- Associated Press - Monday, November 23, 2015

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - There is a growing wine trail in North Dakota, but so far it stops before it gets to the MonDak. In eastern Montana the border lies at about Miles City, and in western North Dakota it stops around Minot, leaving the MonDak with not even one local option.

Behind this dearth lies an erroneous assumption the Williston Research and Extension Center is working to erase. That assumption being that the MonDak soil and climate simply cannot grow a good grape.

Ron Smith, a retired horticulturist with North Dakota State University, said that notion is totally incorrect. There are challenges to growing a good grape in the MonDak, but he’s seen the research being done in the MonDak to develop cold, hardy varieties.

“They’ve got the skinny on that, and it’s not totally optimistic on their part,” he told the Williston Herald (https://bit.ly/1HUzWzp ). “Oil is a big deal out there, but that comes and goes. Once you get a winery established and growing grapes, you’re going to see this being a consistent source of enjoyment. It will help tourism, and it certainly helps the state coffers and tax collections.”

The state of North Dakota has recently offered grants to help establish more vineyards in the state, and NDSU meanwhile continues to test grape varieties and is close to developing recommendations on varieties for the state.

The Williston Research and Extension Center is among the stations assisting in that trial. They have actually been growing grapes more than a decade now. The first grapes went in the ground in 2004. The researcher in charge of the grapes is Kim Holloway.

“We are succeeding in proving that there are grapes that can be grown here that make good wine,” Holloway said. “And I can think of three right off the bat.”

These three are La Crescent, Frontenac and Marquette.

“These are fine grapes to grow in the MonDak for wines,” Holloway said. “I know because I have tasted wines made from them.”

Holloway attends the annual meeting of the Grape and Wine association in Bismarck, which includes a wine tasting competition. The state’s 33 vintners bring the wines they’ve made for a tasting, and these always include far more than just the rhubarb or fruit wines the state is known for.

“La Crescent is a white grape, which makes a lovely wine with pear flavors and some citrus,” Holloway said. “It’s light and fresh, and not very sweet, but would make a good dessert wine.”

Frontenac, meanwhile, stars in a blend by the Ton River Winery in Miles City in Montana. The vintner mixes Frontenac Gris and blanc, for a smooth wine that is one of Holloway’s favorites.

“And Marquette. You can’t go wrong with Marquette,” Holloway says. “Dakota Sun Gardens made a really nice Marquette last year or the year before. It’s a lovely grape. I like growing it, I like growing them all!”

Dakota Sun Gardens is probably the winery nearest Williston on the wine trail. They offer a number of wines, including rhubarb.

“When I first heard of rhubarb wine I thought, my God that makes my mouth pucker just to think of it,” Smith said. “But that is so good it could be orange juice in the morning.”

A foolproof enjoyment is the meadery in Fargo. “You’d have to be the offspring of Adolf Hitler not to enjoy it,” Smith joked.

And last but not least, Smith recommends Uncorked in Fargo, where there are opportunities to make your very own wine. Smith teaches a wine making class, and all his students get to try this out.

“You’ll get about 28 to 30 bottles of your own brand,” Smith said. “It’s a heck of a good deal.”

For those interested in sampling the wines of North Dakota, he recommends a shopping trip to Fargo. “If you want to make it a two-day trip, you could leave Williston and go to Dickinson, then go to Bismarck,” he said.

The key to enjoying North Dakota wines is to accept the wines at their face value. “You have to get used to not hearing the common names,” Smith said. “It’s a new language, and it’s sometimes tough for people to pick up. It’s a whole new cultural change here in Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota. You have to invest in it.”

The perk is a whole new wine culture - homegrown, but no less fantastic than the French and California wine culture we’ve all grown so used to, Smith said.

A map of state wineries is available online at ndtourism.com. These have phone numbers so that you can call ahead and plan your trip.

A number of people have called Holloway about growing grapes in their yards, and she says she knows of an individual who is considering the possibility of starting up a vineyard in White Earth.

A few MonDak growers already make some wines as a hobby, as well.

“There is one guy growing Valiant grapes, which is a really cold hardy variety,” she said. “It produces deep red grapes and he makes a really good wine from it.”

Valiant is more often thought of as a table grape, or for juices and jellies. It makes a fairly sweet wine.

Holloway says she has a couple others that she considers maybes. Among these are Minn1131 and ES12618. The latter is a cold hardy grape developed by Elmer Swenson, a Wisconsin farmer who began a movement to grow grapes in the northern United States.

“He didn’t patent any of his cultivars, so they can be reproduced by anyone,” Holloway said.

NDSU is doing the research as part of the Cold Hardy Northern Grape project.

Eleven states across the U.S. are testing grape varieties for cold hardiness. Collaborators in addition to NDSU include Cornell University and universities in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and growers in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, to name a few.

Holloway also attends international meetings with cold hardy grape growers from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and other countries.

The Vittinord meets annually in Nebraska City to discuss what they are growing and how to do it in cold climates.

Holloway has developed her own recommendations for the MonDak grape growers out there.

“I’m finding that mulch is one of the biggest things,” she says. “It delays their bud break in the spring, so when there is a late freeze that protects them.”

She waits until April to do her trimming, so she can see how much bud loss there has been.

When she plants a new vine, she digs a hole two feet down, and puts the plant in the hole. She fills the dirt in as the plant grows.

“They like a neutral soil with lots of organic matter, and water,” Holloway says. Some irrigation is required in North Dakota, since it is so dry here.

Meanwhile, a researcher in Fargo is conducting canopy studies, the results of which Holloway is eagerly awaiting. The Fargo researcher is looking at how high to grow the grapes.

New varieties are likely to come about as a result of the trials, Holloway said, and the nursery for them is located in Minot.

“I’m hoping once they decide on a variety they think will do well that they will send us a couple dozen so we can put them in the vineyard,” Holloway said.

She hopes her research will embolden those with an interest in growing grapes. On a large scale, she sees an acre or two of grapes as a couple thousand vines, and that would be doable in North Dakota because disease problems are so few since the climate is so dry.

“Somebody who is really brave should step up,” Holloway said. “It’s doable, very doable, and I will give them as much advice as possible.”


Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com

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