Hesketts Are New Owners of Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard & Winery
Effective Jan. 12, Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard & Winery, LLC is operating under new but familiar faces. Ron and Sherry Heskett of rural Nemaha have purchased the membership interest in the business.
Ron Heskett said recently that work has been ongoing for almost a year to bring about the change in ownership.
Heskett has been involved with the winery since shortly after it began operating under the late Bob Curttright’s ownership. In fact, he has served as its vintner for several years.
In 1998, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln established a test plot on Curttright’s property, north of Indian Cave State Park. Curttright planted one and one-half acres, about 640 grape vines, in 1999. The suggestion was made that Curttright start a winery. After he did some research and found the Brownville site, Curttright proceeded with creating Whiskey Run Creek Winery.
In October of 2001, Curttright moved the barn which serves as the retail and event building to its new location on the west edge of Brownville and spanning Whiskey Run Creek. At about the same time, construction began on a production facility on this property. Curttright died in June 2007 and his widow Kola retained ownership.
Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard & Winery celebrated its grand opening on Sept. 28, 2002. Heskett said he is currently in the preliminary stages of planning the business’ 10-year anniversary this September on the Friday leading into the annual Brownville Fall Flea Market.
Heskett’s Exposure to Grapes
Heskett first decided to experiment with growing grapes while farming row crops and after attending an informational meeting sponsored by the former Southeast Nebraska Alternative Crop Association in the fall of 1999. He planted eight rows of grapes, or about 640 plants, on one and one-half acres in the spring of 2000.
In 2002, Heskett planted 17 rows of grapes on three acres. That was also the year during which actual production of grape wine was possible from the first plantings.
Ron first went to work part-time for Curttright. Bob later asked Heskett if he wanted to become the winery’s vintner and UNL offered a wine school. Heskett studied and learned how to make wine, starting first with small batches.
Ron continued his row crop operation into 2003, but then decided to devote his attention full-time to the business of making wine. Later that year, Heskett became a full-time vintner.
Heskett said the first wines which he was able to produce were Edelweiss, St. Croix, deChaunac, Foch, Apple and Apple Raspberry.
Curttright’s death brought a period of question as to whom Heskett would have for a boss. “I was willing to go along if a new owner took over. But nothing happened regarding a change in ownership until our purchase became official earlier this month,” Ron said.
Heskett’s own grapes include about 3,300 vines on seven acres. He is planning to add another eight rows (650 plants) this year.
Ron said operating a vineyard is “very labor intensive”. He explained that in the wine business caring for seven acres of grapes is considered comparable to a full-time job for one person doing the work by himself.
Heskett said much pruning is necessary to take care of one’s grapes. He added that most of the previous year’s new growth must be removed with the exception of a few new buds.
He also has to apply a dormant spray in the spring and then apply fungicides every two weeks all summer long to keep mold and mildew to a minimum. Heskett said it is necessary to wipe off the buds on the main trunk three or four times and to remove excessive foliage. He also applies a pre-emergent to the ground as well as a couple of post-emergent applications to keep grasses and broadleaf weeds to a minimum.
As harvest time draws nearer for each grape variety, Heskett must measure the sugar, PH and acid levels to make sure the fruit is ready.
The actual task of harvesting is the biggest business expense. They harvest the grapes by placing them in five-gallon buckets before dumping into tubs which are hauled on a trailer through the vineyard.
Ron said that to create white wines, one needs to crush the grapes and press them right away. However, to make red wines, you need to crush the grapes, allow them to ferment several days and then press them. The vintner also applies yeast cultures which he has prepared.
White wines can be produced in only a couple of months, while the reds take considerably longer. “You can’t hurry the process. Red wine will require a processing period lasting almost a year before we are ready to bottle,” he explained.
Heskett Family Operation
Operating the winery has been and will continue to be a Heskett family operation, according to Ron.
Sherry assists with activities at the winery and with harvest when not busy with her duties as Auburn City Clerk, a position which she has held for over 25 years,.
