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Nebraska vineyard founder James Arthur Jeffers dies at 87
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Nebraska vineyard founder James Arthur Jeffers dies at 87

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James Arthur Jeffers founded the vineyard that shares his name. It grew into the state's largest wine producer.

James Arthur Jeffers, the twice-retired businessman who created the national award-winning James Arthur Vineyards, died Tuesday. He was 87.

James Arthur Jeffers

Jeffers

Jeffers was a successful businessman who owned Quality Pork International, an Omaha deli meat manufacturing plant, then, after he sold the business, began Lincoln Aviation Sales. He opened the winery near Raymond that carries his name in 1997.

Purchasing much of the land north of Lincoln from former state Sen. Jerome Warner in 1994, Jeffers first began planting apples, but decided there were too many apple orchards. So he started growing grapes, utilizing three varieties purchased from a nursery in upstate New York.

On his hands and knees, Jeffers helped plant the vineyard’s first plants, as a hobby.

“Something for me to do,” he told the Journal Star in 2008. “But I’m pretty good with pre-planning, looking into future needs.”

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The planting of grapes was inspired by Jim Ballard, who became James Arthur Vineyard’s winemaker and now runs the winery with his wife, Barb.

“They (the grapes) grew beautifully,” Barb Ballard said. “They thought they were professionals because they got those 100 vines to grow. ... It’s grown a lot from 100 vines to today.”

Today, the vineyard is Nebraska’s largest wine producer, with 32 varieties from grapes grown on its property and from contract producers around the state. It has also added apples and other fruits and eight years ago began Curveball, a line of hard ciders.

The vineyard has won prizes in wine competitions across the country. Its 2009 Vignoles was declared the best white wine at the Monterey Wine Competition in California’s wine-producing Napa Valley and took the best-of-show prize at the Florida State Fair International Wine and Grape Juice Competition. In 2014, its Sweet Charlotte was named best American hybrid at Monterey.

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In 2012, Jeffers received the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association’s highest honor, the NWGGA Pioneer Award. Jeffers was a founder of the organization in 1997.

A Minnesota native, Jeffers and his family moved to Nebraska in 1975, when he became the first manager of Farmland Foods in Crete, a position he held until he established Quality Pork International in 1983.

“He loved starting businesses,” Ballard said. “He never went to college. He was into the meat business right after high school. But he had a head for numbers, and he loved to get things started. He was the definition of a self-made man.”

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Jeffers’ aviation business grew out of his high school experiences as well. Captivated by the planes flying over his boyhood house on the way to the Austin, Minnesota, airport, Jeffers got his pilot’s license in 1963. After he sold Quality Pork three decades later, he started finding, buying, restoring and selling military training planes.

“He wasn’t able to serve in the military himself,” Ballard said. “He had a football injury in high school. But he always loved the military. He’d fly all over to find the planes. He brought them back to Lincoln and then sold them to people from all over the world.”

In 2008, Jeffers ran for the District 21 seat in the Legislature, narrowly losing to former Sen. Ken Haar in an election so close it required a recount.

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"He was always very proud he ran for office and only lost by 20 votes,” Ballard said. “That was one of his proudest accomplishments.”

Jeffers, Ballard said, will be remembered by his family and those who knew him well as a generous man.

“He wasn’t very demonstrative,” she said. “But he was such a generous man. He was always there to help.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com. On Twitter @KentWolgamott  

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Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott, the recipient of the 2018 Mayor’s Arts Award, has written about arts and entertainment for Lincoln newspapers since 1985, reviewing thousands of movies and concerts and hundreds of art exhibitions.

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