Superior Estates Winery in Superior, Nebraska
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Chancellor Hall at Superior Estates Winery & Vineyard

Meyers bring Napa Valley-style winery and jobs to Superior
By ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS / Lincoln Journal Star

SUPERIOR --  Just north of California Street in this town about three miles from the Kansas-Nebraska border is a lost winery. The stately, limestone and wood  visitors building, influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of architecture, seems out of place in this farming community, much like a peacock would in a flock of wild turkeys. The Superior Estates Winery, with its colossal windows, cathedral ceilings, soaring beams, and trellises, looks like it belongs in the California wine-growing region of Napa Valley instead of the rolling hills of the Republican River Valley.

Kelly and Randy Meyer know that their winery is unique in Nebraska and possibly in the Midwest. They wanted something special. Something that would set them apart from other wineries. Something that people would enjoy, and hopefully, would come back to again and again. "This building was more Randy's brainchild. It's a public building. He wanted it to tell a story," Kelly Meyer said on a recent tour of the 80-acre winery just off Nebraska 14 on the north of edge of town.

The story is about the how grapes are turned into wine and Meyer, owner of the architectural firm Meyer & Associates in Omaha, designed the building to reflect that process. The stone planter outside represents the earth; the plants in the planter represent the growing of the grapes; the trellis at the entrance represents the training of the vines to produce grapes; the barrel room represents the making of the wine; and the tasting room represents the end of the process -- where the wine is enjoyed.

This was Randy Meyer's first attempt at designing a winery and he and his wife chose to build it -- not in California but near his birthplace in Nebraska. Randy Meyer's roots, much like those in the burgeoning vineyard, run deep in Nuckolls County. One of six brothers, he grew up on a dairy farm about a half mile south of Superior on the Republican River and still has family in the area. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate, Meyer left Superior but kept abreast of the goings on in his hometown over the ensuing decades. He watched the town lose its major employers -- a cement industry and a cheese factory -- and saw a lot of empty storefronts. Superior like many Nebraska towns, started to lose people, partly due to the lack of jobs. "Randy thought it was a good way to bring something back to Superior," Kelly Meyer said, citing one of the many reasons for building the winery. "Randy hates to see small towns dying. This is a good way to spark interest and get people coming back to the area."

Some people might think it's strange to locate a winery in this part of the state, far from the historical wine-growing region along the Missouri River. But in the last 10 years, wineries have sprung up like weeds all over Nebraska -- from Crawford in the Panhandle region to outside the urban centers of  Omaha and Lincoln. Today the state is home to about  24 wineries.

The Meyers didn't just wake up one day and decide to go into the winery business. They researched  viticulture -- the science of grape-growing -- for about 10 years before they made the life-changing decision to buy the land, build a 7,000-square-foot wine production facility and an 11,000-square-foot visitors building with a great room. Called "Chancellor Hall," the grand room with its cathedral ceiling, seats about 250 people and can be used for weddings, proms and community gatherings. The Meyers chose Superior after talking with Richard Smart, one of the world's foremost vineyard consultants from Australia. One of Smart's specialties is finding areas that are excellent for growing grapes. One of those places was a little strip of land through the lower part of Nebraska. So, Kelly Meyer said, they began looking  for some property.

They found the ideal place, a pasture dotted with scrub trees that was close to Superior and had hills with a southern slope -- ideal conditions for growing grape vines. It also had woods, pond and an old farmhouse. "We could see a vision of what it would look like," Kelly Meyer said. Trouble was the land was not for sale. They contacted the landowner and he was willing to sell. Trouble was, they only wanted a small parcel and the landowner said  all or nothing. So they took the plunge and bought the 80 acres in 2002. "We bought the land for the sole purpose of the winery and to grow the grapes," said Randy Meyer. "We want to be an estate winery -- to produce all the grapes."

Not being wine experts, the couple hired Ray Schaffer, a renowned enologist or winemaker from Oregon State University, to help them get started. The couple also visited regional wineries, including many in Missouri, to find out what makes the best premium wines. "We were looking for grapes that have flavors you want to impart into the wine," Kelly Meyer said. "We were also looking for grapes suited to this area."

Randy Meyer also considered the business side, and thought Superior was better than being closer to a big city. Here's why. Land prices are lower and shipping wine is no problem. Also the climate was harsher in other parts of the state than on the Kansas border. Said Randy Meyer: "We just think sitting down there with very little competition from other wineries, we can focus on what we need to focus on: growing grapes that we think will make the best wine."

Vineyards don't grow from grape seeds. They grow from root stock and each root, about three feet long, has to be planted by hand. Nate Meyer, the couple's 28-year-old son and also an owner, used an auger on a skid loader to dig deep holes for each root. The couple planted five acres in 2002 and the other 10 acres the following year. Today, they have about 9,500 vines growing on 15 acres, with another five acres planted in grapes  on the south edge of town.

