One of the difficulties of being involved in the local wine industry here in Nebraska is that people’s general knowledge and enthusiasm for vinifera (European grape varietals) doesn’t translate into what commonly grows here in the Great Plains. You don’t regularly hear someone in the wine store asking “What have you got for Frontenac in the back?” in spite of the fact that Frontenac, like Marquette, Marechal Foch, Traminette, and so many others can be made into truly delightful wines. There are, however, a handful of wineries in Nebraska that are growing their own vinifera. Perhaps the most notable of these is Soaring Wings Winery, located in Springfield, Nebraska, not far from Omaha. There, in addition to the local varietals, they painstakingly maintain Syrah vines as well, and they craft it into a very nice wine.
If you read our blog, then you know we love people, and that we like to entertain. We are so blessed to have many wonderful friends, and we enjoy sharing time, good food, and wine with them whenever possible. Last night, we hosted a dinner party for eight, and asked guests to bring a bottle of Syrah. When they arrived, we stuck each bottle in a tall, colorful sock to hide the label, and conducted an informal blind tasting of the wines. We had prepared a meal that we though would be well complimented by Syrah, generally speaking, and once we finished we then had plenty of wine to accompany the barbecue ribs, teriyaki salmon, sriracha brussel sprouts, potatoes, cheeses, and more. Being enthused about the growing wine industry in Nebraska, we provided the Syrah from Soaring Wings. We didn’t tell anyone this, nor did we hype it in advance, as we were attempting to be as objective as possible and we didn’t want to bring Soaring Wings any bad publicity if our guests favored other wines. Of course, in a ranked tasting, the lowest-ranked wine can still be very good wine. Even if all of the wines are great, one still has to come in last. (The slowest Olympic sprinter is still wayfaster than Mark is.)
The wines were shuffled so that even the person pouring didn’t know what was what, and one at a time we tasted five different Syrah wines, including the Soaring Wings 2012 vintage that we provided, Feudo Arancio 2009 from Sicily, Zaca Mesa 2009 from the Santa Ynez Valley, Michael David 6th Sense 2011 from Lodi, and McManis Family Vineyard Petite Syrah 2011 from “California.” One at a time, small pours were tasted, notes were jotted, and discussion was had (some of it about the wine). Tasting five wines took all of maybe forty-five minutes, and was an enjoyable way to pass the time. When we were done, the wines were ranked by each imbiber, and the scores were tallied. We then un-socked each bottle, starting with the fifth ranked wine.
In fifth place was the Sicilian wine, which was generally agreed upon in conversation to lack body and complexity. In fourth was the Zaca Mesa, about which there were no complaints whatsoever. In third was the McManis Petite Syrah, a well-balanced, nutty delight. At this point, it donned on both of us that Soaring Wings, a wine vinted in a state often stereotyped as making cheap, sweet wines, was still in its sock, and we exchanged a smile. (We were still the only ones that knew there was a Nebraska wine in the mix.) Only slightly disappointingly, the Soaring Wings Syrah was the next wine up, ranking it second to the Michael David 6th Sense — an absolutely excellent wine. Of the Soaring Wings, people described it as medium plus in body, balanced, with mild tannins, hints of melon and a smooth finish. When we told our guests it was grown and crafted only a thirty minute drive from where we sat, they were without exception both startled and impressed. We enjoyed our dinner, and the rest of the bottle of local Syrah disappeared quite quickly into the glasses of our guests.
The Nebraska wine industry is a growing one, and there remains a lot of room for growth. Nevertheless, Jim Shaw, the commercial airline pilot who opened his winery ten years ago in the little town of Springfield, Nebraska, is helping to set the bar high for excellence. It is significant to realize that Jim and his family are growing the Syrah grapes, and not just buying them out of warmer regions. This takes a great deal of effort and maintenance, but as Mark told one of the shopkeepers when he picked the bottle up yesterday, from the consumer standpoint it is very worth the effort to create this rare and delicious offering. Along with many other outstanding winemakers in Nebraska, the stereotype of cheap and sweet is slowly beginning to go by the wayside as more and more people are introduced to the fine red and white wines being produced in the Cornhusker State. For more information on Nebraska wines, including our recent review of Soaring Wings Winery, go to “American Winery Guide Reviews” on the home page of this blog. Also be on the lookout for our upcoming guide to Nebraska wineries, which we hope to release in the autumn of this year.