The evolving wine industry in North Dakota

More than 12 years ago, anything resembling a grape wine industry was a dream close to fantasy.Yet today, that dream is shaping up to becoming a thriving reality, thanks to the efforts and vision of some very focused entrepreneurs, wine lovers an...
In November, a group of evaluators tasted 90 North Dakota wines and selected 14 grape varieties. Special to The Forum

More than 12 years ago, anything resembling a grape wine industry was a dream close to fantasy.

Yet today, that dream is shaping up to becoming a thriving reality, thanks to the efforts and vision of some very focused entrepreneurs, wine lovers and researchers.

Rod and Sue Bollinger of Bear Creek Winery, Fargo, and private cold hardy grape wine researcher Tom Plocher have begun searching for a grape that would be cold hardy to -40 degrees and make a decent wine in North Dakota. (They are drawing on the original research of the late University of Minnesota researcher of Elmer Swenson.)

Such activity led the ND Legislature to grant $250,000 to fund research for the new grape and wine industry.

NDSU's high value crops specialist, Dr. Harlene Hatterman-Vallenti and her research team of John Stenger and Brittany Olson took up the task of pursuing exploratory specialty hybridization and microvinification work to see what could be produced.

After years of dedicated, meticulous work, the fruits of this labor and support bore some good wine to evaluate.

On Nov. 10, I participated in a wine potential evaluation. This was the result of Stenger's hybridization efforts and Olson's microvinification labors - the 'raw' wine the vines could produce, with no modifications to enhance the flavor.

This was the pure science of wine-making, and once the varietals were tasted, they would need further propagation and grown in various research sites in North Dakota to be sure of their winter hardiness.

Twelve evaluators represented the North Dakota Grape & Wine Association and the research team itself. The tasting was carried out in a totally random and blind fashion, without even the location of where the grapes were grown being known.

The team members selected 14 grape varieties from the 90 that were submitted for consideration. With that selection, assuming adequate hardiness, the 'art' of wine-making will be undertaken.

With about 23 wineries across North Dakota, some grow their own grapes and look forward to trialing some of the releases.

Other entrepreneurs like Rodney Hogan of the Red Trail Vineyard in Buffalo, N.D., grow and sell their varietals to wineries across the state.

With this kind of undertaking, vignerons and vintners alike must be patient knowing that before wine grape varieties are committed to commercial production, they must be certain that North Dakota winters are not going to destroy a major planting.

Don't think North Dakota or Minnesota wines will ever be mainstream selections because of a lack of name recognition? You very likely could be wrong.

It has been proven many times - from the "Judgment of Paris" in 1976, to right here in North Dakota and Minnesota, that when evaluated via blind tasting, the upper Midwest wines fare at least as well or better than the known varietals.

Ron Smith, a retired NDSU Extension horticulturist, writes weekly about his love of wine and its history. Readers can reach him at tuftruck1@gmail.com.