- Associated Press - Monday, May 19, 2014

HILL CITY, S.D. (AP) - The taste of South Dakota, according to some, is what happens to be found in berries and glass bottles. That’s at least what Sandi Vojta and Matt Keck, owners of Hill City-based Prairie Berry, seem to think.

As Vojta and Keck churn out barrels full of rhubarb and berry-infused wine, the business of making rosy red bottles has become an enjoyable, if not lucrative, experience since their basement-day beginnings.

Today, Prairie Berry, is among the most recognizable of South Dakota’s prospering wineries.

Since the state Legislature approved the Farm Winery Act in 1996, wineries in South Dakota have popped up throughout the state.

Vojta and Keck were part of an industry that had small beginnings, as only 230 gallons of wine were produced in the state in 1997.

Two years after the passage of the winery act, Prairie Berry became the second winery in the state to be awarded a commercial license. It was then that Vojta and Keck, who are married, began making wine in the basement of Vojta’s father, Ralph.

“Everything had to go up and down the stairs to the basement. We had to fit it all through a 30-inch door,” said Keck.

The fruit the couple used for their wine was hand-picked - something which the Vojta family was quite familiar with. When Vojta’s great-great-grandmother, Anna Pesa Vojta, emigrated from modern-day Czechoslovakia to Dakota Territory in 1876, she brought with her a penchant for making wine. A lack of grapes led Vojta’s great-great-grandmother to be resourceful and use the berries found throughout the Territory.

That made it an easy decision on naming the winery Vojta started more than 90 years after her family’s arrival to the region.

The decision to continue to use the family tradition of using South Dakota fruits was easy.

“It’s almost like a comfort taste,” Keck said. “A lot of people throughout South Dakota know what chokecherries, plums, wild grapes and buffalo berries taste like.”

Using those hand-picked fruits, Prairie Berry’s first vintage was made in 1999 and sold the next year.

As the wine industry and their company was just starting to take off, Vojta and Keck knocked on as many doors and attended as many tastings as they could. Like many other small business owners, the couple had no idea what direction their company was headed.

Banks wouldn’t provide any loans to the brand new business, Keck said. “They looked as us like we were crazy.”

Keck maintained a full-time job while his wife worked on the winery full-time alongside her father, who was pitching in part-time.

Despite difficulties, Keck had an idea the company was going to be a hit. “Sandi is a natural wine maker so she has always had a keen attention to detail. We made good wine out of the shoots and have continually improved.”

Within a few years, the company won a sizable grant and began receiving some national attention. In 2001, Prairie Berry won five medals. The following year, the company won eight, including two bronze medals at the prestigious San Francisco International Wine Competition.

As the company continued to grow, so too did the wine industry in South Dakota. When Prairie Berry made the move to its Hill City location in 2004, more than 18,000 gallons of wine were being produced in the state - a far cry from the 1997 production figures - but an even farther cry from today’s totals.

More than 100,000 gallons of wine was produced in South Dakota in 2013, according to estimates by the state Department of Agriculture.

With the state’s wine production hitting record levels, the company is putting the finishing touches on an outdoor amphitheater and an event center, which will be used to host weddings and receptions. It is also preparing to celebrate the grand opening of another location in Sioux Falls, which is scheduled to open in late May.

“The business is growing in directions we didn’t know it would take,” Keck said. “Life is always a journey. It just has twists and turns.”

He said the growth is based off of the needs and desires expressed by Prairie Berry’s customers.

As the company expands, the owners don’t seem to take themselves too seriously.

“We (are) not trying to be hotty totty,” Keck said. “We want to be approachable.”

That approachability makes sense considering South Dakota’s most famous wine is Prairie Berry’s Red Ass Rhubarb. The wine got its name after Ralph’s face turned red because he accidentally dumped elderberry into a tank of wine.

Ralph’s face is no longer red as his daughter’s company is one of more than a dozen wineries found in the state trying to fulfill the needs and desires of a growing industry.

“We’re just happy to be a part of it,” Keck said.

___

Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, http://www.capjournal.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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