BURLINGTON - The amazing thing about Grandpa's rhubarb wine was that it could double as paint thinner in a pinch.
Well, shucks, it never killed anyone and besides, Grandpa had a lot of fun down there in the basement, sampling and so forth.
Little did he know that wine from that old standby fruit of Grandma's garden would be elevated to an art form, mainly because it's possible to make a rhubarb wine that tastes delicately like the rhubarb instead of kerpow! like the alcohol content.
Of course, not everyone had a grandpa or an uncle who troubled himself with winemaking in summer or early fall, using everything from dandelions to wild plums from down by the creek.
Those who didn't, missed the experience of tasting the hardy fruit of the harsh prairie transformed into a pale liquid brought out for holiday dinners.
Like the partial medicine it was, kids would get a shot glass full to pinken their cheeks.
Far from being forgotten, fruit wine is a tradition that's coming of age in North Dakota.
There are two wineries that make wine from native North Dakota fruit and at least two more opening soon.
It won't be much longer and wine lovers will be able to make a weekend winery tour in this state, gaining something they may have missed in childhood or regaining a taste experience they remember with fondness.
The two wineries - Pointe of View Winery in Burlington and Maple River Winery in Casselton - make wine from rhubarb, apples, crab apples, chokecherries, apricots, wild plums and honey.
They are not the only wineries in the state, but they are the only two in which the wine is made from native fruit.
Two others expect to make similar wines this year, while a Red River valley vintner makes and sells a grape concentrate wine.
No two bottles of wine are the same, and neither are North Dakota's two native fruit wineries.
State licensing law lets owners decide if they'll be a domestic winery, meaning they make and sell on premises in tasting rooms, or a manufacturing winery, which means they sell through bottle shops.
Sit back in a recliner this wintry day, perhaps with a glass of wine to set the mood, and join us on a tour of each.
Pointe of View
Pointe of View Winery in Burlington gets its name from its location.
The winery is inside what looks from the outside like a roomy, three-stall garage with a stunning overlook of the Des Lacs River valley west of Minot.
It's the fermentation of a long friendship between two guys who experimented with home winemaking long before they got serious.
Ken Eggleston and Jeff Peterson played around with little gallon batches of wine made of everything from chokecherries, to apples, to store-bought pineapple juice.
They'd get together on Friday nights to compare notes. Some of their experiments were wonderful; others, like Grandpa's occasional batch of over-fermented rhubarb, had a good future as drain cleaner.
Over time, they learned and it's been a long time since they concocted anything that could strip paint from a wall.
When they decided to take their hobby to a higher, commercial level, they encountered Prohibition-era restrictions in state law.
Working with local lawmakers, they were able to get the restrictions removed, and in April 2002 they received their federal license, making North Dakota the last of all 50 states to have a registered winery.
They decided early on that Pointe of View would be a domestic winery, with all sales on premises.
Their tasting room is tastefully done and a specially calibrated wine refrigerator keeps open bottles at the perfect temperature for tasting. It's open May through October and otherwise by appointment.
They make several honey-based wines, as well as chokecherry, apple, rhubarb and a prairie red, made from Minnesota-grown grapes.
Last season, they bottled nearly 8,000 bottles of wine, made mainly from native fruit purchased in small lots, from say, a farmwife with an exceptionally large patch of rhubarb willing to sell it for 75 cents a pound.
The fruit-to-bottle ratio is enormous. For example, 1,000 pounds of handpicked chokecherries make 100 gallons of wine, which is roughly 1.7 pounds of fruit per bottle.
The alcohol content is purposely kept low - around 11 percent - to enhance the fruit experience.
"We want the wine to fully declare what's in there," said Eggleston.
Their wines have to be tasted, not described, to be experienced. They are not cloyingly sweet, like the Annie Greensprings or Boones Farm fruit wines, nor does the alcohol make a statement.
Instead, there is a softness to them, with the taste appearing quietly on the back of the tongue.
Pointe of View's products are available to people who tour the premises or stop into the tasting room. Pointe of View wines are not available at bottle shops.
"We're about the winery experience," said Peterson. "We want people to see the wine-making room and see the vines growing out there."
That's right. He did say "out there" in the same sentence as "vines."
The Pointe of View vineyard is unlike any vision a wine lover may have, of grape vines drenched in California sunlight.
Now, the stalwart neatly spaced rows of grape vines are knee-deep in snow and Eggleston and Peterson can only hope and pray they survive this winter of heavy snow and bitter cold.
Fun and wonderful-tasting as their fruit wines may be, they are still not grape wines, and the wine industry is all about grapes.
Pointe of View has 500 vines planted on the property, a combination of 10 varieties, in order to determine which grow best in the soil and climate.
Eventually, Eggleston and Peterson hope to plant up to 1,400 vines for an eventual grape harvest of 12,000 pounds.
