June 20, 2013 by
Photography by Mid-America Expositions

Nebraska may not be stereotypical wine country (Hello, California), nor does it play host to the world’s largest hot air balloon festival (that’s reserved for Albuquerque, N.M.). However, that hasn’t stopped Mike and Joe Mancuso from hosting a unique summer’s end event that combines the two in a family-friendly way. On the fringes of Omaha, wine is poured and balloons soar at the Nebraska Balloon & Wine Festival.

Attracting thousands of people each year, this is the event’s seventh anniversary. Happening August 9 and 10 at the Coventry Campus, just south of 204th and Q streets, this year promises an expanded event, with more wines to taste and enjoy and more family fun. The festival begins at 5 p.m. on Friday and 3 p.m. on Saturday. General admission adult tickets can be purchased at the entrance for $7 and children 12 and under tickets are $5.

“Part of the success that we’ve seen with the Taste of Omaha event is the high interest in doing an event in the western part of the city,” says Mike Mancuso, president of Mid-America Expositions, the producer of both the balloon festival and foodie event. “We thought the best atmosphere would be with hot air balloons, which turned out to be a positive and enjoyable part of the event.”DSC_1341_web

Half the festival’s namesake focuses on wine and the ever-growing popularity of wine tastings. Wine connoisseurs, wine lovers, and those interested in trying something new interact with chefs while sampling the various Cornhusker state wines throughout the duration of the festival. A special wine and food presentation will be given at 6 p.m. each night. Tickets can be purchased prior for $12, and includes five wines to taste and a souvenir wine glass, or they can be purchased at the festival for $15.

“This is the one time we can put all the Nebraska wineries together at one place. Nebraska is known for having great soil and producing great crops. Why not grapes and making great wine?” Mancuso says.

Mac’s Creek Winery & Vineyards, out of Lexington, Neb., has been participating in the festival since day one, seven years ago. Joining as a way to reach the Omaha wine market, the high attendance and exceptional running of the event kept the vineyard coming back, says Seth McFarland, owner and vineyard manager.

“We have vastly different wines [from California]. We have different grapes, which gives us a different starting point in terms of behavior growth,” says McFarland. “We’re also Nebraskans, so we’re not afraid of hard work. That, combined with the unpredictable weather, promotes exceptional flavors.”

“This is the one time we can put all the Nebraska wineries together at one place.” – Mike Mancuso

With more than six million spectators attending hot air balloon festivals each year nationwide, Nebraska is throwing its hat into the ring as a premier hot air balloon destination. At the festival, guests can take a hot air balloon ride, as well as see the balloons dance to the musical beat of live performances and witness a balloon light show. The balloons launch at 7 p.m., with the “Balloon Glow” light show beginning at 9 p.m.

Veteran balloonist Mark Enholm will conduct these balloon rides and light shows. Returning this year to serve as balloonmeister, Enholm has been with the festival since its inception. “My job is to coordinate the different balloonists and balloon events,” he says. “All of them are commercial pilots, meaning they’re licensed to carry two or three guests per flight. The first year, we had five balloons participate. This year, we’ll have nine or 10; most are local, though we’ve added one from Des Moines and another from Missouri.”

Enholm credits Mother Nature for contributing to the festival’s growth over the years. “We’ve been very lucky with the weather,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to get—rain, tornadoes, hail…In six years, we’ve been very successful in both our flights and the glows.”IMG_8070_web

He says the professionalism of the balloonists is also a factor. “The pilots go out of their way to make the rides fun and enjoyable. We don’t want riders white-knuckling it. The safety of our passengers is paramount.”

New to this year’s event is the Vintners’ Lunch. This special lunch, from noon until 2 p.m. on Saturday, focuses on supporting local businesses. Fresh, local foods will be paired with Nebraska wines by Omaha’s best chefs to provide a homegrown food experience for luncheon guests.

“Our VIP food and wine tastings have been so popular…we wanted to add another opportunity to add the wine to the food,” Mancuso says. “We thought since the vintners were staying with us overnight, it would be great for them to do a lunch before the last day of the event.”

That’s something Omahans can raise their glasses to.

For more information regarding the Vintners’ Lunch and the event itself, visit showofficeonline.com/nebraskawineballoonfestival.html.

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