Legends of the Fall – South Dakota Grape Growing: A Guest Post by Kara Sweet

Hello readers!  I am currently on my maternity leave spending some quality time (and little sleep) with my brand new son! Enjoy this guest post from today’s featured author!


The following is a guest post by Kara Sweet. Kara is a wine blogger in the remote area of the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota.  She promotes wine and the wine and food lifestyle. She aims to build wine drinkers in a beer drinking world one blog at a time! Check out her blog here (Sweet Sommelier).

The sun rose over the mountain, sending golden rays onto the white-barked Aspen trees. Their orange and yellow leaves fluttered in the air as the warm breeze rustled through the valley. The temperature was perfect for shirt sleeves in the afternoon; this was the

Photo courtesy Kara Sweet

Photo courtesy Kara Sweet

Goldilocks of all days: not too hot, not too cold.

Indian summer in the Black Hills of South Dakota is revered by all who live here, mostly because they understand the fleeting nature of such perfect weather.

Just in case residents forget how short-lived this gorgeous weather can be, Mother Nature likes to remind them every now and again.

October 3, 2013, she reminded with Atlas, the blizzard that dumped over forty inches of snow in the Black Hills, breaking trees, suspending power, and killing cattle.

September 11, 2014, Mother Nature showed again who was boss when she dropped several inches of snow, the earliest in over one hundred years.

Black Hills and South Dakota residents don’t enjoy this, but they do learn to tolerate the crazy weather. Farmers and ranchers whose families have dealt with this for generations are surprised little by what Mother Nature throws their way.

However, a new generation of farmers is learning the fickle ways of Mother Nature’s love. Grape growers are the new kids on the farming block, learning to play the hand weather deals them.

Two years ago when Atlas reared its ugly head, Mike and Marnie Gould at Old Folsom Vineyards outside of Rapid City (growing grapes for Firehouse Wine Cellars), had already harvested nearly 10,000 pounds of grapes. The Goulds grow hybrid varieties, new sub-species of vines created by “mating” grapes together in the good, old-fashioned way of plant “sex.” These grapes are generally ready to pick in mid-September. This timing is often impeccable, especially during years like 2013. Mike had Old Folsom grapes off the vines, and the vines ready for winter’s deep freeze, just in time to be smothered in snow.

Matthew and Choi Jackson, on the other hand, weren’t so lucky that year. Matthew had

Photo courtesy Kara Sweet

Photo courtesy Kara Sweet

already led the harvest of his white grapes outside of Belle Fourche at the end of September 2013. He was letting his red Marquette grapes hang on the vines longer. The pick was actually planned the Saturday of Atlas, when all roads in the Northern Hills closed from the snow. No one was getting to the vineyard that day. When roads reopened two days later, Matthew took a small crew to get the grapes as soon as possible before the fruit froze or was diluted by water.

Though 2013 was an extreme example, grape growing is not for the faint of heart, especially in South Dakota. The next fall, 2014, experienced an early hard freeze and September snow storm, also not ideal conditions for grape harvesting. True, grape growers all over the world have the same fears: spring freezes, summer hail, bird damage, fungus growth, and fall frost. Often times these conditions are magnified in the South Dakota climate. For instance, this season wasn’t the freezing temperatures or snow at harvest that caused anxiety, it was the summer that wreaked havoc on grapes.

A late freeze in May did damage to the young leaves and buds. June brought three separate and destructive hail events, followed by double the amount of rain fall of a normal summer. Old Folsom vines had just experienced florescence, when small flowers form that eventually turn into full-size grapes. Hail pounded these flowers, in essence killing the future grapes on most of Mike’s vines. By harvest, merely 734 pounds of Marquette grapes were viable. This is only eight percent of normal. Even this small amount of Marquette was better than the white grapes, LaCrescent and Frontenac Gris. Because these vines were a little ahead in growth, the hail didn’t take nearly ninety percent of the crop, it devastated all. Mike harvested absolutely no white grapes this year.

Further north at Jackson’s Belle Joli vineyards, hail also decimated the entire LaCrescent yield. Matthew’s canopy management—the pruning and training of the vines and leaves that covers and protects the grapes—saved ninety percent of Belle Joli’s Marquette. Over forty tons of grapes were still harvested this season, with no snow or sub-freezing temps during picking.

Photo courtesy Kara Sweet

Photo courtesy Kara Sweet

The best news is that weather issues can affect quantity but not usually quality. It is clear that successful vintages can be grown in marginal climates like the Black Hills. It just means that growers need to use their strengths to overcome the climate weaknesses. The Goulds and Jacksons do not have the fear of grapes getting over ripe here—and yes, this is a real concern in hot growing areas such as southern Spain or inland California, where fruit that is too ripe makes wines that taste “cooked” or “stewed.”

Grape “ripeness” is often assessed based on sugar content in the fruit, called brix. The higher the brix, the more sugar in the grape. Sugar content will get quite high in the Midwest, but hybrid grapes (used almost exclusively by growers in these areas) are also very high in acid. The longer a grape hangs on the vine, the higher the sugar gets, but the lower the acid becomes. Mike and Matthew usually let the fruit hang longer for the acid level to drop to an acceptable state, a state that, when mixed with the higher sugar content of the grape, creates a balanced wine.

Belle Joli and Old Folsom Vineyards generally do not have to worry about mildew or rot like other growing regions, due to the usually dry summers here—except 2015. Their concern is winter vine health. To take the plants from the harsh summers with hail into the unforgiving winters with cold, Mike applies calcium, magnesium, and potassium to grow a vigorous vineyard ready to take whatever Mother Nature may have in store.

Photo courtesy Kara Sweet

Photo courtesy Kara Sweet

When—and if—vineyards in South Dakota survive from bud break to harvest, growers use manual labor to pick the fruit, just like vineyards all around the world. Though the actual wine-making starts at this point, the months of work in the vineyard beforehand are where bottles of wine actually begin.

The fall of 2015 in the Black Hills of South Dakota was truly beautiful. The temperatures were flawless, the fall colors were stunning, and the snow was absent—all qualities that make residents thankful, especially after the two years before.

Like farmers and ranchers have for decades, grape growers rejoiced in this perfect Indian summer that let them worry about other seasons of the year for their crops instead of harvest. Old Folsom Vineyards and Belle Joli growers breathed a sigh of relief this year because the Goldilocks of all falls let them. At least this one year, there was no snow, no frost, no concern. Matthew Jackson and Mike Gould just have to sip on a glass of wine and wait…and wonder what Mother Nature will give them next.