BELLE FOURCHE — Among the rows of grape vines you can hear the laughter and chatter of middle schoolers.
From a distance, they look like an army of ants foraging for food. In reality, the 45 students were assisting in the harvest of grapes at the Belle Joli vineyard east of Belle Fourche Friday morning.
It was a fundraiser for the Belle Fourche Middle School Math & Science Club.
About two hours into the harvesting, the students realized picking grapes was no easy task.
“There are a lot more rows than I thought there would be,” said student Sloan Young. “It takes a long time and I should have worn gloves. And, you have to be patient or you drop a lot of grapes.”
Students were reminded to slow down because they were missing grape clusters in some sections of the vines.
“I think we’re trying to get them all done just because we are all getting tired,” Young said.
Many of the students tasted the grapes as they harvested the deep-purple Marquette grapes finding out that they were sweet, but had seeds.
The money earned from working the harvest will help the club pay for field trips in the coming year.
Earlier in the week, the Jackson family and other volunteers harvested Frontenac Gris grapes used for sparkling wines and white wines. The Marquette grapes are used for dry wines.
John and Patty Jackson had always wanted to locally grow and produce wine in the rich soil of the Black Hills. Their son, Matthew, the winemaker in the family, enrolled in the enology program at California State University, Fresno, in the heart of wine-making country of California. He met Choi, who is the winery’s CFO and sommelier, and when they finished their studies, they moved to South Dakota to fulfill their passion.
Almost 20 years ago now, the Jacksons planted their first vines on 25 acres just east of Belle Fourche.
This year’s harvest could be another record breaker, Choi Jackson said.
“The moisture definitely helped out,” she said.
But also aiding in the increased harvest is a pruning technique Matthew Jackson implemented on the vines this year, Choi Jackson said.
The Black Hills are a naturally good growing region for grapes because there generally is not too much rain that can contribute to fungus, and the nighttime temperatures are cool.
The Jacksons also planted a 5-acre vineyard, adjacent their Sparkling House at Sturgis, in 2013. This year’s crop was devastated.
After dealing with a pesky deer population eating the grapes for the first couple years, the family was finally looking forward to a good harvest at Sturgis this year.
Then, hail and high winds pummeled this year’s crop on July 5.
Choi Jackson said she was not at the Sparkling House when the storm came through, but arrived about an hour later to view the devastation. She said that as sad as she was, her husband, was even more distraught over what happened.
“It was especially hard for Matthew because he put a lot of energy into the vineyard,” she said. “He didn’t go into the vineyard for three or four days because he was so mad.”
The harvest at the Belle Fourche vineyard is certainly a family affair. Choi Jackson’s parents came from Seoul, South Korea, for the event. And, Matthew’s brother, Chris, and sister-in-law, Hope, from Belle Fourche were there to lend a hand.
Chris and Hope Jackson are partners in Jackson Dental in Belle Fourche, but make time to help with the harvest each year, Hope Jackson said. She could tell that this year’s harvest was a good one saying there were more clusters of grapes and they were heavier than in year’s past.
Asked what role she plays in the wine-making business, Hope said with a chuckle: “I’m mostly on the drinking side of the business.”
Her favorite of the Belle Joli wines is the Brut Rose.
Also on hand Friday helping with the harvest was Stella, the 4-year-old daughter of Matthew and Choi. She was lugging around a five-gallon bucket nearly full of grape clusters.
“We’re the Jackson family,” Stella, said with authority. “My dad makes wine with the grapes.”