Spirits run high at first annual Wine Fest

Spirits run high at first annual Wine Fest Toly, Randy (back) and Kim Gerritsen participate in the grape stomp outside of Valiant Vineyards at the Great Dakota Wine Fest on Sept. 11. The Gerritsens, like many others, purchased a custom bottle of wine with a picture of their grape-stomping experience on the label. (Photo by Erin Oliver) by Erin Oliver Vermillionites and visitors alike ate, drank and made merry Saturday, Sept. 11 and Sunday, Sept. 12 at the first annual Great Dakota Wine Festival.

The festival featured a broad selection of home-grown wines from Valiant Vineyards, including a wine made of the same wild, South Dakota grapes Lewis and Clark mentioned in their expedition notes.

"We were pleased with the turn out," said Jacqueline Smith, director of marketing at Valiant Vineyards. "We had lots of good comments from people planning to return and bring friends."

Modeled after a wine festival in rural Nebraska that attracted nearly 4,000 attendants in its first year, the Great Dakota Wine Fest aimed to draw attention to Valiant Vineyards, Vermillion and South Dakota, Smith said.

"We want to capitalize on the fact that not every small town has a winery," Smith said. "(We) want to showcase the museums, the DakotaDome and the shops this weekend. We're trying to pay tribute to the entire state."

The festival featured informational and retail booths, offering books, novelties and tourist brochures from local museums and attractions.

Admission, which was $25 for a single-day adult pass and $35 for a double-day adult pass, enabled guests to browse wine displays, purchase food, participate in a grape stomp, order a bottle of wine with a personalized picture, attend cooking demonstrations, tour the winery and listen to live music.

It also allowed each visitor 10 wine tastings per day, and a custom, festival wine glass.

Smith said visitors were treated to world-class wine, as wine produced by Valiant Vineyards is sold in eight states and five European countries.

Ed Paquette, a Vermillion realtor, attended the festival anticipating quality food, drink and entertainment.

"I came because I knew there would be good times, good wine, good people and good music," said Paquette as he was tasting wine on Sunday.

Weather was warm both Saturday and Sunday, with highs in the upper 80s and lower 90s. The area around the Valiant Vineyards Winery at 1500 West Main Street was lined with cornstalks and cars with license plates from Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, North Dakota, South Dakota and Kansas.

Picnic tables, benches and chairs outside the back of the winery allowed festival attendants to eat and enjoy the food and musical stylings of T. Wilson King and the Pain Killers, Robert Fine and Rude Awakening.

Barbeque beans, corn, buffalo burgers, dogs on sticks, wine, beer and soda were available for purchase, as well as sweets from the Doo Wop Shake Shop.

A special stage was set up for the performers. Guests were able to better view the entertainment on specialty-constructed seats made of wooden planks set on bales of hay.

Other events, including the grape stomp, took place outside of the winery.

Individuals wishing to have their picture featured on a custom bottle of wine were allowed to stomp grapes for a price of $20, which included the stomping experience, a bottle of Merlot, Chardonnay, Zinfandel or Blush and a custom label.

"We're going to go to the cooking demonstrations, eat and watch the bands," said Toly Gerritsen, an Iowan who joined her family in stomping grapes Saturday morning.

Gerritsen considered the custom bottle of wine a must-have.

Sporting a shirt proclaiming, "Pick me. Squeeze me. Make me wine," Gerritsen brought her husband, son and daughter-in-law for both couple's recent anniversaries.

"We're going to do everything," Gerritsen said.

Attendees wishing to escape the heat and insects of the outdoors were able to venture inside the cool, pungent-smelling winery to taste wines, purchase custom goods and view cooking demonstrations.

Annie Walker, performing chef at Saturday's 5 p.m. lavender Cr�me Brule cooking demonstration, took pleasure in the crowd reaction.

"I enjoy serving and seeing the expressions on people's faces," said Walker. "We've had a great turnout."

Many cooking demonstration attendants, such as Nebraskan Cathy Blight, stopped at the wine festival on their way to other destinations.

"We had noticed a sign (for the festival) on the way to see friends in Yankton," said Blight.

Dan Christopherson, mayor of Vermillion, was pleased to see out-of-state visitors in Vermillion, calling the festival a "signature event."

Christopherson and his wife Gloria attended the festival early Saturday morning.

"We're just checking out everything to see what is available," Christopherson said. "There is great music, good food and great weather. It is early, but there are a lot of people out already."

The Great Dakota Wine Fest and other events taking place that weekend, including a 10K race, bicycle ride, Bull-A-Rama, Dakota Classic Antique Car Show and University of South Dakota football game in the DakotaDome, made Vermillion a great tourist destination, Christopherson said.

"I can't ever really remember so many things going on in one weekend," Christopherson said.

Smith has hopes to incorporate a greater spectrum of events in next year's festival.

"We will probably make it even more of a community event," Smith said. "We expect the event as a whole to grow."

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