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New association promotes ND wine industry

Viticulture holds key to state winery expansion

Jill Schramm/MDN Sarah Peterson with North Central Research Extension Center picks grape clusters at the center’s vineyard Sept. 28.

North Dakota’s wine industry has been growing, and the state’s wineries want to see that growth continue.

They recently formed the Winery Association of North Dakota (WAND) to focus on the growth and development of commercial wineries and serve as a clearinghouse for educational and technical information. The new association hopes to serve as the voice of the state’s wine producers in the public and political arena as it promotes the agricultural heritage of wine.

Rod Ballinger, WAND president and owner of Bear Creek Winery, Fargo, said the association also wants to serve as a resource for individuals who are interested in the winery business and looking for advice to get started on the right track.

“We want to get as many wineries as we can in the state,” he said. “We don’t look at other wineries as competition. We look at it as co-opetition.”

He explained that building a tourism industry around wine requires a cluster of wineries. North Dakota currently has 17 licensed wineries.

Research is key to building the industry and its tourism potential, Ballinger said.

The industry had received $250,000 from the state more than 10 years ago for education and research. The legislative program has completed, but the research commissioned to North Dakota State University has been ongoing. Through NDSU, research has been able to fan out to the Extension centers around the state, which offer different growing conditions for testing grape varieties.

“Minot was chosen as a main one for us because of its climatic conditions there. It’s a really good test bed for our grapes,” Ballinger said. North Central Research Extension Center at Minot also investigates wine quality with the wine-making assistance of Pointe of View Winery of Burlington, which opened in 2002 as the state’s first winery.

Cold hardiness is a primary quality sought through the research trials, with wine quality just as important.

“Unless it becomes wine that customers want to buy, the industry won’t succeed. That’s what it’s all about is wine at the wineries,” Ballinger said. “It has to be good wine, and that’s really what our ultimate goal is.”

North Dakota wineries have grown existing cold-hardy grape varieties, including those developed for Minnesota, but typically those varieties struggle through a North Dakota winter, he said.

“We have to have something more sustainable and more reliable,” he said. “So we can put a plant in and the next year, we have a pretty good feeling that plant can get through the wintertime and be able to be productive the next year, and year after year. That’s what we’re looking for, because it’ll take five years for these grape plants to mature so we can use the grapes from them. If we lose them, well, then it’s a five year grow-back period.

“That’s why we have the research programs – to try to find these varieties that meet those criteria that we need,” he said. “The most important ones are cold hardiness and and wine quality, because you can have the cold-hardiest grapes that could live at 50 below zero, but if it doesn’t make good wine, it does us no good.”

Research both through the Extension Service and at some wineries, including Bear Creek, has expanded the knowledge about techniques for grape production in North Dakota. Research has shown an advantage in North Dakota’s short growing season to trellising grapes on high wires to get more direct sunlight, promoting faster ripening. Still, breeding is essential.

Ballinger said there are strong contender varieties in the ongoing evaluation process for the ideal grape breeds for North Dakota.

“We haven’t selected any yet because we have to be careful. We want to make sure that the varieties that we select and name are really what we say they are. We don’t want to put them out there if they’re not really cold hardy and then disease resistant and make good wine. So we have some that we’re watching. Hopefully, they’ll turn out positive for us,” Ballinger said. “We’ve got to remember we’re a new industry and it just takes years to develop how to make wine out of these hybrid varieties. But there’s no question we can do it.”

Even once the right breeds are developed, wine growers in North Dakota still deal with wind, insects and birds. Another concern is chemical spray drift from other crops. Ballinger said the association plans to work closely with farmers and the N.D. Agriculture Department on the chemical drift issue.

Wineries aren’t only economically important to North Dakota as agri-tourism but they add value to a local crop through processing fruit into wine for direct sales to customers, he said. The ability to use 100% North Dakota grapes in winery operations would add to that economic value.

“If we had varieties that would grow here and be sustained and be reliable here, we would be more willing to put more money into it and grow the industry. Because there’s lots of room to grow the industry,” Ballinger said. “I am optimistic about the future of this industry and the growth of it. It’s just the work that’s got to be done, and it takes, of course, funds to do that. That’s what we’d like to see somehow. We need to keep the funds coming, so we can continue the research.”

WAND is a member-driven organization in which members are fully involved in the governance.

Charter members in addition to Bear Creek and Pointe of View are 4e Winery, Mapleton; Cottonwood Cider House, Ayr; Dakota Hills Winery, Rugby: Dakota Sun Gardens Winery, Carrington; Dakota Vines Winery, Colfax; Fluffy Fields Winery, Dickinson; Kesselring Vineyards, Kindred; Maple River Winery, Casselton; Prairie Rose Meadery, Fargo; Rookery Rock Winery, Wheatland; Sawyer Crossing Winery, Sawyer; Vintners Cellar Winery, Bismarck; and Wolf Creek Winery, Coleharbor.

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