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Success of Three Brothers Winery keeps Farnam couple busy
What started out as a straightforward retirement strategy to grow grapes for Nebraska’s expanding wine industry grew into quite a different operation for Gary and Ricky Sue Wach.
Gary grew up on the family farm near Hayes Center, Nebraska, but while he said he was intrigued with farming, he didn’t like driving a tractor eight or ten hours a day. Following training at U.N.S.T.A and a career in the ag industry, he returned to the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture in Curtis where he taught agriculture mechanics. While an instructor at the college, he invested in 11 acres of land in Farnam.
“Originally, I wanted to plant an orchard,” said Gary. “I planned to retire and grow apples and cherry trees like my grandparents in Hayes County.”
But before he put that plan into effect, a colleague convinced him to plant grapevines instead of fruit trees because they mature sooner than trees and the grape harvest can be sold to nearby vintners in Nebraska.
The Wachs started small, on just half an acre of the property.
“In 2002 I planted 300 grapevines but not before I researched the varieties that would grow in the Nebraska prairie and survive a Nebraska winter,” Gary said. “We started with a minimal investment.”
What to plant?
“I visited four wineries and asked them what to raise because I wanted to know what grape varieties they would buy,” Gary said. “They all told me the same varieties and unfortunately these were the same varieties they had told all others who were planting grapevines. Too many of us growers planted the same varieties and we flooded the market.”
Ultimately, Gary and Ricky Sue, who is a veterinarian at the Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, diversified the vineyard into over 5 acres of 11 grape varieties. Grape selection was made based on wines they enjoy, cold hardiness and a desire to offer some wines not found in other locations. A natural progression was to establish a winery to complement others in the area with the hope of a wine trail in the future.
Gary and Ricky Sue named their vineyard and winery business, Three Brothers Vineyard and Winery, in honor of Gary’s grandfather, Fredrick Wilhelm Wach and his two brothers, Herman and Otto. Herman and Fredrich were born in Worms, Russia, in 1879 and 1884 respectively, immigrating to the United States in 1885. Otto was born in Hayes County in 1889 after the family homesteaded in the area. Later these three brothers married three sisters from the Schultz family.
A challenging business
The business of grape growing and wine making demands rigorous analytical thought, careful planning and hard physical work. After selecting and planting the grapevines, the viticulturist fertilizes the vines, irrigates the vineyard, manages the canopy, monitors fruit development and decides when to harvest each variety, and then prunes each vine during the winter months.
When the grower/viticulturist is also the vintner, as Gary is, the workload expands exponentially. Vintners decide when to harvest the grapes, crush and press them, test the juice in the laboratory, ferment the juice, age the wine, blend and finish the wine, filter it, bottle it, label the bottle, and market the product.
Three Brothers hires two or three people in the summer to help through the growing season and 25 pickers during harvest.
Gary said they have noticed a trend toward semi-sweet to semi-dry and dry wines. For customers whose preference is dry wine, a Three Brothers 2009 white wine has aged in oak barrels and will be bottled and available for sale and tasting in November, 2011, “We also have a 2010 red Frontenac aged in oak and it is so desired by our customers they have placed their orders in advance.”
The marketing dilemma
Another challenge for Three Brothers Winery is marketing the product.
“We want to grow the grapes, produce and sell the wine here at the winery,” Gary said. “We try to do things that will encourage people to come to Farnam.”
Wineries near a larger population base have an easier time attracting customers, but Gary said that during the fairs and festival time in the nearby communities, Three Brothers Winery draws a fair number of visitors to the winery.
The Wachs opened a tasting room in 2009 and currently offer ten wines for sale by the bottle or the case. In addition, visitors enjoy wine tastings , by the glass and bottle, free vineyard tours, small dinner parties by reservation that feature prime rib as well as barbecued pork loin and shrimp on a rotating basis. They advertise appetizer plates, dinners and occasional entertainment with flyers and via email. Special events are planned throughout the year, but, Gary said, “The prime rib suppers fill up a week in advance.” Information about upcoming events can be seen on their website, 3brothersvineyard.com.
As Three Brothers continues to gain popularity among Nebraska wine drinkers, Gary looks forward to its success and that of the newly established Heart of Nebraska Wine Trail of which Three Brothers is a member.
“The 2011 grape harvest was so good that I more than filled all tanks,” he said. “As a retirement project, managing a vineyard and winery keeps me busy but that’s a good problem to have.”
Who to Contact
Three Brothers Vineyard & Winery
Gary and Ricky Sue Wach
812 Lincoln St.
Farnam, NE 69029
308-569-2501 or 569-2443
Winter Hours (August 20 - May 1): Thur-Sat, 1:00 - 8:00 pm; Sun, 1:00 - 5:00 pm