and fall in love with Nebraska in the way that we see it,” he said.
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