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Unique Sandhills winery amid ‘ocean of grass’ plans expansion

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Unique Sandhills winery amid ‘ocean of grass’ plans expansion

Oct 03, 2022 | 6:45 am ET
By Paul Hammel
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Unique Sandhills winery amid ‘ocean of grass’ plans expansion
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Tim and Greg Nollette established a vineyard in an "ocean of grass" in Nebraska's Sandhills, and are now planning an expansion. (Courtesy of Niobrara Valley Vineyards)

LINCOLN — With only 20 residents or so, Nenzel, Nebraska, easily qualifies as a tiny Sandhills village.

And, with the only community of size, Valentine, 30 miles down U.S. Highway 20, the description “remote” works, too.

One of Nenzel’s main calling cards is the lack of city lights to interfere with the starry nights. The only traffic jams occur when an area ranch needs to move some cattle down the highway to a new pasture.

In an ‘ocean of grass’

But a fifth-generation ranch family is turning its off-the-beaten-path location in “an ocean of grass” into a growing business.

Twenty years after planting their first grapevines, partners Tim and Greg Nollette are planning a major expansion of their Niobrara Valley Vineyards.

A “tasting room” inside a home will be replaced by a 5,940-square-foot building that will feature a commercial kitchen — for the winery’s popular pizza nights, prime rib Sundays and murder mysteries — as well as space for both a larger tasting room and an events center for weddings and other gatherings.

Expanded campground

The expansion will also include an upgraded campground, with 10 hookups for RVs, a restroom and a shower house. A 5,000-foot pathway will connect campers to the new visitors center.

Greg Nollette said that with 100 people showing up for their Friday night pizza events, and with a new generation of Nollettes excited about continuing the business, it was time to expand.

“Things have really taken off for us,” Greg Nollette said. “We have young people who have interest. Rather than close up and shut the door, we’re going to keep going.”

Nollette and his brother are both retired agriculture educators.

Block grant helps expansion

On Sept. 26, the Nollettes held a groundbreaking ceremony for the $736,000 expansion, which will be partially funded by a $385,000 Community Development Block Grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development.

The vineyard plans to add two full-time employees and seeks to continue to draw local fans, as well as visitors from nearby Merritt Reservoir and tourists who have paddled the Niobrara River.

Lt. Gov. Mike Foley was among the dignitaries who made the trip for the groundbreaking to Nenzel, which is 335 miles from Lincoln.

Foley, in a press release, said the story of Niobrara Valley Vineyards showcases “why we choose to call Nebraska home.”

The vineyard, which attracts about 5,000 visitors a year, first grew grapes for a nearby vinegar production facility in Cody, George Paul Vinegar. But later, it began fermenting wine with names that evoke the Sandhills ranching culture, like “Cowgirl Blush,” “Boss Cow,” and “Homesteader.”

The vineyard has won awards for its wine from the Mid-American, Indy International and International Cold Climate wine competitions. The vineyard produces about 25,000 bottles of wine a year, Nollette said.

To qualify for a CDBG-Tourism Development grant, an attraction must exceed visits from 2,500 people per year. The program also helps historic restorations, scientific and educational interpretive sites, cultural and heritage sites, and facilitates the removal of architectural barriers, according to the state DED.