A Taste of the Prairie at Maple River Winery and Maple River Distillery

Prairie people have been getting creative with the fruit, flowers and berries growing wild here for centuries. The tribes that lived here first gathered the flowers and greens. Then they harvested the produce, consumed what they could, and preserved the rest as pemmican, a mixture of dried fruit, fat and powdered meat.

The European settlers who arrived later preserved the fruit and harvested the flowers too. But they usually turned them into pies, preserves and wine.

My own great-grandparents were no exception. There’s a graceful blue and gold serving set on a shelf above my grandma’s dining room table. Her fiddle playing, Norwegian-American dad used it to serve dandelion wine when the neighbors came over the play cards. The wines at Maple River Winery are an homage to this pioneer tradition.

Maple River Winery is located in the quiet little downtown district of Casselton, North Dakota. Casselton is about 20 minutes west of Fargo on I-94, and this hometown winery is a popular stop for tourists traveling across the state.

The shop located is next to an antique store, a classic, small town bar and Casselton Drug, which is stocked with an impressive selection of gifts. Grab breakfast, lunch or a gigantic monster cookie from Kerry’s Kitchen while you’re in town.

The wine at Maple River Winery is made from local produce harvested in North Dakota and west central Minnesota. The majority of the wine on the shelves is made from local berries, produce like plums, apricots and apples and even the dandelion wine my great-grandpa was into. Each bottle contains about 100 of the little yellow flowers.

Stop in and try a few samples to help you find your favorite. There’s also a good selection of Pride of Dakota products if you want to supplement your wine shopping with other locally made products. If you can’t make it to North Dakota, the winery also ships to several U.S. states. Check the website to see if yours is included.

Maple River Winery’s products officially range from dry to semi-sweet. (They’re listed in order of sweetness on the website.) But since I prefer dry wine and super hoppy beer, many of these wines taste quiet sweet to me. If you’re a fan of dessert wines, you’re going to find a lot to like here.

For a total taste of the prairie, start with the chokecherry or rhubarb wine. They’re my favorites in the Maple River Winery line-up and on opposite ends of the spectrum.

The chokecherry is dark red in color (it’s the wine shown in the photo at the top of the post) and it retains just a bit of the chokecherries’ tartness. The tannins in the berry skins add just the right amount of astringency to the wine’s sweetness.

The rhubarb wine is mellow and sweet, more like rhubarb pie than the sour/tart stalks of the rhubarb plant that it is made from. It’s light in color and ultra drinkable.

Some bottles feature the Woodchipper from the movie “Fargo,” which make it an especially popular souvenir. (If this wine seems vaguely famliar, it might because it is one of a few Maple River Winery varieties that have been featured on NBC’s “TODAY” show with Kathie Lee and Hoda over the years.)

If you want to try more distinctly Midwestern flavors, check out the aforementioned dandelion wine (if you can find it in stock), a blush made from handpicked North Dakota plums and a dry red wine made from aronia berries. There’s also a Juneberry wine, a few varieties made from local apples and honey and a lilac wine that apparently smells like the lilacs that scent the Upper Midwest for a few weeks in springtime. (I’m not quite sure how I feel about this, but I haven’t tried it. If you have, let me know what you think.)

If spirits are more your thing, head down the street to Maple River Distillery. The winery’s sister company operates a few storefronts down and shares staff with the winery. So if the door is closed at one shop, just head to the other and ask for a tour. Maple River Distillery offers a range of spirits made from many of the same local fruits as the winery.

Maple River Distillery’s chokecherry brandy was named the best distilled spirit in North Dakota by Playboy (an honor I find to be incredibly amusing), but there are lots of other cordials, brandies and varieties of schnapps to choose from. (Trivia alert from this trivia nerd: The chokecherry is actually North Dakota’s state fruit!)

If you want to try a spirit that screams “North Dakota,” try the apple schnapps. It’s closest thing you can get to the mind-numbingly alcoholic apple pie hochzeit schnapps made by sweet little German Russian grandmas all over the state.

The grandma version has such a ridiculously high alcohol content that nobody sells it over the counter, but this will give you an idea of the taste without knocking you out quite so quickly. (Although the staff at Maple River Distillery want me to warn you that this is nowhere near as potent as the homemade version.)

If you happen to encounter the homemade version at a North Dakota wedding reception, do not have more than one shot at a time unless you want to stand up during dinner, get the spins, sit down and immediately need to start drinking water for hours so you can be sober enough to drive back to the hotel after the dance. Let’s just say I learned that lesson the hard way. Those Germans from Russia do not mess around with their liquor.

What about you?
What do you recommend at Maple River Winery and Maple River Distillery?
Want do you want to try when you go there?
What wines or spirits did your ancestors make?
What do you think is the best example of a prairie wine or spirit?

Maple River Winery
628 Front Street

Maple River Distillery
4 Langer Avenue North
Casselton, ND

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