It is said that our sense of smell triggers memories more powerfully than any of our other senses, so to me I could have called this post “Pine Wine.” Let me explain.
As a chemical engineering student at South Dakota School of Mines back in the mid-90’s, I enjoyed a quality education on a small campus on the edge of the scenic Black Hills. Though birch, aspen, and maple trees could be found, Ponderosa pines and Black Hills spruce trees largely dominate the area. Long before the Hills can be seen, they can be smelled. Driving into Rapid City from the south or the east with the windows rolled down brings a wonderful mixture of heat, dust, grasslands, history, and pine. When I go back to visit, which isn’t often enough, the scent of pine reminds me of my childhood visiting my dad’s family, exploring the Hills, studying in college, and going camping in the years following.
In 2004, I traveled back to South Dakota to go fishing with my dad and Uncle Hubert. We stayed at Deerfield Lake on the tail end of the Sturgis motorcycle rally where the throaty rumble of tailpipes echoed through the surrounding hills for the first two days. Then it was quiet.
After a week of slaying the local rainbow trout population, we broke camp. My mom, who’d been staying with my Aunt while we men fished, came and picked me up. But on the way back to Rapid, we discovered a little formerly unknown treasure on the edge of Hill City called Prairie Berry Winery. Back then, I was a complete novice when it came to wine (and many would argue I still am!), but in a place known for gold mines, Mt. Rushmore, dinosaur bones, and kitchy tourist traps, this was a novelty.
My mom and I went inside to have a look around. In the various wine magazines my wife and I peruse, I’ve never seen South Dakota ranked against the top grape growing segments of the world. But Prairie Berry isn’t trying to compete with Napa or Tuscany. Instead, it has embraced regional fruit like plums or wild berries, plus imported grapes, to stand uniquely in the saturated wine world. They had the courage to create the winery in the same spirit of the pioneers who dared to settle in the area.
After a few samples, I elected to purchase a bottle of “Deadwood.” It’s largely made of black currants, a native berry that my Grandma Hayes used to pick and preserve. It was solid, and each sip felt like a mouthful. More importantly, it had a faint hint of pine. I don’t mean an overwhelming scent such as with some sort of household cleaner, but a simple accent that said, “You’re not going to find this in too many places.”
When I got home, I elected to serve it alongside my dad’s time-tested pheasant recipe with some birds that I’d brought home from a previous hunting trip. It just seemed right. Pheasant, a bird imported from China that is now iconic with South Dakota, and a wine from my favorite part of the state. The first sip gave way to the underlying fruit of the currants, and the dried pine scent took me right back to a hundred trips into the Hills.
Recently, I learned that Prairie Berry has been making a comparable black currant wine called “Lawrence Elk” that I hope to try soon. With much of the world competing on the backs of cabernet sauvignon or chardonnay, I’ve enjoyed fruit wines primarily because they’re unique, I don’t see them every day, and more often than not, they evoke a pleasant memory of my family and heritage.