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Published July 26, 2011, 09:42 AM

Of wine, flowers and value-added ag

CARRINGTON, N.D. — Bruce Gussiaas once raised grain and later buffalo. His wife, Merleen, once operated a flower shop.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

CARRINGTON, N.D. — Bruce Gussiaas once raised grain and later buffalo. His wife, Merleen, once operated a flower shop.

But the death of their 18-year-old daughter a decade ago sent the Carrington, N.D., couple in a new direction.

“We began with planting flowers in our yard. I think it was kind of a mind-clearing thing,” Bruce Gussiaas says.

What started with those flowers has grown into Dakota Sun Gardens and Winery on their family farmstead near Carrington.

The winery, which opened in 2009, apparently is North Dakota’s newest winery. It sells more than 20 wines, using local and regional fruits and grapes.

Dakota Sun Gardens has two dozen shade and sun gardens and a garden cottage available for group tours, reunions, and other get-togethers.

Visitors, for a fee, can tour both the winery and gardens.

Bruce and Merleen have long been involved in agriculture, in oneform or another.

Bruce farmed for many years before quitting in 2000, when grain prices were much lower than they are today and the economic pressure to increase the size of farming operations was strong.

“I was at the point where I had to get bigger or get out. I got out,” he says.

He then raised bison until 2009, when the lease on the bison ranch was lost.

But he traces the roots of Dakota Sun Gardens and Winery to the death of daughter Katie Jo, who was killed in a 2001 car accident.

Katie Jo was a talented young woman with a bright future, her parents says, and her death affected them deeply. Planting flowers was a sort of therapy for them, and so they kept planting more.

Word of the many flowers and flower plots spread, and Bruce and Merleen began giving tours.

“We had so many people stop by and say we should start a business. People really talked us into it,” he says.

Bruce and Merleen planted a number of berries and fruits in addition to the flowers. They plan to someday start a pick-your-own operation on the farmstead.

They already have 3,000 rhubarb plants and sell some of the produce from them to other wineries that use rhubarb.

After Bruce and Merleen had planted the fruit and berries, “We decided we do the value-added thing and start a winery,” Bruce says.

Paperwork was onerous

North Dakota’s wine industry is small but growing.

The state was the last in the union to have a bonded winery. North Dakota’s first winery opened in 2002, after the passage of state legislation allowing wineries to operate.

Dakota Sun Gardens and Winery is the eighth winery in North Dakota, Bruce says.

The North Dakota Grape Growers Association web site lists seven wineries in the state. That list doesn’t include the Carrington winery.

Bruce and Merleen applied for the winery license in December 2009 and received it in June 2010.

The application process for the winery license is “not for the weak of heart,” Bruce says.

“We sent in over 70 papers just to get our federal license. We had to send in a diagram of the winery and what kind of lock is on every door. (Questions asked included), ‘What do you do with your waste fruit?’ ‘What do you do with your waste water?’ The questions they asked were unbelievable,” he says.

With the federal license, “You have to have your winery in place and have equipment purchased before they’ll tell you whether you’ll give a license or not. That’s what I call putting the cart in front of the horse,” he says.

The process requires “a leap of faith” from the applicant, he says.

A great deal of paperwork also is required to operate the winery after the application is approved, he says.

In contrast, “The state has been very cooperative,” he says.

He notes that the “state license allows you to serve wine on your premises for tastings, which is nice.”

Dakota Sun Gardens and Winery sells wine for $16 per bottle, regardless of variety, at the winery.

The wine also is sold at some bottle shops in eastern and northern North Dakota. Bruce hopes to get a distributor that will put Dakota Sun Winery products into the western part of the state as well.

The Carrington makes and sells grape wines, in addition to wines made from fruits and berries.

But, “We think there’s more profit potential with the berries than grapes. They’re easier to grow than grapes and labor costs aren’t as much,” Bruce says.

New opportunities

Dakota Sun Gardens and Winery has been helped by the nearby Carrington Research Extension Center, where Northern-hardy fruit varieties have been grown since 2006.

The fruit project at the Carrington center seeks to foster new economic opportunities in the state.

Aronia, or black chokeberry, is one of the plants being evaluated at the center and also used for wine at the winery.

The highly productive plant, which produces nutritious dark blue berries, is native to North America and was developed into a commercial fruit in Eastern Europe, according to information from the center.

The berry produces a “semi-sweet, yet tart red wine,” according to promotional material from the winery.

Bruce, who says he and his wife taught themselves to make wine, produce their wine year-round using small equipment, typically in 25-gallon to 300-gallon batches.

Merleen and Bruce work full time in the business. Their grandchildren help pick the berries when needed.

Bruce is mainly responsible for the perennial plants and the mechanical aspects of the business.

Merleen has the main responsibility for the annual plants and is charge of the website and other electronic-related parts of the business.

Merleen says she enjoys “meeting lots of people from lots of states. There are a lot of good people out there. Plus, I really enjoy the flowers.”

On a recent July morning, Lyle and Melodye Thompson of West Seattle, Wash. visited Dakota Sun Gardens and Winery.

“This is just a wonderful place to visit. I encourage everyone to come and check it out,” Melodye says.

Merleen describes the gardens as “country.”

She and Bruce have incorporated many rural and agricultural items into their gardens. The list includes a metal gate once used at a nearby church and the garden cottage made from wood grain bins.

The winery itself is a converted pole barn.

Tourist destination

Some other states, such as Iowa, have seen a big increase in the number of wineries, which encourages group tours, Bruce says.

“They (tourists) get on a bus and visit three of four wineries in a day,” he says.

North Dakota “is a long way from that. But if we could get more wineries and berry growers, it would be great,” he says.

Even with the modest number of wineries in the state, the Carrington winery is attracting visitors from across the country.

“We’ve had a lot of positive response. Hopefully, we’re doing something right,” Bruce says.

Information: 701-674-3316, 701-674-3623, dakotasungardens@daktel.com, www.dakotasungardens.com and www.dakotasungardenswinery.com.

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