A lot of posturing goes on among wine connoisseurs. In France’s magnificent Burgundy region there is even a castle in Nuits-Saint-Georges called Chateau du Clos du Vougeot dedicated to La Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. These Knights of the Wine Table are feted to some of the finest wines in the world. Members enjoy great fellowship and merriment at their dinners. Some of the best wines in France have been made from grapes replanted from vines imported from America after a blight wiped out vineyards in France.
It is the grape of course that makes fine wine or indeed the fruit or berry. No good grape becomes fine wine without the masterful hand of a wine maker. South Dakota at first blush would not seem like a wine producing state, certainly not in the same quantities as California or New York, however, new wineries and interest in fine wine spurred by local wine lovers and lots of tourists, has put the state on the wine map recognized around the world.
A colorful Black Hills Wine and Brew Trail map gives directions to many wineries and breweries that offer tours and tastings. The map is copyrighted by Naked Winery in Custer and Hill City, South Dakota. It is easy to organize wonderful itineraries that would take in many of the wineries among magnificent settings of the Back Hills. We began in Rapid City at the newly opened Firehouse Wine Cellars on Main Street.
Firehouse is part of a restaurant and brewery complex set in the old, converted 1910 Rapid City fire station. The restaurant offers good food in a fun setting. There are outside tables in season. We were welcomed by Mike Hackett one of the managers. Michelle Pawelski is the manager of the tasting room. Everything was new except the setting. It is a wonderful old building that has been kept in character next to the original fire house with its restaurant and brewery.
“We have a 2,600 square foot production facility with 15,000 gallons of fermentation. We bring in grape juice from central California,” Mike explained. The winery had just opened a few months earlier, the culmination of a three-year project. The winery uses consultants from Carmel Valley.
“We do have local grapes. They were just harvested last weekend. Three miles south of Rapid City there are Brianna, LaCrescent, Frontenac and Marquette grapes,” Mike said. Firehouse Wine Cellars produce thirteen different wines so far. Their Sauvignon Blanc is offered at $6 a glass and $16 the bottle. A White Label Chardonnay is about the same price. Mike indicated that their Chardonnay contains flavors of lemon blossom.
Mike took us for a tour of the wine making facility behind the tasting room. “This you won’t see for another eighteen months.” He indicated wine being aged. He pointed out 275 gallon grape juice containers, and explained, “White wine fermentation takes three to nine months. Our reds, like the Merlot, require up to two years in oak.”
Mike showed tanks that contained 750 to 1,250 gallons that he said can be taken to below thirty-two degrees temperature. “After aging in stainless steel or oak, the wine maker determines if it is to be bottled. We installed a state of the art sterilization and bottling facility,” Mike said.
Another Mike, Mike Kilroy, the Assistant Wine Maker, was on hand taking test samples from the tanks. A Rapid City native, Mike Kilroy is the brewmaster at Firehouse Brewery next door. “I come over here to help the wine maker and he comes over to help me,” he said with good natured laugh.
“I’m going to take a sugar reading to see if the wine is done. Carbon dioxide is produced when the wine is fermenting so the lid is open. When it is done we seal it. We don’t want air to get into it. We put the reds in barrels and they go downstairs. The reds remain in their casks for one to three years before we bottle it,” Mike Kilroy explained.
This year is a good year for Firehouse Wine Cellars. The weather cooperated. “Last year there was a big storm. Hail took out the bird netting over the vines and we didn’t have as many local grapes. We have four times the juice we had last year,” he added.
Back in the tasting room a wonderful array of food was prepared to enjoy with the wines. Smoked sausage, local cheeses and tasty snacks added to the fun. A large room off the tasting bar and wine storage shelves in the retail area is for parties and events. Food is served and entertainment brought in. For the white wine lover Firehouse Wine Cellars’ Sauvignon Blanc is exceptional.
About a forty-five minute drive from Rapid City is the historic town of Deadwood. This is not to be missed on any trip to the area. The Wild West is still alive with historic buildings on Main Street. Amazing displays in Deadwood History, Incorporated’s Days of 76 Museum and the Adams Museum are educational and fun. Notable characters Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock are buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery above town. Casinos and saloons bring back the flavor of the times when gold was discovered in 1875.
Just outside of town on Highway 14 A is the Schadé Winery tasting room. The winery was founded by Jim and Nancy Schadé. It opened in 2000. “Everything is grown in South Dakota except the cranberries,” Michele Hardin, the Tasting Room Manager explained. “All the fruits we use are native to South Dakota.”
Michele’s roots go back a hundred years in South Dakota history. Her grandfather was Deadwood’s police chief. “We were in gold mining,” she said, introducing herself to those gathered for a tasting. The Schadé Winery room is beautifully appointed and comfortable. There were snacks available and each wine was presented on a table set with tasting cups.
“Our Prairie Dry is like Pinot Griggio,” Michele said pouring samples. “The chokecherry is local. Everybody picks chokecherries. They are bitter red berries from the bush. Have to get a lot of them. They make good jelly and wine,” this affable South Dakotan said offering samples.
Jim and Nancy Schade live in Volga, a town about 11 miles west of Brookings, SD. “They look out their front door and grapes are growing. We use hybrids grafted from this area. There is a short growing season so need to have special varietals,” Michele explained. The Schadé Vineyards are in Volga and available for tours was well.
In keeping with the fun of Deadwood’s historical past, Schadé’s wines have names like Deadwood Aces & Eights. This dry red wine is $17 a bottle. It is full-bodied and bold, named from the hand Wild Bill Hickok was holding when he was shot in the back of the head in Deadwood’s Saloon #10 by an assassin in 1876.
Prairie Star is Schade’s crisp white. It is dry and tangy. It is not as dry as Pinot Griggio, yet a very nice table wine. Schadé’s fruit wines include elderberry, chokecherry, cranberry, plum, buffaloberry, raspberry-apple and strawberry-apple among others. For the sweet wine lover there will be a wine for every palate. Schadé’s fruit wines run about $16 a bottle.
Having fun in South Dakota is easy. Rapid City Regional Airport is served by major carriers with direct flights from Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City and other major hubs. Rental cars are available at the airport. The state’s highways are new, modern and well-marked. South Dakota is visitor friendly with many tourist centers and chambers of commerce set up to help with directions, free maps, brochures, reservations and information.
To find out more go to www.visitsd.com or call them toll-free at 1-800-732-5682. To get information about Rapid City go to www.visitrapidcity.com or call them toll-free at 1-800-487-3223. For information about Deadwood go to www.deadwood.com or call them toll-free at 1-800-999-1876. For Firehouse Wine Cellars go to their website at www.firehousewinecellars.com or call them at 605-716-9463, they are located at 620 Main Street, Rapid City. For Schadé Winery visit www.schadevineyard.com or www.schadewinery.com or call them at 605-578-9970, they are located at 250 Highway 14 A, Deadwood.