George Paul Vinegar is the culmination of many years of hard work, patience, and perseverance by the Johnson family - George and Karen and their three children Eric, Adam, and Emily.
As far as we can remember, this all started with a few scrawny grapevines George planted back in 1999. The Sandhills region provides a unique and challenging environment for grapes. The varietals we grow must withstand our long harsh winters and manage to ripen before the end of our very short growing season.
Before we'd even made our first harvest of grapes, George and Emily were experimenting with making wine from local wild grapes and other fruits. So by the time our own grapes were ready to harvest, we were capable of making a pretty good wine. These first wines, though they were nicely balanced with tremendous fruitiness, were completely different than a Merlot or Cabernet or anything else that most American wine-drinkers would be familiar with. Our grape varietals, as well as the unique terroir of the Nebraska Sandhills, produce completely (and fantastically) distinctive wines. It might have been the unique taste of our wine that inspired our dear friend Noah to suggest we might try making balsamic-style vinegar with it.
Always up for a challenge, we decided to give this vinegar idea a shot. (As if growing grapes in one of the un-likely-est spots on the planet wasn't enough, nor learning to make good wines from these unique varietals.) One of the first resource materials we found was the book Vinegar, often referred to as the definitive text on the history, uses, and making of vinegar. Fortunately for us, the author, Lawrence Diggs, had relocated from California to Roslyn, South Dakota, where he started the International Vinegar Museum. So, as with so many other serendipitous events in our development, we found a mentor and a friend to help us get started. We applied for and were awarded a USDA Agricultural Innovation and Value-Added Agriculture grant to conduct a feasibility study. The study showed incredible potential for a traditional style gourmet vinegar. One promising product area was apple cider vinegar which led us to the folks at Kimmel Orchards of Nebraska City, where they grow and process apples in a state of the art facility. Before we could get started, we needed a place (besides our kitchen) to work. So we applied for and were awarded a Nebraska Agricultural Innovation and Value-Added Agriculture grant from the Nebraska Department of Economic Development administered by the Nebraska Rural Development Commission to help build our facility in Cody.
We wanted our 'vinegary' to be as sustainable and energy-efficient as possible, so here again we tackled something new and challenging: strawbale construction. Primarily designed by Emily and built by our family, friends, and neighbors, it really turned out beautiful. We broke ground in May of 2007 and wrapped up the finish work later that winter. The passive solar design and thick bale walls keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The vaulted ceiling in the processing room and stucco finish make it a truly warm and pleasant place to work.
We broke in our facility with the 2008 harvest. What a joy to have such a nice space with new (motorized!) equipment. In addition to red and white wines, we also made raspberry and apple wines. Soon thereafter, our acetobacter cultures started their slow work of turning our wines into vinegar. Our first bottled vinegars made with 100% Nebraska fruit were available at our Open House in October 2009.
We have many people to thank for assisting us in this endeavor including our family, friends, and the very supportive and helpful people from the Food Processing Center at UNL, USDA Rural Development, Nebraska Department of Economic Development, Nebraska Rural Development Commission and Kimmel Orchards. Ed Swanson, owner of Cuthills Winery & Vineyard, deserves extra special thanks - without the assistance and guidance of Ed and his wife, Holly, this business would not exist. Not only an accomplished viticulturist and grape breeder respected internationally, Ed also has a comprehensive knowledge of wine making. Many of the vexing problems associated with traditional style vinegar-making were overcome with Ed's understanding of the complex chemistry involved in fermentation by yeast and, ultimately, acetobacter. We hope our story is a testament to the Nebraska ideals of helping people with a dream to succeed. The jobs created by this project will be the fulfillment of the purpose for the value-added agriculture grants. We are very grateful for so many wonderful friends.