Winemaking isn't rocket science, but it requires experience, the right equipment and an exacting standard of excellence.
Eggleston and Peterson say they both tend to be fussy, carefully sampling and then aging their wines before bottling them for sale. They're always learning and will be "until we die," Eggleston said.
After years of being wine pals of the casual sort and now business partners in a serious and growing endeavor, the two men say they haven't encountered a situation they couldn't resolve.
"If things get out of hand, we can always pop a bottle of wine and things mellow right out," said Peterson.
They say they believe there's "huge potential" for North Dakota wineries and theirs to become very good businesses.
It all comes down to what's poured into a glass and savored on the palate.
"In the end, it better be a good product," Eggleston said.
Pointe of View wines range in price from $10 to $14. For information, their Web site is http://www.povwinery.com.
Maple River Winery
When the nationally distributed Food & Wine magazine picked the 2004 top 10 non-grape fruit wines, it looked the country all over from Hawaii to New Jersey.
It found an unlikely favorite in an unlikely place.
An apple jalapeno wine made at Maple River Winery in Casselton is number seven on the top 10 list, along with wines made from pineapple juice and sumac berries.
It goes to show that wine, while mainly associated with grapes, truly can be from any vegetable, fruit, herb or spice known to man and in combinations limited only by taste and imagination.
Two years ago, Maple River Winery owner Greg Kempel and his wife, Susan, imagined a winery in downtown Casselton.
They imagined a winery in a state that ranks 50th in wine consumption and was the last of any with a registered winery.
They knew that bottle shops are flooded with wines from all over the country and the world and they knew if they wanted to succeed, they had to be unique.
So, they imagined wines made from the fruits of North Dakota, doing on a large scale what they and some neighbor friends had been playing with on a small experimental scale.
They started bottling and released their first wines in April 2003.
They hoped to sell 10,000 bottles. Instead, they sold 12,000 and expect to sell 20,000 by the end of their first year.
Their first order for bottles came in on one pallet. This year, they're ordering semi loads of 37,000 bottles with plans to bottle in the range of 100,000.
Their license is for manufacturing wine, which means they make wines and sell them to wholesalers, which in turn sell them to retailers.
Their label can be found in 200 bottle shops in North Dakota and right next door at the Red Baron Lounge in Casselton, which will gladly provide samples.
Wineries are not industrial spaces.
They require enough space for vats where fruit, to which sugar, yeast and a touch of water, has been added can ferment. They require space for storing empty and full bottles and they require some marketing space, where information or the product itself can be gotten.
Kempel said his back doors are the busiest doors in North Dakota at harvest time.
He buys North Dakota fruit - rhubarb, raspberries, chokecherries, wild plums, apricots and apples - by the bucket and the bushel, from people who roll up in Cadillacs and old pickups.
His favorite buy was from a young boy who made a pouch with his T-shirt and filled it with chokecherries. The boy's T-shirt was stained the color of the prairie cherries and so was his smile.
"People want to be part of it," he said.
North Dakota's fruit-based wineries require a lot of fruit.
Kempel said he'll buy 90,000 pounds of fruit this year, including 20,000 pounds of apples, 8,000 pounds of chokecherries, 20,000 pounds of rhubarb and the list goes on.
He expects he'll pay more for it as the buy-sell relationship enters a more sophisticated phase.
His numbers and feedback from retailers convince him that his sales have moved from the "buy a bottle as a novelty" mode to the satisfied repeat-customer mode, a big transition in any niche business, especially one in which there are so many competing choices.
"We knew what to expect, but not at this level," he said.
Recently, when North Dakota's famous temperature ranges did their "bottomed-out" thing, people reached for Maple River's apple cinnamon wine. They heated it up and savored the moderately sweet warmth that hinted of summer-ripened apples.
All their wines are delicately flavored and range from a fairly dry country apple, to a sweeter rhubarb, the color of a faint blush.
Kempel's personal favorite is apple jalapeno.
"It can't compete with a zinfandel, but there's nothing else like it," he said.
The gal over at the Red Baron swears by the raspberry wine, and she is right on. It's even better than a bowl of real raspberries on August day.
Kempel is still experimenting with wine flavors, and he's excited about the potential of a sugar beet wine that's every bit as good as an earthy sauvignon blanc. And no, he hasn't yet made wine from Red River Valley potatoes.
The Maple River Winery is succeeding beyond the Kempels' original business plan, but it has required a huge personal commitment of time and energy.
"If you want to succeed, you have to put in the hours," he said.
He'll take his wines to any event he's invited to - recently the North Dakota Pork Producers' convention - because he loves to have people try his wines and he loves people.
Not everyone gets to say about his work, what Kempel says right up front about his, "It's so fun."
Maple River wines range in price from $13 to $14. For more information, Kempel 's Web site is firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 888-303-5511 or email@example.com.)