Success Story for Fruit Wine Entrepreneurs

Laura Wehde/Republic Photo

Here is a great “feel good” story written by Ross Dolan that makes venturing in the fruit wine industry seem even more interesting and worth the risk. Enjoy!

Those looking for successful value-added enterprises in South Dakota can raise their glass to the state’s young and growing wine industry.

Robert Weyrich, a value-added consultant with the state Department of Agriculture, said the wine industry is active across the state. That appraisal is seconded by Eldon Nygaard, an attorney, state representative and owner of the state’s original winery, the Valiant Vineyards Winery in Vermillion.

“The wine industry in South Dakota is coming of age,” Nygaard said, “and the South Dakota Wine and Grape Growers Association is starting to pull the industry together.”

Nygaard, who wrote the state’s first farm winery act and is generally accepted as founder of the state’s wine industry, is understandably upbeat about its prospects. The business has passed well beyond the stage of a hobby.

The industry has become a serious income generator for the state, said Weyrich, with wine sales officially estimated at $15 million since farm wineries were legalized 13 years ago in South Dakota. Nygaard believes the industry’s actual impact might be closer to $30 million, and Weyrich predicts the state’s wine production will top 60,000 gallons in 2010.

“That’s about 300,000 bottles of wine coming out of South Dakota this year,” he said.

While that’s barely a drop in the bucket compared with the nearly 546 million gallons produced by California in 2008, it’s a start, he said.

Nygaard’s Valiant Vineyards opened in 1993 and his Stone Faces Winery debuted in Hill City in July 2009 — just down the road from the Prairie Berry Winery.

“Prairie Berry has led the charge in the Black Hills and has really built the industry,” Nygaard said.

The Prairie Berry winery, tasting room and restaurant have become a popular stop on tours of the Hills.

“The secondary impact of the wine industry has been huge,” Weyrich said, “not just for wine, but for food sales and other South Dakota products.”

Hill City, Weyrich said, has become a popular destination resort and art center. “They’re doing very well,” he said.

There are other benefits from the wine industry, too, such as higher agricultural investment and demand for grapes, apples, blackberries and other fruits. South Dakota also is receiving international recognition for the quality of its fruit wines, such as Prairie Berry’s Red A— Rhubarb.

The wine —whose label features a picture of a chestnutcolored donkey laden with flower baskets — received major recognition by taking “Best of Class” and “Judges’ Choice” awards at this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

The winery took silver and bronze medals, respectively, in past years for its Phat Hogg Red and its Phatt Hogg Chardonnay.

Just this week, Prairie Berry received a platinum award — a “Best of Show” honor — at the Winemaker Challenge in San Diego for its 2008 Frontenac, a semi-sweet wine.

Grapes for the award-winning wine were grown by Greg Stach, of Lewis and Clark Vineyard, near Yankton.

“Prairie Berry does a great job with their wines,” Weyrich said. The winery’s secret weapon, he said, is its owner, fifth-generation winemaker Sandi Vojta, a South Dakota State University biology and chemistry graduate whose family began making fruit wines in the Mobridge area.

Vojta said the award made Red A— Rhubarb her winery’s top seller, followed by Calamity Jane, a Concord grape wine, and Gold Digger, a semi-sweet pear wine.

She said the expansion of South Dakota’s fruit-wine industry is an example of value-added business at its best.

“And who has more fun than those of us in the wine industry?” she added.

Three new, 10,000-gallon fermentation tanks will allow the winery to double its output, from 50,000 to 100,000 gallons next year, she said.

Prairie Berry boasts a pagelong list of awards, but the San Francisco award, said Vojta, “is absolutely huge. It’s highly coveted by California wineries and wine connoisseurs. It was the buzz of the competition — and how cool that is for a small South Dakota winery to be put on the map like that?”

Vojta’s hopeful her success will help the state’s other wineries.

Weyrich sees nothing but success for the years ahead. Compared with larger agricultural enterprises, the wine industry’s impact is small, “but it’s growing, and we’ve been seeing solid double-digit growth in the past12 years,” he said. Spin-off revenues can be considerable. A visit to a local winery can be a half-day stay or longer for many tourists.

Nygaard says his wineries employee about 50 part-time workers. The opening of Stone Faces Winery required a$1.5 million investment in Pennington County, he said, and more will be spent next year.

That’s something everyone can toast.

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