Looking for Some of the Best Wine in the Midwest? Try Omaha, Nebraska

The Old Market district of Omaha, Nebraska / Photo courtesy Visit Omaha
The Old Market district of Omaha, Nebraska / Photo courtesy Visit Omaha

Known for top-tier steakhouses, a world-class zoo and one of the best contemporary music scenes in the Midwest, Omaha’s pulse is one of charm and energy. The River City, home to nearly 500,000 people, was a major railway and steamboat hub in the 19th century. Over the past decade, Omaha has invested time, energy and money to revitalize historic neighborhoods like Benson, Blackstone and the Capitol District. This has given way to exciting new restaurants and bars that place a focus on wine.

“Omaha is a great dining town,” says Corey Keith, co-owner of Corkscrew Wine & Cheese. “The struggle is that the lack of size doesn’t put it on the national radar too often.”

Keith says that Omaha has a close-knit beverage community with a high level of participation in the Court of Master Sommeliers and Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET) programs among locals.

“It’s hard to be everything to everybody, so if we can develop those niches, I think that makes us stronger,” he says. “Right now, there’s a strong contingent of young people who are doing interesting things.”

Heather Smith, general manager, The Grey Plume / Photo by Jake Thacker
Heather Smith, general manager, The Grey Plume / Photo by Jake Thacker

One of those people is Heather Smith, general manager of The Grey Plume and certified sommelier. “People are getting more into how food and wine can go together,” says Smith, an Omaha native. “They’re a lot more open and are getting past these preconceived notions of what they think wine should be, to experience new things. It’s really beautiful.”

So whether you seek an intimate dining experience or to sip rosé at a countryside winery, here are a few of the can’t-miss wine experiences in Omaha, Nebraska.

Where to Relax, Try & Buy Wine in Omaha

Corkscrew Wine & Cheese

Omaha has a fantastic selection of wine bars that also double as retail shops. This lends a relaxed, try-before-you-buy atmosphere to much of the city’s wine scene. Keith opened the first location of Corkscrew Wine & Cheese with his sister in the Rockbrook neighborhood in 2006. He opened a second location with his wife, Jessica, in Blackstone in 2014.

“Both of our locations have 30 wines available by the glass, and that gives us a lot of opportunity to sample and push people to expand their palates at the bar if they choose to, and to then grow their preferences in wine over time,” says Keith. “It’s a place where people are comfortable and socialize and gather in a safe, fun environment that’s not necessarily a bar or coffee house.”

Each location stocks about 700 bottles, with a primary focus on New World wines. Paso Robles labels have become popular at Corkscrew, as are rosés and red blends. Don’t miss out on happy hour, when a glass of the bar’s kegged wines is $5, while at the Blackstone location, you can enjoy $4 bruschetta.

La Buvette Wine Bar & Grocery

Located in Omaha’s Old Market, a funky neighborhood full of thrift stores, breweries and bookshops, it’s hard to miss La Buvette. Situated on the corner of a brick-paved street, in the summer months, the wine bar and shop is lush with vines.

Inside, the vibe is relaxed and inviting. La Buvette has been around since 1991 and features a French-focused bar and restaurant alongside a market filled with cheese and fresh-baked breads. Its wine list is updated often and features offerings from Burgundy, California and beyond. Sip your wine alongside charcuterie, or go all-in with duck rillettes. Just don’t forget to grab a bottle to go.

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Le Bouillon & Howard Street Wine Merchant

Le Bouillon and the adjacent Howard Street Wine Merchant are owned by James Beard Award-nominated chef/restaurateur Paul Kulik. He opened Le Bouillon in 2014, and launched Howard Street in 2017. The selection at the two establishments overlaps, with a focus on Old World wines.

Le Bouillon features an oyster bar and all the French comfort food your heart desires. From cassoulet to a French onion soup made with foie gras, dishes are crafted with particular attention to local ingredients. A daily happy hour offers $5 glasses from an extensive wine list, $1.25 oysters and plenty of other bites.

You don’t need to dine at Le Bouillon to browse the selections at Howard Street Wine Merchant. However, Omahans who can’t be bothered leave the couch can still have a bottle of Domaine Duffour Côtes de Gascogne delivered to their door, thanks to the shop’s free delivery program.

Charcuterie as The Grey Plume / Photo by Admiral District
Charcuterie as The Grey Plume / Photo by Admiral District

Restaurants with Great Wine Lists

The Grey Plume

Lauded as the greenest restaurant in America when it opened in 2010, The Grey Plume extends the same sustainable philosophy to every aspect of its operation.

“We feature wines from smaller producers that are kind of true to the land, that mimic our philosophies as far as being green,” says Smith. The single-page wine list is organized by categories like “juicy,” “dapper,” “rugged” and “stately.” Options range from $40 to $500.

“[Nebraska’s wines] remind me of some Italian wines that have high acidity and still some tannin structure. So that’s kind of fun.” —Heather Smith, general manager, The Grey Plume

“We do [four, six and eight course] tasting menus with wine pairings nightly,” says Smith.

There are only 15 tables in the restaurant, with additional bar seating. Smith takes advantage of the intimacy to inspire interest in the ever-evolving wine list. She tends to forego more popular grapes like Pinot Grigio and Merlot in favor of Tempranillo or, her current favorite, Patton Valley Rosé Pétillant Naturel. Wines are paired with modern dishes like wagyu beef, prepared by James Beard-nominated owner/chef Clayton Chapman.

