The classic image of vineyards is hillsides in California and Italy. But some vintners in South Dakota are creating their product with home grown flavor. There are more than 30 licensed wineries in the state.
Almost 2000 leafy, green vines climb up short wire fences on a hilly, yellow field. This is the Old Folsom Vineyard near Rapid City. The crops grow in orderly rows and stand tall next to neatly trimmed grass. Several people fill buckets with small, purple grapes.
Marnie Lee Gould owns the vineyard with her husband, Mike. She sits on a stool close to the ground and cuts the bunches of fruit from the leaves.
“This is the harvest of our red grapes and we started this morning. We’ve picked about half of the red grapes so far. It’s a slow process. Each cluster is picked by hand.”
She says harvest is a laborious process. It can take up to two hours for two people to pick a row clean. Gould says they grow red and white grapes at the vineyard. They’re half the size of grocery store grapes but still full of flavor. Today they’re harvesting two verities.
“One is the Marquette which is a wonderful red wine grape that makes a pinot-style wine and we’re also picking a grape called Frontenac which is an old standard cold climate grape, one of the first ones developed by the University of Minnesota.”
She says all of their grapes are hybrids developed by the University to grow in Northern climates. Their crop faces obstacles like animals and weather. Netting protects the grapes from birds and deer but just one hail storm can kill a crop. Gould says running the vineyard is farming.
“People think it’s glamorous until they get out here and see how much work we do. It’s manual labor. And our wines were not on the shelf immediately because if you pick a grape it goes into processing and it’s maybe two years before you see it on the shelf.”
Gould says she and her husband started the vineyard after a trip to Italy. They developed a love for wine grapes and have learned a lot with the relatively new business. It typically takes more than 10 years before a vineyard turns a profit. The grapes from Old Folsom are sold to Firehouse Wine Cellars in Rapid City. The Goulds are also partial owner of the Firehouse. Mike Gould empties tubs of grapes from the day’s harvest into two large containers.
“These are kind of your classic bins. They hold probably 500 pounds each. There’s probably a thousand, 15 hundred pounds of red grapes right there roughly.”
Gould calls his dog into the passenger’s seat of a pallet machine and loads the grapes onto a trailer.
“We’ll bring these grapes within the next half hour into the Firehouse Wine Cellars where they’ll go into a Crusher De-stemmer which is a large machine that will handle volume and we’ll basically separate the berry from the stem and lightly open up the berry, or crush it a little bit so it’ll start to juice.”
Gould helps pour the grapes into a funnel on the machine. The stems shoot into barrels on the other side and the juice flows through a hose that feeds into a stainless steel fermenting tank. He says, there they start a process called a cold soak maceration.
“The grape will then start to break down. The enzymes will start to break down. The enzymes will start breaking the skins down. And simultaneously we’ll start a ferment. And it’ll be a real low and slow ferment. But that’ll gives us maximum for flavor extraction and color extraction as well.”
Vintners add yeast to the grapes to create the alcohol. Gould says the Firehouse ferments for a few weeks then ages the wine for nearly a year.
South Dakota’s first winery, Valiant Vineyards, is located in Vermillion. It started making wine in 1999. Eldon Nygaard is the CEO and a former state senator. He helped pass the licensing laws for vineyards and wineries in the state. He says the industry has an economic benefit.
“The larger wineries are supporting more employment and more more taxation and paying interest to banks. And the smaller share holder might not have any bank loans and it’s a family operation. It’s part of their livelihood involving maybe two to three to four people. So it really varies.”
Nygaard is also president of the South Dakota Wineries Association. The group recently gathered wine, beer and distillery representatives at the South Dakota State fair. Many had increased in sales from the pervious year.
“Very successful. Very informative for the public to see what industry we’re starting to grow. Not just in wines, but this very large increase in craft brewer in South Dakota and we now have eight or nine distilleries.”
Those small scale distilleries are using things like apples to create brandy. He says using the local agriculture to create local products is all around good for the local economy.