This year, North Dakota turns 125 years old, and there is no shortage of reasons to celebrate.

Among boasting the nation's lowest unemployment rate, achieving national excellence in college sports and recently receiving the distinction of being named the "Happiest State in the U.S." by a recent Gallup poll, North Dakota is a state on the rise.

Last month Tony and I attended the North Dakota Grape and Wine Association's Annual Event in Bismarck, where Tony was invited to speak about food pairings for North Dakota wines.

In the past, this would typically mean wine produced from locally grown fruits like chokecherry, apple, honey, rhubarb, plum, etc. In fact, many of us grew up with family recipes of these home-grown, home-brewed cordials, which were passed down from generation to generation.

But North Dakota has a new breed of pioneers, and they are passionately planting the seeds for a strong and robust grape-growing and winemaking industry in this state. In other words, this ain't your grandmother's wine they're making.

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These people have passion, and it was evident during the tasting social we attended before the event's final dinner, when we had the opportunity to meet and speak with many of these grape growers and wine makers. There was a palpable excitement among them - as if they know they're on the verge of something big.

"They really believe that they can make great wine in North Dakota," Tony said. "And they're doing it."

Thanks to the advances of agri-science and the achievements made by the University of Minnesota, and now at NDSU, these new wines are being made with grapes that have been developed to withstand our harsh climate, with names like Marquette, Frontenac, Frontenca Gris and La Crescent. Even more varietals are on the horizon.

Many of the grape growers are established farmers who have expanded their crops to include this specialty niche. While some of them have delved into the world of winemaking, many harvest their grapes and other fruits for sale to wineries.

This brings us to the winemakers, several of whom have careers in other, non-agricultural industries like organic chemistry and investment banking.

These people have an almost crazy glint in their eyes when you ask them about making wine in North Dakota. They become somewhat giddy as they talk about the process, and their enthusiasm is contagious. But don't let that fool you: These people are 100 percent serious when it comes to their vision for North Dakota wines.

One winemaker, who is also a grape grower, described his pursuit as a "hobby out of control," and laughed when I asked him if he still has his day job. "Oh yes," he replied. "But someday ... well, my vision is to operate the vineyard full time. People think I'm crazy when I say that, but I have just two words for them: 'Bottle Shock.' "

For the uninitiated, this is a reference to the 2008 film starring Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman, which chronicles the early days of the wine industry in Napa Valley, Calif., when the accepted wisdom was that fine wine could only come from France. People thought those winemakers were crazy, too, and look where we are some 40 years later.

Tony and I understand this kind of crazy-eyed passion. When we dreamed of opening Sarello's 14 years ago, nearly everyone we spoke to told us that fine dining would never work in this market.

Not only has it worked, but the scene has exploded to include a number of excellent dining options in Fargo-Moorhead that simply did not exist back then. Someone has to plant the (grape) seed, and we think these new pioneers have done just that.

• The North Dakota Department of Commerce Tourism Division has just released a new brochure promoting the "North Dakota Beer and Wine Trail," which highlights 28 wineries and vineyards, as well as eight breweries around the state.

Many of them are open for public tours or have contact information so that you can make private arrangements. For more information, go to www.ndtourism.com or call (800) 435-5663.

Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 9-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine@sarellos.com. All previous recipes can be found at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com.