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Bear Creek Winery offers a unique experience, right outside Fargo

Rod and Sue Ballinger opened Bear Creek Winery in an effort to give their children a farming experience.

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The Ballinger family takes pride in its work at Bear Creek Winery. From left are Sean, Sue and Rod Ballinger. (Jaryn Homiston / Agweek)

FARGO, N.D. — Standing on the lush, verdant grass, and looking out at the rural landscape, it's hard to imagine that Bear Creek Winery is just outside the hustle and bustle of the city.

With the blowing breeze and the crisp air, it feels like a lifetime away from the chorus of traffic and the stream of street lights. With the cozy corners inviting you to take a seat, to the fruitful vines baking themselves in the sun, the place has a sense of enchantment. Tucked away only minutes from Fargo lies Bear Creek Winery, a place where you can truly taste the magic.

Laying the Foundation

After graduating from North Dakota State University in 1975, Rod Ballinger became a pilot for the U.S. Navy, as well as the Air Force. He was also a pilot for Northwest and Delta airlines. Flying around the world gave him a unique opportunity to see or taste what each region had to offer.

“By traveling all around the world from flying, I got to see countless vineyards and wineries. I began to have a real passion for it,” Ballinger said.

Ballinger took that passion with him back to Fargo, where he decided to open a winery of his own.

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In the year 2000, Ballinger broke ground and began to build a barn that would later be the heart of Bear Creek Winery. Just a year prior, Ballinger’s father took down one of the barns located on the family’s farm. Ballinger used the blueprints from the family’s old barn to create the new one, making only one change to the design: the color — a decision his father was not so keen on.

“The only difference between the two barns is that the old barn was red and this barn was painted green. My dad was not very happy about it being green. In fact, he didn't talk to me for a couple weeks when he saw it,” Ballinger said.

Ballinger grew up on his family’s farm, which happened to sit on Bear Creek, just outside Verona, N.D. His family raised wheat, oats, corn, soybeans and an assortment of other types of crops. Along with their crops, the Ballinger farm also raised cattle, around 500 head. Ballinger worked on the family farm during his childhood and came back during the summers once he went away to college at NDSU.

A family matter

Ballinger acts as the head winemaker and does intensive research on their grape crop, but his family also plays an integral part to Bear Creek Winery’s success.

His wife, Sue Ballinger, helps run the day-to-day operations on the property and is responsible for the cozy corners and inviting tables scattered throughout the winery. She also helps maintain grounds, decorates, helps coordinate events like weddings that take place on the winery, helps bottle the wine and helps pick the grapes out in the vineyard.

While Sue loves the vineyard, she lets those who visit know the hard work that comes with running a vineyard and winery.

“I always tell people ‘200 vines is romantic, anything more than that is work.’ And we have 2,000 vines here on the property,” Sue said.

The couple’s son, Sean Ballinger, has developed a passion for the wine industry, as well, and helps tend to those extra vines.

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“I would say I am almost borderline obsessed with grapevines. I just love it here; I grew up around these vines,” Sean said.

After studying philosophy at Minnesota State University, Sean came back to the vineyard and began to take on additional roles and responsibilities. Sean is studying under his father to become assistant winemaker, is the vineyard manager, an aspiring grape breeder and a sommelier in training.

“A wine sommelier is essentially a wine guide, a wine expert. They can tell you what region the wine comes from, how old it is and even what grape it comes from. All from just tasting the wine,” Sean said.

Sean has had rigorous training to become a sommelier and has studied wine making under his father for 10 years. He was also a winemaker in Sonoma, Calif., last winter.

For Rod Ballinger, it was important for his children to get a sense of the country he grew up in as a child.

“My husband built the barn and he wanted our kids to see how he grew up on a farm. That is ultimately what started this whole thing,” Sue said.

“We are a farm, just like any other farm in the state. We’re working in the field, we’re maintaining weed control, dealing with insects and weather, everything farmers have to deal with,” Rod said.

Rod Ballinger has enjoyed every second of being around his family on the vineyard.

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“Certainly working with my family has been one of the best parts. It’s just so rewarding out here,” Rod said.

Going the extra mile

Bear Creek winery prides itself on its research program. Due to the region's cold climate, the winery conducts research on the grape crop to see how hardy it is and if it can survive the low temperatures. In addition, they test for disease resistance, wine quality and more.

“The heart and soul of our program here is our research,” Rod said.

Aside from their research, the winery encompasses many facets, and the Ballingers look to add even more options for their customers. They currently have a golf course and are looking to have an amphitheater on the grounds. In addition, they have planted an orchard so they can begin to offer cider.

Looking forward, the Ballingers hope to start hosting farm-to-table dinners and eventually even open a farm-to-table restaurant on the property. Buying and sourcing from local farmers is one of their top priorities.

“If we do not have enough grapes to make all our wine, our priority is to use local farmers and buy local grapes that we can use here at the winery. That’s important to us,” Rod said.

Like everything else this year, COVID-19 has affected the winery. While the Ballingers opted to not open the winery to the public this year, they are taking reservations for private tastings for groups of six to 10 people.

The Ballingers cannot wait to reopen Bear Creek Winery to the public once the pandemic subsides, and start sharing their magic once again.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURERURAL LIFE
Emily grew up on a small grains and goat farm in southern Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University, she moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in ag journalism with Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local agricultural businesses.
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