Friday and Saturday, 1 p.m. to 9 pm
Sunday, 1 p.m. to 6 pm
Drinking in all seasons at Cedar Hills Vineyard and Gardens
photos courtesy of Cedar Hills Vineyard
As we followed a scenic route through Ravenna on our way to the Cedar Hills Vineyard and Gardens, we traced the South Loup River and climbed the sloping hills and grasslands of the Nebraska Sandhills, where we paused to take in the 365 degree view of sky and earth as far as the eye can see. When we arrived at a graceful composition of buildings blending into the landscape, I realized Cedar Hills may be more than a winery and wine tasting experience. Could Cedar Hills be a vacation destination?
Cedar Hills hosts and owners Clay and Heidi Schutz welcomed us warmly on the steps of the vine-covered porch with a view of the South Loup River looping eastward, magnificent skies, rough textured prairie grasses holding onto the sandy hills, cattle grazing, and a continual flutter of wild birds in the fruit trees surrounding the winery. We relaxed in comfortable chairs on the porch and explored the complexities and pleasures of managing a winery, tasting room and bed and breakfast in the Sandhills of Nebraska.
Winery plans always in the distant future
“I have enjoyed the experience of wineries in Nebraska for years,” Heidi said. “Clay and I visited wineries, tasted the different wines, studied the wine-making process, talked with winemakers, and enjoyed the views of the Nebraska countryside from east to west.”
The couple planned on starting a winery after their children graduated from high school and were enrolled in college.
“Our plan was to move to Elwood and build our winery on Clay’s family farm,” Heidi said.
As happens so often with well-laid plans, in 2014, the couple’s friends in the wine-making business told them that Cedar Hills Winery was for sale. The Schutzes met the owners, Paul and Joyce Sears, shot them an offer, and it was accepted.
“Suddenly in 2014 and three or four years ahead of our schedule, we owned fruit trees and a grape arbor, a fully operational winery, a bed and breakfast, tasting room with a licensed kitchen, another small apartment, and a meeting room,” Clay said.
Paul and Joy had bought the land and started the winery as a retirement project, but soon the project took over their life, Heidi said. The winery consisted of 80 acres with more than three acres planted in fruit bushes – blackberries, raspberries, Nanking cherries, ground cherries, elderberries and rhubarb.
The learning curve was steep and needed to be quick. At the stroke of a pen, the Schutzes acquired a clientele, winemaking equipment including labels for the bottles and a year round business.
“We relied on our associations with other winemakers,” Clay said. “Nebraska’s wineries are few in number, and everyone is supportive. The Nebraska Wine and Grape Grower Society and mentors in Central City, Nebraska, and St. Paul, Nebraska, answered our questions and helped us overcome the barriers.
Marketing ideas come from the ag and eco tourism meetings in early spring, the scenic by-ways personnel at the Nebraska Tourism Commission, social media and the winery’s website. Special events are also advertised on Facebook and the Kearney Hub, Grand Island Independent, and Ravenna newspapers.
Grape selection top of the list
Selecting the grape varieties tops the list of tasks for a winemaker.
“The process of producing quality wines starts with the vineyard,” Heidi said. Clay and Heidi credit the Nebraska Winery and Grape Growers Association and Mick and Loretta McDowell of the Miletta Vista Winery at St. Paul for sharing advice on wine making and selecting varieties of grapes.
“We planted 900 vines of Catawba, Edelweiss and St. Croix grapes this year,” Clay said. “The vines need to grow and mature over four years’ time before a crop can be harvested, and in the meantime, we buy the grapes in the varieties we want from grape growers in our region.”
Heidi wears the mantle of winemaker because she enjoys the chemistry and mixology involved with wine making. In her former career in medicine she acquired a foundation in chemistry, and she is not at all intimidated by the winemaking processes of fermentation, aging, and clarifying.
Hours of work stretch into days of labor for winemakers. The day before our visit, trailer loads of grapes arrived and the grape pressing process took over. They juiced grapes for 14 hours with few breaks. Clay was finishing the pressing process as we watched. We peered into a vat of juice called the “must,” and we smelled the sweet yeastiness of fermentation in the winery laboratory.
Cedar Hills makes three red wines, four white wines, a blush and eight fruit wines, plus jellies and jams. I like dry white wines, and the Cedar Hills Dusty Trails White reminds me of the new white wines served in small family owned cafés along the Amalfi Coast in Italy – light, dry and zesty!
Come visit any time
Cedar Hills is open every weekend in all four seasons. The hours are long. Working hours on weekends commonly start at 5:30 a.m. and don’t finish until 1:30 a.m. the following day. But each season brings visual treats at Cedar Hills.
“We are off the beaten path in view of the South Loup river and into the Sandhills,” Clay said. “The fall is gorgeous, winter beautiful, the river scene is year round, and the B&B is available all year.”
The bed & breakfast was reserved through all of crane season last March, and the tasting room was busy too. Star gazing is another popular activity for many Cedar Hills guests. Reservations are already coming in for the 2017 solar eclipse. The Schutzes discovered that astronomers, both amateur and professional, recommend Cedar Hills for star gazing because the night sky is deep and dark, the buildings are remote and on a hill so light pollution is minimal.
Cedar Hills hosted several weddings in 2015, and the facilities worked perfectly for guests and the wedding party. The winery also participated in the Kearney Wine and Jazz Festival and the Follow the Rails Festival at Thedford in October.
Events at the winery attract visitors from Kearney, Grand Island, Ravenna and other communities nearby. A catered dinner for 62 people garnered rave reviews from the guests. Cedar Hills is also the site of bachelorette parties, birthday parties, wine and painting experiences.
Cedar Hills wines are sold at Hy-Vee in Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney, Grand Island and at grocery stores in Broken Bow and Ord. Future plans include expanding the use of the wine tasting room.
“We will never be the biggest winery,” Heidi said. “We want to be known for the best experience of wine tasting and the best view. We like hearing our guests say, ‘The experience at Cedar Hills is worth the trip.’”