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Nebraska wineries
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Despite the recession and the pinch put on people's discretionary income, Nebraska enters 2011 with more wineries than ever before.

"In 15 years, we've gone from one winery to 26," said Paul Read, the University of Nebraska's main resource on the wine and grape business.

The growth continued right on through what was billed nationally as the worst economic setback since the Great Depression.

And growth also extends to the wine consumption numbers kept by the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. The 2010 total hit an all-time high of 2.84 million gallons, up more than 200,000 gallons from the previous year.

While it might be tempting to think that some portion of increased wine consumption is a matter of people drowning their pocketbook sorrows, Jim Shaw of Soaring Wings Vineyards at Springfield said he's seen signs of resiliency ever since he started in 2003.

Shaw noted that part of that resiliency for Soaring Wings, as well as James Arthur Vineyards at Raymond and Mac's Creek at Lexington, comes from volume. Together they account for half of all the Nebraska wine sold in the state.

Beyond that, smaller wineries are "still supported by local people," he said. "And the economy in Nebraska is not so bad that they've given up on them entirely."

In fact, Read's analysis shows that the portion of overall wine consumption in Nebraska from the state's farm wineries hit almost 80,000 gallons last year, up from about 64,000 in 2008 and 69,000 in 2009.

"First off, I think the growth of the industry has been sustainable," he said. "It's been growing in a healthy way, in that most of the wineries in our state that are new start-ups have proceeded cautiously and didn't try to become giants before they learned to take baby steps."

Read has no reason to think growth in winery numbers won't continue. "I know of at least two more waiting in the wings, so to speak."

While wine may be resistant to recession, it's not immune.

Orville Gertsch, sixth on the seniority list at Prime Country Winery near Denton, said there's some fall-off in demand.

"People who used to buy wine by the case now buy three or four bottles," he said, "and people who used to buy three or four now buy one or two."

Read said that economizing urge also involves price. "People who used to buy $50 bottles of wine buy $20 bottles of wine. And people who used to buy $20 bottles of wine buy the $8.99 and so forth."

But there are other factors in play that prevent wine sales from falling off a cliff. "I think another factor that people overlook sometimes is that wine is most often the choice of beverage with a meal," Read said.

Hobey Rupe, executive director of the Liquor Control Commission, said several wineries have gone out of business in Nebraska in the last several years, but the economy never seems to rank as the sole reason or even the most important reason.

"We've still got 26," Rupe said, "which I think still shows growth. For everyone we've lost, I think we've replaced it with one or more."

At James Arthur Vineyards, the state's second oldest wine outlet, co-owner and winemaker Jim Ballard said the $12-15 price range for most of its selection has provided some insulation from national trends.

Companies with "high end" prices of $40-50 have taken a much bigger hit, Ballard said. "Wine buyers are actually buying down," he said.

James Arthur sales, helped out by two sales people circulating across the state, have actually increased in the last two years. But Ballard said there was some pain felt in such categories as corporate gift baskets and private parties.

That trouble seemed to ease a bit during the most recent Christmas-New Year's calendar.

"Having our brand out there for a number of years played in our favor as well," Ballard said, "and a lot of people love buying local. During the recession, they're still supporting us in Nebraska."

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Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com.

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