Grapes & wine in North Dakota: a growing industry

When you think of agriculture in the Red River Valley, grapes may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, growing grapes in North Dakota is becoming more of a reality thanks to the efforts of entrepreneurs, wine lovers, and modern research studies at North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota. These combined elements are allowing northern grape varieties to become more common. These varieties are cold-hardy, hybrid breeds of grapes created by crossing native, wild grapes with common wine grape varieties. 

As this research continues to advance, North Dakota vineyards and wineries are increasing. Over the past few months, we have gotten the chance to visit with a few local producers of grapes and wine in the region.

Red Trail Vineyard

Red Trail Vineyard is one of the largest vineyards in North Dakota. Located along the Buffalo Creek on the outskirts of Buffalo, ND, this family vineyard gets its name from the rich history of the Old Red Trail, one of the first established trails guiding settlers through Dakota Territory. The fertile soils of the Red River Valley and native hybrid grapes combine to make this vineyard a reality. 
Rodney Hogen founded Red Trail Vineyard in 2003. He started with 120 vines, and over the years he has worked to expand his operation to more than 2500 vines, which produce 12 different varieties of grapes. “When I started the vineyard, it was a hobby,” says Hogen “I never thought things would get to where they are today.”  

However, expanding the operation was not an easy task. “As a small grains farmer, a few acres of grapes seemed like such a small amount,” adds Hogen “I thought it would be simple, but I quickly learned that a lot of work goes into raising this commodity, especially in the North Dakota climate. It has been a continual learning process.” 

It typically takes 3 years for a vine to mature to a point where it can begin to produce grapes. This entails working through several uncontrollable factors such as weather and birds. In addition, much of the work done in the vineyards is done by hand. 

A lot has changed from what was originally planned for Red Trail Vineyard. “When I started growing grapes, I noticed that there was a lot of curiosity from my neighbors and those that had heard about the vineyard. They wanted to know what I was doing starting a vineyard in North Dakota,” says Hogen “That’s when the idea came about to open the vineyard to the public.” In 2004, Hogen came across a 100-year-old granary which he bought, moved out to the vineyard, and remodeled into what is now the tasting room.

Rich with history, the tasting room provides a place for individuals to come out and sample some of the 10 wines made by North Dakota wineries using grapes that are grown and harvested from Red Trail Vineyard. These wines are available for sale by the glass or bottle.

In addition to wine tastings, the vineyard also hosts small gatherings, weddings, and Friday night dinners throughout the summer months. There are currently 22 Friday dinners planned for 2017. All of the food for these events is made on site by a chef and paired with wines made from grapes from Red Trail Vineyard. 

If you would like to know more about Red Trail Vineyard, see a schedule of their summer events, or reserve your spot at one of the Friday night dinners, check out their website or find them on Facebook  

4e Winery 

Some of the grapes from Red Trail Vineyard go to local wineries such as 4e Winery. 4e Winery is located southeast of Interstate 94 near Casselton, ND. This winery gets its name from the ancient Greeks who held the belief that everything was made up of four unchanging elements: earth, fire, water and air. Quality products, born of the northern prairie (earth), kissed by the sun (fire), nourished by the flowing rivers (water), and brought to life by prairie breezes (air) are the foundation of the wine made at 4e Winery. By using traditional winemaking techniques in combination with fruits that are sourced regionally, 4e Winery is able to express the North Dakota region in its wines. 

4e Winery started as a hobby for winemaker Greg Cook, who wanted to craft quality wines from pure northern prairie ingredients. In 2012, Greg, along with his wife, Lisa Cook, purchased their historic farmstead property for the winery. They later opened their doors to the public in July of 2015. The Cooks have been working on their dream ever since. Greg, having a Ph.D. degree in organic chemistry, has been a professor of chemistry at North Dakota State University since 1996. However, he has learned that winemaking is more of an art than a science. 

The Cooks have embarked on building a dream winery to share the experience of North Dakota wines with everyone. “Our goal is to produce the finest wines, allowing the purity of the fruit to express itself as it was meant to be with as little manipulation as possible,” says Lisa. 4e Winery currently produces 12-13 different types of fruit wine, and looks to add a few additional wines each year. 

“We are very excited with the growth that the winery has had over the past few years,” adds Lisa. 

With that growth has come a few obstacles that 4e Winery has had to overcome. According to the North Dakota Century Code, being a ‘North Dakota’ winery means that each year the winery is in existence, a greater majority of the fruit that goes into the wines must be sourced from North Dakota. Starting in year two of licensure, 10% of the fruit that goes into the wines must come from North Dakota. 4e Winery is currently in its 3rd year of business, which means consumers can expect at least 20% of the fruit that goes into making the wine to be from North Dakota. After 6 years of existence, the requirement is capped, requiring that at least 51% of the fruit that goes in to the wine be sourced from North Dakota. “It has been somewhat of a challenge and a limit to our growth to find a large amount of North Dakota fruit for our wines,” says Lisa “As research continues to progress, we are hopeful that more fruit will be able to be grown in this region and we will be able to further establish our small vineyard.”

In addition to crafting quality wines, 4e winery strives to provide their wine alongside an experience. “One of our favorite parts about the winery is how it gives us the opportunity to build relationships with our customers and meet people from all across the world,” says Lisa. 

At 4e Winery, visitors can come to the tasting room and learn the proper techniques to discovering the flavors encapsulated in each of the wines. “There is such an art to tasting the wine in addition to making it,” adds Lisa.  One may also plan a private event to come out to the winery, enjoy some North Dakota wine, visit with good company, and sit out on the porch and gaze at the North Dakota prairie as it stretches past 4e Winery’s vineyard.

If you would like more information about 4e Winery, want to visit their tasting room, or plan a private event, check out their website or visit them on Facebook

This article was written by AgCountry Intern/NDSU student Kaci Levorsen.