Son Matthew, who is majoring in horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been actively involved in the winery and vineyard for some time and plans to work with the family business upon graduation from college.
Daughter Amanda, who graduated from UNL in December with a Fine Arts Degree, helps with the business’ Web presence and Facebook, and assists with wine tastings in the Lincoln area.
Daughter Heather may be looked upon to help with bookkeeping duties and special events.
Lauber Another Employee
Brownville resident John Lauber recently became a full-time employee after having worked part-time for about a year and a half. He services the business’ retail outlets checking inventories, making deliveries and searching for new accounts.
Lauber also conducts tastings in a mostly Omaha market about three days a week—Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard & Winery’s product can be purchased at Hy-Vee, Russ’ Market, Super Saver and Baker’s stores, and wine and spirit shops. Locally, it can be found at Auburn Discount Liquor.
“We are looking to expand our business in Nebraska,” Ron said. “Currently, we have product as far out as Hy-Vee in Fremont. But, we are looking to possibly expand to include the cities of Columbus and Grand Island. We have a presence now in about 50 to 60 outlets.”
“Presently, all of our wines sell for $15 a bottle at the winery with volume discounts. We went that direction several years ago instead of having different prices for some wines,” Heskett said.
The winery currently produces 18 different kinds of wine, and it bottles approximately 30,000 to 50,000 bottle each year.
Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard & Winery now sells about one-third of its product at the store and two-thirds at retail markets. Ron would like to see that margin become closer to half and half.
Won Tasting Event
A wine tasting event filmed at Brix in Omaha was aired last November on KETV Channel 7. Brix selected three Nebraska wines to be compared to three West Coast wines in a blind tasting. They compared Whiskey Run Creek’s Riesling to a Washington state Riesling “Snoqualmie”, which is Brix’s best selling Riesling. The four-person panel voted 4-0 for Whiskey Run Creek’s Riesling over the Snoqualmie.
About Whiskey Run Creek’s wine being selected over another orginating from a Washington winery, Heskett said, “It was nice that the panel chose ours and it is good exposure for the whole Nebraska wine industry.”
The panel also compared two other Nebraska wines to their peers in California and had favorable results. Superior Estates’ Tornado Alley Nebraska White was chosen 3-1 over a Pinot Grigio from California and Soaring Wings Syrah tied 2-2 with a California Syrah.
Heskett said he was really glad to see Highway 136 reopened across the Missouri River. “Brownville businesses saw about a 50 percent drop in sales and traffic during the three-plus months of prime retail time when the river bridge and Highway 136 were closed,” he commented.
Regarding changes at the business, Heskett is looking into holding more music concerts and possibly more weekend events.
Facility Can Serve Special Occasions
While Whiskey Run Creek Vineyard & Winery’s regular hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday, the possibility exists for the business to host smaller weddings, receptions, and other activities during the evening hours.
Ron said, “Basically, we are an option for those considering having a function with a limited number of people attending. We can seat 60 people upstairs for dinner and about 80 for weddings and other functions. For people with larger guest lists, we are the first to recommend the River Inn Resort operated by the Smiths.”
“We are interested in doing anything that we can to bring more people to Brownville,” he commented.
Number of Nebraska Wineries Increasing
Heskett said, “It’s an exciting time to be in the wine industry in Nebraska. There are over 25 wineries operating throughout the state now.”
There are also eight wineries in this region and they have joined forces to offer a Southeast Nebraska Winery Trail which promotes people patronizing each business. These are located near Pawnee City, Springfield, Brownville, Lincoln, Palmyra, Ashland, Raymond and Roca, according to Heskett. There are also two more wine trails in other parts of the state as well as an annual passport program that involves wineries and tasting rooms across the entire state.
Enjoys Meeting People
Heskett said that meeting people is another favorite part of his job. I really enjoy it when people stop by and describe what kind of wine they enjoy and then I am able to match them up with one of our wines.