By Victoria Lusk
In northeast South Dakota, one expects to see waves of corn and wheat.
But another crop is catching the eyes of those traveling near Leola.
“It’s unusual to have a vineyard up here. I get that all the time, ‘I didn’t know you could grow grapes up here.’ And then they walk back and see all the fruit trees and they are doubly astonished,” said Bryant Arioso.
He and his wife, Karla Seals, began growing grapes west of Leola in 2004 on land formerly owned by Arioso’s grandparents.
Now, the vineyard has some people driving by slowly, and others stopping to check things out, he said.
In the beginning, the couple sold their harvest to Wilde Prairie Winery in Brandon. But the end goal was always to make their own wine, then to make growing grapes and that wine into a retirement plan.
And they did.
Rott Vineyards began bottling its own wine five or so years ago, Arioso said. And at just 57 and 54 years old respectively, both Arioso and Seals are retired.
Over the years, more varieties of grapes and fruit in general has been added — most of which is made into wine.
This year, the acreage is filled with 1,000 vines of grapes and 29 fruit trees, Arioso said. Among them are nine different varieties of grapes, apples, crab apples, pears and plums. There are also 23 rhubarb, 20 currant and 10 blackberry plants.
Last year, 750 pounds of apples were processed from the trees.
Arioso and Seals will begin harvesting the white grapes this week, hand-picking them.
Because the grapes are different ages and varieties, they aren’t all harvested at once, Arioso said.
“It’s an ongoing process until everything is completed,” he said. “We let the red grapes hang as long as we can.”
The couple live in a travel trailer at the vineyard during harvest. They then travel home to Jefferson, in the southeast corder of the state, where they process the grapes.
Arioso expects to process around 3,000 pounds of grapes this year.
How sweet each wine ends up depends on what is blended together.
“We don’t just have apple wine or rhubarb wine,” he said.
Instead, Arioso said, there are combinations like apple-pear wine, honey-apple wine or rhubarb-berry wine.
Red grapes are not blended because those are dominant flavors, he said.
Rott Vineyards’ wine is available in Leola at the 10-45 grocery store, as well as at Coborn’s in Huron and Mitchell and Bi-Rite Liquors in Redfield, Arioso said. But most of it is sold at a wine stand along state Highway 10 near Leola close to the holidays, he said.
While the ongoing drought is worrisome for other farmers, it hasn’t affected the vineyard. Arioso said he has drip line on all of the plants.
“If it’s too much rain, we’ll shut off our watering system, but that wasn’t a problem this year,” he said.
Seals’ parents had grape vines and her grandparents made wine, but the idea to begin growing grapes came from Arioso.
“Bryant was doing research on the internet and I guess he came across grapes. One morning he told me, ‘We’re going to grow grapes,’” she said.
“Oh, really?” was Seals’ response.
“He said it’d be a nice retirement plan, keep us healthy and keep us occupied,” she said.
All these years later, she admits he was right.
The couple is enjoying their early retirement, albeit still technically working. This time for themselves in the open countryside on family land with a history.
As the roots of the fruit trees extend into the soil and the vines climb along the land that once was Arioso’s grandparents, that’s something the couple doesn’t forget.
“There’s a deep connection there,” Seals said.
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