ST. PAUL -- In a matter of hours, the fire that started in the northeast corner of Miletta Vista winery early Saturday morning took away all of the buildings on the site. It took away the owners' home, hundreds and hundreds of bottles of wine and almost all of the medals they'd saved from nearly 30 awards in wine competitions in the past three years.
But it couldn't take the view.
Standing on the winery's patio off Highway 281 and looking out at the rolling hills, you could almost pretend the piles of ash and rubble splayed between the remnants of walls aren't there. Listening to the whistling song of the meadowlark hiding in the trees, you could almost banish the smell of the smoke from your consciousness. Just don't look to your left.
Owners Mick and Loretta McDowell don't know how the fire started. Neither does the St. Paul Fire Department -- yet.
For the McDowells, the story began a little later, when they were awakened at 2 a.m. by the ringing of their phone and pounding on their front door. In a sleepy haze, Mick thought the calls might be a prank. But the caller, St. Paul native Brandon Nowak, knew Mick and Loretta's names. Nowak and friends Remington Smith, Mathew McCarty and Kyle McClary had noticed the fire from the highway.
The fire department arrived within five minutes, Mick estimated, but it was too late. High-speed winds fanned the flames across the structure. There was no hope.
"Once it got in the roof, it was like a chimney," he said.
It took six hours and six fire departments to put out the blaze, and hot spots continued as late as Sunday afternoon. The McDowells saved a few pieces of equipment -- tractors, trucks, a lawn mower -- and not much else.
The funny part, Mick said, is that many of the wine bottles remain. The fire didn't melt the glass, and the liquid inside is intact. Not that it can be safely consumed. Not that the business hadn't lost years of work harvesting, pressing and bottling overnight.
It might be hard to look at the rubble that remains of a five-year-old business, the product of a Nebraska couple's long-held dream, and have hope. But at 4 a.m. Saturday, Paul Perske, who works in sales for the winery, did just that.
"Paul here burst his way through and said, 'I think we can rebuild it,'" Mick said. "I said, 'OK, Paul. I'll let you do my thinking for me this morning.'"
And now, Mick and Loretta have hope, too. They plan to rebuild, with the help of their staff and the community. Soon, the insurance company will evaluate the damages, which the McDowells hope will all be covered. The couple is on the lookout for low-cost equipment and storage so they can harvest the grape crop in about a month and set about doing what they do best: making wine.
"We've worked hard for five years -- I suppose five more years won't kill us," Mick said.
The McDowells have seen an outpouring of community support since the fire. Friends and community members have bought them breakfast, left encouraging Facebook and phone messages and offered them places to stay.
"We've got a lot of people praying for us," Mick said. "And quite honestly, without that, I don't think we'd be as stable as we are. God keeps taking the circumstances, and everybody's just keeping them away."
Fans have bought nearly all of the Miletta Vista wine available at its 175 retailers, from Grand Island to Kearney to Lincoln. Winery sales agent Linda Goettsche was on the phone with her sister when she asked her if there were plans to rebuild. When Goettsche said yes, her sister's co-workers began to cheer.
"You could hear them clapping and hooting and hollering," Goettsche said. "I said, 'Yes. We'll be back.'"
For now, the McDowells are staying in a motel and assessing the damage. They'll spend the rest of the week with their employees, determining what equipment can be salvaged. Aside from about 65 cases of wine in storage off-site, no wine will be for sale for at least three to four months. In the meantime, Miletta Vista's "fab four" top sellers -- Edelwiess, Brianna, Workhorse and Cougarlicious -- will be missed.
Still, the McDowells feel lucky. Twenty, thirty minutes more asleep in their bed, and they said they likely wouldn't be here to plan the next move for the business.
"It could have been so different," Loretta said. "It's humbling."
Right now, they're looking for the positives. Such as the community support. Such as the handful of charred medals that remain in the ashes of the fire. Such as the view.
"It's sad, but there's four seasons to a year and many seasons to a life," Mick said. "This is one of the seasons God's given us. You just keep going. You have no other choice."