It takes a long time for vines to produce fruit. The Meyers went without a harvest for three years. They had very small vintages in 2004 and 2005. Last year's grape crop was meager due to some frost damage. "The quality was very good on the grapes," Randy Meyer said referring to the 2006 harvest. "But the quantity was not as good as we would have liked to have seen." Those things happen in the winery business, even though the couple selected grapes that would do well in Nebraska's varied and sometimes harsh climate: Vignoles, Cayuga White, Catawba,  Frontenac and St. Vincent.

But this year the harvest was much better. With the help of 38 part-time workers, the couple harvested about 55 tons of grapes, beginning in mid-September. "This was a record year," Kelly Meyer said. "We escaped that horrible Easter frost that just about got everybody. We hadn't hardly done any pruning early and that saved us this year." That wine is now fermenting in  large tanks in the vineyard's production building, which  sits next to the visitors building.

The production building holds 12 tanks, each with a capacity of 550 gallons. Large tanks were imported from Italy and smaller ones were custom made in California.  The building also features wine-making equipment and machinery from France. Emily Richmond, the vineyard's winemaker, estimates that this year's grape harvest will produce about 10,000 gallons of grape juice. A gallon makes about five bottles of wine. "Right now, all the tanks are full," Kelly Meyer said.

Under state law, a farm winery can produce a maximum of 40,000 gallons a year. "Our intention right now is to get up as fast as we can to 32 acres," Randy Meyer said. "We are more interested in the quality than the quantity." The vineyard's nascent wines have already garnered two awards. Last year, the Cayuga White Gold won a bronze medal from the Indy International Wine Competition in Indiana and the 2006 Vignoles also garnered a bronze in the Mid-American Wine Competition in Des Moines, Iowa.

Plans are in the works to add eight more tanks, each with a capacity of 3,000 gallons, as the winery grows. The couple also wants to dig up the vines from the five acres south of town and move them to the 80 acres.

Initially, they plan to market their wines all over the state in wine shops, grocery stores and other retail outlets. Randy Meyer said their company wants to expand  and is always looking for talented people, especially in sales. They are also looking for a vineyard manager, delivery people, tasting room staff and a business manager. "People don't have to have experience with a vineyard and winery," Randy Meyer said. "We are willing to train them."

One of their immediate plans is to expand the courtyard and landscape the property. The couple envisions a pond, with a possible footbridge to a small island; and a nature trail through the woodlands, which is home to deer, fox, wild turkeys and other wildlife. Said Kelly Meyer: "When you sit here in the evening and the sun goes down, it's beautiful."

The winery has changed the Meyers' lives. The couple now commutes from their home in Omaha  -- about a two hour and half hour drive. Kelly Meyer, who began her 22-year teaching career in Lincoln, drives down earlier in the week and Randy joins her on most weekends. They stay in the farmhouse. They initially wanted to tear it down but they discovered that it had wonderful oak floors, handles made of glass, and French doors.

Randy Meyer estimates that they have spent roughly $3 million on the winery including the land, buildings and equipment. Kelly Meyer, who spends part of her time at the architectural firm, said they still work. "It's not something we can just retire and do," she added. "We have to work to support the winery. We hope to be self-sufficient some day."

Kelly Meyer, who grew up on a farm near Spencer, said she was more scared than Randy when it came to making the decision to start a winery. "My husband is a definitely on- the-edge risk taker," she said. "He's the man with vision. He truly has a vision for things. Ever since I met him, he wanted to produce a product." Randy Meyer echoed his wife's sentiments: "The most important thing for me and for all of us ... is producing a quality product. The wine is No. 1."

The vineyard provides the quality wine but it is the visitors building that seems to  attract people to the winery. Although, it's been only open for a little over a year, the visitors building has attracted people from 38 states and several foreign countries. Some of those who drop by have ties to the community or have heard about it from relatives. "We're really hoping that it will bring in new businesses that would attract tourists," Kelly Meyer said. Discussions are underway to possibly start a restaurant in town -- something that the town lacks right now -- to compliment the winery.

Allen Lipker, a retired IBM executive and manager of the tasting room, said visitors are surprised at the "smoothness" of the wines. "They can't believe that in Superior, Nebraska we have this good a wine," Lipker said. "People from California love to take home Nebraska wine."

The wood for the building comes from Douglas fir trees. Blocks of limestone were shipped in from quarry in Kansas. The front doors are made of mahogany. Randy Meyer designed the big windows in the tasting room so they align with California Street and the approach to the driveway to create a "transparency connecting to the vineyard." Visitors can view the vineyard from the entry way, tasting room, Chancellor Hall and the courtyard. "I think great architecture enhances the quality of life for the users and shows a commitment to the business," Randy Meyer said. "We put a lot into it and want it to be there forever. That's our commitment to the business."

Reach Algis J. Laukaitis at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com

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