What happens when a horticulturist and a marketing/accountant both enjoy wine? They decide to start a vineyard and open a winery, of course. That’s what Richard and Amy Hilske decided to do almost 20 years ago. Today, they operate Cellar 426 in Ashland, where they produce and sell more than a dozen different wines and welcome guests to their newly expanded tasting room that offers a stunning view and relaxing atmosphere not just during the summer but year round.
Amy’s love of gardening came from her two grandmothers. She grew up loving plants, earned her Master’s degree in horticulture, and is now the Greenhouse Director at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. Richard has degrees in both marketing and accounting, but always had an interest in the tourism industry. Together they enjoyed visiting wineries throughout the country. “We thought with both of our backgrounds that it would be fun to start our own winery, so we decided to give it a try,” Richard said.
The first hurdle was finding land in the right location. There were only a handful of wineries across the state of Nebraska at the time, and they knew they needed a place close to the interstate and have something about it that would excite people to come back again and again. They found exactly what they wanted in 2005—land in Ashland, located near Mahoney State Park and right between Omaha and Lincoln—that was for sale by a retiring farm couple.
In 2006 the Hilske’s planted the first half of their grape vines, and the second half the following year. “It takes three to five years to develop a crop, so we nurtured them for several years,” Richard said. The first building they constructed on the property was their own home, followed by the winery, which opened in 2012. This year they expanded the winery by adding the Skyline Room, which holds up to 30 people for small parties and event gatherings.
Now with about three acres of grapes, Cellar 426 produces more than a dozen red, white, and specialty wines combined. Unlike California, grapes grown in the Midwest are hybrids that can withstand the cold winter temperatures. Many are developed in northern states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as on the East Coast. Cellar 426 grows varietals such as Frontenac, Marquette, and Brianna, which all do well in Nebraska’s climate.
Additionally, Nebraska has a law which states that 75% of wines made in Nebraska must be from a Nebraska vineyard. With the unpredictability that goes along with being in an agricultural industry, flexibility is key. Ideally, Cellar 426 would like to focus on making eight to ten wines per year, but they know they need to bring in whatever grapes are available, which changes due to weather conditions. For example, last fall they were able to bring in La Crescent grapes, so that will eventually become its own wine. “We have a systematic approach and will make a wine according to how it fits into our existing portfolio,” Richard said. “We don’t want two wines that are too similar. We always want to have a variety for guests to choose from.”
That variety includes a range of dry, lightly sweet, semi-sweet, and sweet wines. Even though Midwest wines tend to be sweeter than its West Coast counterparts, the Hilske’s said wine drinkers’ palettes are changing. “People all over the country are enjoying sweeter wines more,” Amy said. “Nebraska wines are very good, and people are more willing to try different kinds.” Many of their wines have won awards, and one of their most popular is their Sangria, available only at the winery.
Both Amy and Richard are hands on with every aspect of the business, as is their son Erich who often helps during his breaks from college at Iowa State. Even their two-year-old son Evan enjoys greeting guests in the tasting room. Amy’s primary focus is taking care of the grapes while Richard makes the wine. He also designs all the labels, and together they come up with the names of the wines, such as “Rocky’s Red” named after their beloved Black Lab. This year, Cellar 426 will produce about 16,000 bottles of wine, of which 95% will be sold at the winery, and the rest sold at a few grocery stores in Omaha, Lincoln, and throughout the state.
With good wine and accompanying food such as cheese, fruit, and charcuterie trays for purchase, guests can relax either in the grand lodge style tasting room, or on the covered deck with a stunning view of the vineyard, tree-lined countryside, and Lincoln skyline. During the summer months, there is also live music every Saturday night. Amy also offers crafting classes, such as wine glass painting and cork projects, and they offer a wine dinner pairing occasionally as well.
“A lot of people just want to get away from their normal routine and come out here to enjoy the scenery, nature, and peacefulness while also enjoying the wine and some food,” Amy said. No matter what reason you have to visit Cellar 426, Richard and Amy want you to have a wonderful experience. “We have great wine, but what makes us really different is our location—the beautiful winery and the way it’s blended with the great view,” she added. “We’re about bringing you into our family. We love meeting people, sharing our passion for wine, and helping others find a passion for it too.”