North Dakota: The North Dakota Wine Trail


North Dakota and the North Dakota Winery Trail

In our continuing quest to spend time in all 50 states, it was high time we crossed one more off the “never visited” list. Squarely in our sights for a mid-summer road trip was the great state of North Dakota, home of impressive scenic vistas and yes, wineries.

Our week long trip took us north through Minnesota on Interstate 94, entering North Dakota from the east. On the agenda was an overnight stay in North Dakota’s capital city, Bismarck, along with visiting as many of the state’s wineries as time permitted.

North Dakota has been named by AAA as the most affordable vacation state in the United States, and it’s no wonder as so many of North Dakota’s spectacular attractions are scenic and natural. What’s the old saying … the best things in life are free? It’s also a great place to live by all accounts. The state has the lowest crime rate in the country and ranks #1 in terms of percentage of students completing high school.

While many think of North Dakota as being, well, north, the truth is the state is the geographical center of the North American continent (we saw a marker to prove it!). It’s a highly agricultural state, and interestingly there are more wildlife refuges here than any other state in the country.

North Dakota Wine

As we’ve often stated in our travelogues, every state in the U.S. hosts a winery. And with North Dakota being such a prominent agricultural state, it’s no surprise that vineyards and grape-growing is part of the scene, despite frigid winter temperatures that limit the amount and type of grapes grown here. Some quick research revealed there are about a dozen vineyards here and six wineries. Notably, a new wine trail was formed in 2008 called the North Dakota Winery Trail. It encompasses three of the state’s six wineries.

As one might expect, most grapes grown in North Dakota are hardy and stand up to the cold winters. Frontenac Gris, Marquette and St. Croix grapes are among several varieties that thrive in vineyards here. In addition, native North Dakota fruit is often used in the winemaking process, providing wine lovers a broad selection of wine from a state not commonly associated with wine making.

All told, we were able to visit four of North Dakota’s wineries. We missed Bear Creek Winery (phone: 701-235-6899) in Fargo and Prairiewood Winery in the town of Lisbon, about 45 minutes south of Interstate 94. We are delighted to see a wine trail established and hope locals and visitors continue to discover North Dakota wine.

Two North Dakota Wineries and a Visit to Bismarck

Just 25 minutes west of Fargo is the historic small town of Casselton, less than a mile off Interstate 94. Right downtown is Maple River Winery, making it an easy and convenient stop for anyone traveling across North Dakota.

All the wines here are made with local North Dakota fruit. Owners Greg and Susan Kempel are making a name for themselves by turning out some very unique offerings like Dakota Pear, a citrusy gem with a reddish tint from pear skins. Another is Wild Plum, made from tiny North Dakota plums that are about the size of a half-dollar. There are also numerous sweeter fruit wines to try. All in all, a perfect introduction to North Dakota wines!

Farther west on I-94, at exit 317, is Red Trail Vineyard, one of the largest in the state. The annual North Dakota Wine and Grape Harvest Festival is held here on the spacious grounds, celebrating North Dakota hospitality and fellowship. Red wines are the star of the show here, including a rich, complex Frontenac and the pleasantly sweet Red Trail Red.

We tasted one white wine here, Red Trail White, and it was our favorite of the trip. A blend of various North Dakota-grown grapes, it has the characteristics of a Riesling but slightly sweeter. We were delighted to bring this one home with us, along with a few other North Dakota made products from Red Trail’s on site store.

On to Bismarck

About 2 1/2 hours west from Red Trail Vineyard is North Dakota’s capital city, Bismarck, where we planned an overnight stay. Along the way on I-94, you get a real sense of North Dakota. The prairie stretches endlessly until you approach Bismarck, which is bisected by the Missouri River. The open prairie gives way to bluffs and river valleys and there’s a slight uptick in elevation. Bismarck itself sits about 1,800 feet above sea level, and as you approach the city you’ll see North Dakota’s capitol building rise above the horizon.

