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South Dakota's First Vintners Build New Winery for Their Wild Child

Jacob Gaffney
Posted: May 8, 2000

South Dakota hardly brings to mind images of sloping vineyards, sophisticated Chardonnays or elegant Pinot Noirs. But that didn't stop a would-be vintner from opening the state's first winery, where he has created a wine that is truly wild at heart. Now, the owners of Valiant Vineyards, Eldon and Sherry Nygaard, are expanding their business, building a new winery to make more of their signature Wild Grape wine.

The Nygaards are naming the new facility Buffalo Run Winery, after an ancient hunting ground nearby, used by primitive man. The winery will be used to make 13 different types of wine, from Cabernet Franc to Seyval Blanc. The most unusual of these bottlings is Wild Grape red.

Eldon, who founded Valiant Vineyards in 1996, was inspired to make wine from the local wild grapes after reading the journals of American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Nearly 200 years ago, Lewis and Clark crossed into what is now the state of South Dakota, passing close to where Valiant Vineyards is currently located. One of the men in their group, George Shannon, became separated from the others, without any supplies. In order to stay alive, Shannon ate grapes that he found growing along the banks of the Missouri River.

One day, while Eldon was walking around his property, he noticed the same type of grape mentioned in the journals -- Vitis riparia, a species native to North America -- growing in abundance nearby. And so the idea for Wild Grape wine was born.

The Nygaards do not intervene in any way with the growth of the wild grapes; no herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers are involved. Their biggest problem is picking the grapes from the massive vines, some of which wrap themselves around trees growing 75 feet into the air. But the Nygaards have a unique system of harvesting.

Eldon made an arrangement with some German Hutterites who live on a nearby commune, called the Platte Colony. He gives them advice on how to make their own wine for personal and religious use and, in return, the young Hutterites from the group help him pick the wild grapes.

"They are about 16 to 23 years old, and they sing, and they're happy," Eldon said. "But they still pick about 50 to 60 pounds of wild grapes in 15 minutes. And nothing is picked off of the ground." The women, Eldon said, are very agile and excel at tree climbing.

Eldon, who teaches political science at the University of South Dakota, has been pursuing grapegrowing and home winemaking as a hobby for years. When he decided he wanted to create his own winery, his political background came in handy. Eldon authored the Farm Winery bill, allowing wineries in the state, and lobbied successfully for its passage; the bill became law in July 1996. A few days later, Eldon and Sherry were holding the first winery permit issued in South Dakota.

PhotoThe Nygaards chose the rolling prairie around the town of Vermillion, near the southeastern tip of South Dakota, for their new winery. "There is 1 or 2 feet of topsoil on a glacier till," said Eldon. "Gravel and rocks keep the soil mineralized, so it's porous and ideal for the grapes." The temperature in the area can range from 40 to 100 degrees F during the growing season, but the nearby Missouri River helps keep the nights a little warmer and the days a little cooler.

Nonetheless, the Nygaards rely primarily on sturdier American hybrid grape varieties. They started planting vines in 1993, allowing them to start making wine commercially in 1996. They now have a total of 20 acres of vineyards.

All of Valiant's wines, which retail for $13 to $18, are made in small quantities (with only about 500 cases of the Wild Grape). The Nygaards hand-pick their grapes, setting out for the vineyards around daybreak and wrapping up each day's harvest at 10 a.m. This year, the couple will produce almost 3,000 cases, but they expect to boost production to 10,000 cases at their new winery.

The Nygaards decided to build Buffalo Run in time for the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. They are expecting an influx of tourists to hike the Lewis and Clark Trail, which runs through Vermillion, and wanted to be able to accommodate them. "Whenever we can tie history and our region with winemaking, it's amazing," said Eldon.

Slated to open in June, Buffalo Run winery will offer tastings, hotel accommodations, an area for receptions and a gift shop. The facility will span more than 14,000 square feet, with the entire winemaking process -- from the grapes' arrival to storage of the finished wines -- set underground to naturally cool the just-picked grapes and aging wines.

Being a pioneer in the South Dakota wine industry brings a lot of notoriety. "The farmers, politicians, everyone in South Dakota is taking notice," said Eldon. "[The winery] represents value-added agriculture. There is a need to do that in the Midwest. Last month, I had six different farmers come out to watch me prune grapes." Eldon is helping some of these farmers select sites for their own future vineyards.

For more information on Valiant Vineyards and its wines, call Eldon Nygaard at (605) 624-4117. The winery's Web site is www.buffalorunwinery.com.

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