There are even a couple of Nebraska wines from Niobrara Valley Vineyards on rotation. “They remind me of some Italian wines that have high acidity and still some tannin structure,” says Smith. “So that’s kind of fun.”

Dante

Whether you crave a three-course dinner that features housemade pasta and a bottle of wine, or just a glass of Montepulciano and Neapolitan pie in West Omaha, Dante has you covered. The restaurant focuses on using produce sourced from Nebraska and the Midwest to craft rustic Italian cuisine, reflected in an extensive wine list dedicated exclusively to Italian producers.

This West Omaha outpost specializes in quality food served in a welcoming environment, and you’ll find dozens of labels to choose from, like Il Censo’s Praruar, a Sicilian white wine made from the Catarratto grape, and Inama’s Soave Classico from Veneto.

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The Boiler Room

Gaining its name from a former life as an actual boiler room, much of the building’s historic personality has been preserved in this multi-level bar and restaurant.

For the third consecutive year, Chef Tim Nicholson was a James Beard Award semifinalist, nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2017 and 2018, and Best Chef: Midwest in 2019.

The menu changes often but dishes have included slow-roasted porchetta (green tomato chutney, creamy spaetzle, roasted squash and apples, shishito peppers) and seared Rhode Island scallops (pommes purée, marinated lentils, roasted turnips, sweet soy sauce, fried okra). They’re paired with wines that, according to the restaurant’s website, have a “strict focus on lively aromatics, expressive minerality and effusive pair-ability.”

There are more than 500 labels from which to choose. Try a celebratory Jacquesson Cuvée 737 Extra Brut Champagne or a cozy Failla Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast.

Cellar 426 Winery exterior
Cellar 426 Winery

Where to Experience Wine From Beginning to End

Cellar 426 Winery

First opened in 2012 by husband-and-wife team Richard and Amy Hilske, Cellar 426 is situated on a large lot with a view about 15 miles outside of Omaha. It’s the perfect space for live music, harvest parties, wine classes and tastings that the couple hosts throughout the year.

“We make a wide variety of wines, from dry reds and whites to fairly sweet reds and whites, and things in-between as well,” says Richard. He says that two of their most popular are a sweeter option called Rocky’s Red, named for the vineyard’s first dog, and the off-dry Uplifting Traminette.

Richard notes that Nebraska vineyards are known for the Edelweiss grape, which the Hilskes showcase in their Blue Jay Edelweiss bottling. Richard describes the variety as having “delicate flavors of green apple, honey, and pear.”

“The Nebraska wine industry is still in its infancy,” he says. “The first winery is only about 30 years old and [more have] really taken off in the last five to eight years. I think the quality has really ramped up and we’re having a lot of good, diverse wines across the board.”

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Soaring Wings Vineyard & Brewing

Though Omaha’s wine scene is relatively young, there are enough vineyards to warrant the creation of the Southeast Nebraska Winery Trail. This includes Soaring Wings Vineyard, in operation since the early 2000s. It’s open year-round for tastings, and often hosts live music and dinners.

In 2011, co-owner/vintner Jim Shaw also began to brew beer. Now, Soaring Wings offers more than 20 wines that run the gamut of sweet to dry, including its own take on an Edelweiss. Shaw also produces wine using estate-grown Syrah, and maintains his winery is the only one in Nebraska successfully growing and making wine with the grape. There are also nine beers available that include stouts, a Pilsner and an English ale.

Bartender making drinks at The Berry and Rye / Photo courtesy Visit Omaha
Making drinks at The Berry and Rye / Photo courtesy Visit Omaha

Neighborhoods to Explore

The Old Market is one of the city’s most venerable neighborhoods. Grab a drink at The Berry and Rye, where the menu includes a section devoted to seasonal sparkling wine cocktails. Check out work form local and international artists at Old Market Artists Gallery and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, and channel your inner bookworm at Jackson Street Booksellers. Don’t miss a visit to classic Nebraska steakhouse Johnny’s Café, a local institution since 1922, or Omaha Prime. Both have plenty of wine to pair with your porterhouse.

Just on the edge of Old Market is The Durham Museum, which focuses on regional history and is situated in Omaha’s historic Union Station. Head north to visit the Joslyn Art Museum, where it’s easy to lose track of time as you wander its collection of fine art. Music fans should also keep tabs on who’s playing Slowdown, one of the city’s most beloved music venues.

It’s easy to spend a weekend eating and drinking your way through one of Omaha’s most popular neighborhoods, the Blackstone District. Grab coffee at Archetype Coffee and hit up Bob’s Donuts, where the apple fritters are no joke. Spend the day drinking and snacking on The Red Lion Lounge patio, and end with a salted caramel waffle cone at Coneflower Creamery.

Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium / Photo courtesy Visit Omaha
Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium / Photo courtesy Visit Omaha

If you’d like to spend an afternoon reconnecting with nature, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is one of the country’s best. The nearby Lauritzen Gardens botanical center boasts an array of vibrant flora. The city also boasts 85 miles of paved trails that weave around the city, which makes it easy to explore by foot or bicycle.

Published on May 16, 2019
Topics: Travel


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