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SchillingBridge Winery & Microbrewery: A Rural Revival
Sharon and Mike Schilling planted the first grapes at what would become SchillingBridge Winery & Microbrewery (SchillingBridge) in 2002. “The plan was to grow grapes for area wineries,” Sharon explains. The original growing operation was not intended to grow into one of the finest vineyard venues in Pawnee City, Neb., but a few years later the entrepreneurs shifted gears and in 2005 SchillingBridge was officially founded.
A group of people planning a winery asked the Schillings to sit on the board because of the couple’s entrepreneurial experience. “We’ve always been working toward bringing business into our small town,” Sharon elaborates. The meeting sparked an interest. “We realized the economic impact a winery could have,” says Sharon.
The Schillings decided to start their own business, and as it went through the planning stages Mike, who according to Sharon, “never thinks inside the box,” suggested adding a microbrewery to the business. When SchillingBridge opened its doors in 2005, it was the only combination brewery and winery in the United States.
SchillingBridge sits on historic land featuring nine acres of grapevines and a historic stone railroad bridge. The limestone bridge was constructed around 1890 and features a romantic archway. In 1904 the Campbell Brothers’ Circus stopped in the small town via this Rock Island Railroad, and tragedy struck during the visit. An elephant keeper performing feeding rounds stumbled as he entered the animals’ railcar. He dropped a torch that quickly caught fire to the hay covering the car’s floor. Eight animals were killed in the blaze, including two Asian elephants, Venus and baby Hamburg.
All of the animals were buried on what is now the SchillingBridge property. In total, the land became the final resting place for three elephants, two cows, a bear, a camel and a zebra. In 1906 the University of Nebraska excavated Venus and Hamburg, and the specimens were added to the university’s collection and were later put on display on the campus in “Elephant Hall.” SchillingBridge pays homage to its rich and unusual history by aiding in the preservation of its landmarks and periodically naming wines in reverence of the railroad and the fallen circus animals, like Rock Island Red, Right O’ Way Red and signature estate varietal blend Forever Venus.
More than just a collection of historical references, the business offers up some of the finest craft brews and wines in the Midwest. “People come to Pawnee City and they can’t believe we have something this nice,” laughs Sharon. “We’re compared regularly to wineries in California and Texas, closer to big urban areas.”
SchillingBridge’s house vintner, Max Hoffman, has been with the business since 2004 and has since received several International and national awards for his innovative wines. The winery offers 13 red, white, blush and dessert wines to please even the most discerning palates. These can be sampled for $5 (provided in a wine glass engraved with the SchillingBridge logo for an additional $3), and of course they are available by the bottle for purchase.
SchillingBridge offers a diverse beer selection as well. The gifted “Brew Crew” includes Mike, president of brewery operations; Kelly Schilling Bletscher, vice president of the operation; and Dallas Schilling, who splits his time between promoting and selling it. The team offers eight different craft beers, from popular pale ales to a zesty lemon-lime lager. All beers in rotation are available on tap at SchillingBridge’s tasting room and visitors can take their favorites home in a six-pack or a growler.
All of this takes place in a 12,000-square foot facility capable of producing over 6,000 gallons of wine and 2,500 barrels of beer, and the operation is getting better and more innovative with time, much like the fine wines the Schillings serve up at the family business. “Most generally, SchillingBridge is a destination,” says Sharon. “We found out early that when our guests arrived, they were hungry, so we have worked diligently over the past several years to provide food for them.”
The winery/brewery currently offers dining in a relaxed atmosphere on Friday and Saturday evenings. Visitors place orders at the tasting bar and Sharon says the crew is looking to move toward a full-service restaurant. The current “relaxed dining” setup offers delicious sustenance of all kinds, ranging from locally produced cheese and charcuterie to beer/wine infused gourmet pizzas and burgers, sandwiches, as well as prime rib.
Diners who have had their fill of beer and wine can even choose from a variety of house cocktails, which include the new “Wine-A-Rita,” a signature margarita made with SchillingBridge’s own proprietary margarita cocktail mix, and the “Schillini,” a frozen delight made with the winery’s Sweet Santa Fe wine and available in three sweet, fruity flavors. Also available is daughter Kelly’s homemade root beer.
The Schillings are looking to expand on the success of their beer/wine infused menu. “We have a unique and innovative ‘Cork & Tap’ house restaurant concept that we hope to bring to the metropolitan market very soon,” says Sharon. “We’ll be the first establishment of its type to produce the beverages served through a Tap House restaurant concept.”
The SchillingBridge team has been working hard for nearly a decade to put the local community on the map. “We’ve created ourselves as a destination,” says Sharon. Additionally, the company’s wine and beer can be purchased all over Nebraska. The property also includes, aside from the brewing and winemaking operations and tasting area, banquet/meeting room available for special occasions, and a beautiful patio.
“We’re trying to create jobs and bring people to our small community,” explains Sharon. “We’re trying to revive a niche of our history that no one really seems to care about anymore.”
The sense of fun and family is strong at SchillingBridge, and the company has caught the wine connoisseurs and been enthusiasts’ attention. In addition, as the business grows, the Schilling family is helping to strengthen a local economy. “Our tagline is that we’re revitalizing rural America,” says Sharon, and SchillingBridge Winery and Microbrewery is contributing to the cause, as the owner says, “One beer and one wine at a time.”