Bismarck is a pleasant, small city primarily focused on state government. Near the capitol center downtown is the Peacock Alley Bar and Grill, housed in the former lobby of the historic Patterson Hotel. This is the place in Bismarck to soak in some North Dakota history and enjoy a great meal. The hotel, now closed, was well known for being a social and political center in the state. Numerous presidents visited during the hotel’s heyday, including Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

We enjoyed a hearty steak sandwich and a unique carmelized chicken salad, served with gorgonzola cheese and toasted walnuts. The bar gets lively during happy hour and into the evening, and we stopped for a nightcap to check it out. It’s a congenial place, living up to its reputation as the best watering hole in North Dakota.

During our 24 or so hours here, we hit the city sights. We recommend a free tour of the capitol building and a visit to the Genuine Dakota gift shop, located in the Bismarck Visitors Center. For shoppers, you can stroll the downtown area and visit the many specialty shops.

To experience the ultra fresh North Dakota air, hop aboard an afternoon cruise on the Lewis and Clark Riverboat. You’ll navigate along the Missouri River and learn more about the natural history of Bismarck and the surrounding area.

For dinner, we recommend The Pier at Southport Marina, complete with a bi-level outdoor deck overlooking hundreds of boats adjacent to the river. The menu is casual, prices are moderate, and the setting can’t be beat.

The next morning began with a visit to the Dakota Zoo, located on the east bank of the Missouri River in Bismarck. The zoo is home to 125 species and 600 animals. It’s a great way to walk off a hearty North Dakota breakfast.

Visiting Pointe of View

Heading north from Bismarck on Route 83 brought us to Pointe of View Winery in Burlington, just a few miles west of the small city of Minot. Founded in 2002, Point of View Winery is North Dakota’s oldest winery and its owners are big proponents of grape-growing and winemaking in the state.

Open every day from May to December, Pointe of View’s wines have received numerous accolades in the wine press, as well as garnering several gold medals in American Wine Society competitions. North Dakota fruit and grapes are used exclusively, and there’s a full range of wines from dry to sweet.

We particularly enjoyed Pointe of View’s surprisingly dry Apple Wine, made with several varieties of locally harvested apples. Crisp and served with just the right chill, it’s ideal for summer sipping. Another excellent choice is the St. Croix, a semi-dry red made with 100% North Dakota grapes.

Dakota Hills and Devils Lake

From here, it was eastbound about 75 minutes to Dakota Hills Winery, a few miles south of the small town of Knox. The winery is part of a family farm, situated on a beautiful lake. There’s a picnic area where we enjoyed lunch, and a small petting zoo to make a few new friends. Dakota Hills produces more than two dozen wines, all made from estate-grown fruit and grapes. Among the many fruits grown here are raspberries, strawberries, cherries, plums and apples.

As you might expect, there is a full range of fruit wines here, along with a wonderful semi-dry white wine, Northern Lights. There’s also Dakota Red, similar to a Merlot. We especially enjoyed Wild Plum, a lively semi-sweet offering that pairs well with a good steak. This is truly a place to linger, enjoy a picnic and bird watch. or just soak in the scenery.

From here, we continued east for our last stop in North Dakota, the Devils Lake area. Devils Lake is the largest lake in the state and is well known for fantastic fishing and other outdoor pursuits. A recommended stop is Sully’s Hill Natural Game Preserve, an ideal spot for viewing wildlife in its natural setting.

Sully’s Hill was established in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt, primarily to help save two endangered species: the American Bison and the Elk. At the time, there were only a few dozen wild bison remaining, with elk similarly endangered. Thankfully, both species have rebounded, and their majestic beauty can be experienced up close and personal on the vast grounds. Numerous species of birds are bred here, and there is an on-site learning center managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Closing Thoughts

North Dakota is all about releasing your inner spirit. There’s a tangible respect for nature here, and a real feeling of independence. The wonderful wineries in North Dakota are almost like the cherry atop a sundae … just one more reason to dig in and enjoy! If you’re looking for a completely relaxing destination with fresh air, wide open spaces and people who are glad to see you, consider North Dakota.

Cheers!

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