Bringing the Grape Growing Industry to North Dakota
As one of the founders as well as the President of the North Dakota Grape & Wine Association (NDGWA), Rodney Hogen has become a trendsetter in bringing the grape growing and winemaking industry to the plains. His own vineyard, Red Trail, located near Buffalo, ND first took root in 2003 and is named after one of the first established trails across the state in the early 1900s that helped pave the way for the automobile as transportation in the state.
Today, Rodney continues to be a key player in the grape and wine industry. He helps organize grape and wine tours and other events for vineyards and wineries in the region to come together and form a community through shared knowledge, wines, grape growing and winemaking hacks, competitions, awards, and more. The NDGWA’s mission is, “To carry out education, promotion, and extension of the art and science of viticulture and enology in North Dakota and surrounding areas including any and all agricultural, horticultural and related purposes connected therewith.”
Rodney’s Grape Growing Hacks for North Dakota
- There’s a reason why grapes do so well on hillsides; when planting a vineyard, pick the right site away from trees—grape plants need sunshine and space.
- For planting grapes, choose high ground with a south-facing slope—grapes don’t like wet feet!
- Pick the right soil type—light or sandy soil works best.
- Plant the vines in rows that are positioned north and south for maximum sunlight.
- For the North Dakota climate, chose an early-maturing grape variety. Although a cold and hardy grape is hard to find, most of the varieties we grow at Red Trail do extremely well in this climate. My top five grape variety recommendations are Valiant, King of the North, Prairie Star, Frontenac, and Frontenac Gris.
Every place you stop on your travels to try the wines, you’ll find something for everyone. Many of the smaller ‘mom and pop’ wineries produce the best wines. I think our winemakers in North Dakota are doing a great job of making good wines. The tourists that stop and have a taste of North Dakota wine are suprised by now good they taste. It’s not only the good wine but it is also the people that pour and tell you their stories of what they do and why. It’s time to sit back and enjoy!”-Rodney Hogen
Rodney’s Favorites Vineyards & Wineries to Visit
Northern wines are a little different than the traditional grape wines that you find in the liquor stores in this area. The grape varieties that are grown in this region are hybrid varieties that are cold and hardy for our climate. In North Dakota, we have about 40 acres of grapes growing now and that will keep expanding in the future. If you take a tour of the tasting rooms in the state, you will find many that have fruit wines or grape wines that are from out-of-state produce or juice. Rodney’s places of choice are:
- Rookery Rock Winery
- 4E Winery
- Bear Creek
South Fargo, ND
- Kesselring Vineyard
- Dakota Vines and Winery
7 Things to Avoid in Grape Growing
#1 Choose healthy bare-root plants—do not try and propagate your own vines
Planting bare-root vines is a more straightforward process; you dig a foot-long hole that is wide enough to spread the roots out at the base, backfilling it in and leaving four to six inches of vine above the surface. Propagating your own vines is more tedious and involves more risk, as you are taking pencil-thin chutes from existing vines and trying to start a whole new plant. If you are new to growing grapes, avoid this method.
#2 Do not buy cheap posts for your trellis
Not all posts are created equally—some posts are flat and untreated and thus are weaker and will rot more easily. Be sure to choose a treated or cedar post, which is made to withstand time and the elements.
#3 Do not space your plants too close
Like most midwesterners, grape plants also like some space from each other—the main reasons being they need a lot of sunlight, and if plants are spaced too closely together, they can overcrowd one another, creating more shade and raising the risk of disease. A good place to start is spacing plants seven feet apart in the row, and spacing rows about ten feet apart to allow small machinery to drive in between rows for netting, mowing, etc.
#5 Don’t let the weeds overtake your vineyard
This one may seem self-explanatory, but it needs to be emphasized. Any other plant near your grape vines is competing for life. Your grape vines are just like a garden— keep the weeds out and your garden will thrive.
#6 Don’t let the birds eat all your grapes
Again, this one may seem obvious—but you’re not the only one looking forward to delicious clusters of grapes. The moment your grapes start ripening, birds will be trying to rob them, especially from underneath. This is where netting comes in. Netting will help keep your grapes protected as they continue to ripen for harvest. Netting is the preferred method for most vineyards, as other methods like a canon (a device that makes a ‘boom’ sound on a timer to scare away birds) or spraying with pesticides are more invasive.
#7 Do not give up! Grape varieties take at least three years to produce a crop
Like most plants, grapes are made to reproduce, so they will grow rapidly. But trimming them down during the first few years helps develop a strong trunk system. Grapes have to be trimmed and trained up the wire for the first three years. The third year is when your grape plant will begin producing a noticeable crop, but it still needs to be pruned and trained along the wire. It’s a slow and patient process.
What is being a grape grower about to you?
For me, grape growing is all about being immersed in nature. My favorite time of the year is in the spring when we begin to prune the grape vines and get ready for another year. Just being outside after a long winter is invigorating; it’s time to get back in touch with nature, smelling the fresh air and listening to the sounds of the migrating birds.
How has your passion or appreciation for grape growing evolved over the years, and how has GPWA and the community played a role in that?
The passion never goes away because it is something I look forward to every day; once you experience it, you’ll understand it. The support from my friends and community has played a large part in starting this new venture, especially in growing grapes.
What is something new you have been doing or trying in regard to grape growing or winemaking?
This year I have hired more help to train some of our vines on a VSP-type trellis and install more catch wires—these help the vines to grow upward, which will give the grape clusters more sunlight—the ultimate ingredient to a healthy crop.