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Out of the Ashes, a New Start

Miletta Vista Winery in Nebraska rebounds from fire that leveled it

by Linda Jones McKee
Two years after a fire destroyed their winemaking facility, Mick and Loretta McDowell will be processing grapes from the 2014 harvest in their rebuilt Miletta Vista Winery.
St. Paul, Neb.—On June 23, 2012, the unthinkable happened to Mick and Loretta McDowell, owners of Miletta Vista Winery in St. Paul. They were awakened by four young men who saw flames coming from the winery building, where the McDowells live in the garden level. The couple escaped without injury, but their five-year-old winery—including the production facility, tasting room and restaurant—was totally destroyed by the fire, which was accelerated by 50 mile per hour winds.

Such a loss is devastating, but two years later, Mick McDowell is philosophical about the fire. “Everybody goes through difficulties,” McDowell told Wines & Vines, “and this was ours. We’re grateful we got out without damage personally.” With the support of their staff and their community, the couple made the decision to rebuild the winery and proceed with harvest, which was then only three weeks away. McDowell set up a temporary facility in a shed that had escaped the fire near the main winery building and produced the 2012 vintage. “We didn’t have any smoke damage to the grapes, since the wind blew so hard and came from all directions. The fact that we’re located on top of a hill also helped,” McDowell noted.

The new winery was finished 345 days after the fire and officially reopened on July 12, 2013. It was rebuilt on the same site, but the McDowells made numerous changes to improve different parts of the facility. The winery production area is now in a steel building that is 35% larger than before, and the increase in size gives the winery space to grow to about 15,000 gallons. It has a vaulted roof that allows for a catwalk above the tanks, a new cooling system and better insulation. The tasting room and restaurant area was expanded by incorporating the space that previously had been a deck, and then adding a new covered patio that can accommodate as many as 100 people. A smaller tasting room for 35-45 people was added to serve as a private party room or space for business conferences.

Prior to the fire, Miletta Vista Winery produced approximately 5,000 gallons of wine and was the fourth largest winery in Nebraska. In spite of the fire, the McDowells sold almost as much wine in 2013, and it is on track to sell 6,000 gallons this year. In addition to sales at the winery, the McDowells self-distribute to 160 wine stores across the state. In January, Loretta’s son Casey and his wife Paula moved back home to become involved in growing grapes and making wine; Casey is also managing the wholesale accounts for the family business.

With more family now working in the winery, the McDowells plan to continue growing Miletta Vista. In 2013 they planted an acre of Crimson Cabernet (a disease-resistant and cold-hardy cross of Norton and Cabernet Sauvignon). This year the McDowells added five new growers to the list of vineyards from whom they purchase grapes. “We try to get individuals to grow the varieties we want to have, since 75% of our wine must be from Nebraska grapes,” McDowell stated.
“We have to teach growers how to grow the cold-climate grapes.” For example, the winery has changed its trellis from VSP to high cordon to increase the yield and harvests many of the cold-climate varieties at relatively low sugar levels. La Crescent, a Minnesota hybrid, will shatter if it is not picked before it reaches 19° Brix. McDowell also plans to start a barrel program for the red wines, and this harvest will make a port from Frontenac in addition to the regular wines.

In the aftermath of the fire, McDowell has one piece of advice for all winery owners: check your insurance policies to be sure you have coverage that includes staff salaries, wine inventory and personal property as well as covering the building and equipment.

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