Fifteen years ago, George Johnson and his daughter, Emily, began their first foray into winemaking, vinifying local wild grapes and other fruits in their home in rural Cody, Nebraska. At the suggestion of a family friend, they began to experiment with turning their uniquely flavored wines into vinegar, and today, Johnson operates one of the most successful independent vinegar businesses in the nation. With customers in every state and the loyalty of top chefs in Omaha, St. Louis, and Chicago, George Paul Vinegars offers a product ripe with old-world methodology and modern entrepreneurial spirit.
With the help of a $40,000 USDA Value-Added Producer Grant, the Johnsons conducted a feasibility study to gauge the likelihood of success for an independent vinegary in rural Nebraska, and were thrilled when the study indicated enormous potential for their unique product. With continued support from a Nebraska Agricultural Innovation Value-Added Agriculture grant from the Nebraska Rural Development Commission, George Paul Vinegars produces seven handcrafted varieties ranging from standards like apple cider and raspberry vinegars to more specialized flavors, including Johnson’s signature “Emilia” blend.
By 2007, it was clear that George Paul Vinegars would require a space that could facilitate the creation of a high quality product in such an unusual environment for vinegar production. Johnson’s daughter, Emily, designed a structure using straw bale construction, and the building was raised by hand with the help of family, friends, and neighbors. With its walls of straw and stucco and its high, vaulted ceilings, the building withstands the extremes of northern Nebraska’s hot summers and chilly winters while providing a simple and beautiful space in which to work. During an open house at the newly completed vinegary in October of 2009, George Paul Vinegars sold its first bottles of handcrafted vinegar made with 100% Nebraska fruit, and the business has grown steadily since then.
Even as demand for his product increases, Johnson still maintains hands-on interaction with his product from start to finish. If something’s not quite right, he’s able to tweak the chemical process to get just the right flavor, and he labels each bottle by hand using letter pressed labels created by his daughter at her Portland, Oregon print shop. “I like to be able to look at every bottle,” Johnson explained recently in an interview with the Omaha World-Herald. While George Paul Vinegars has enjoyed nationwide acclaim and steady growth since opening its doors, it is clear that Johnson’s passion for his craft remains the driving force behind the business’s success.
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It is good to see such innovation is being supported by our tax payer dollars.