In 1993, Eldon and Sherry Nygaard moved to the farm Eldon Nygaard grew up on, near Viborg, South Dakota. The farm consists of mainly hay, soybeans and corn. However, two acres of their farm is dedicated to grapes.
The couple later decided they wanted to open a winery, but at that time, South Dakota had no legislation to support building a winery.
So the couple decided to draft the farm winery bill. This bill, which eventually turned into a law, allows South Dakota farmers to make up to fifty thousand gallons of wine annually. The bill was made into law in 1996.
That same year, Valiant Vineyards opened — making it the first established winery in South Dakota. Now, Valiant Vineyards is a full winery and bed and breakfast located near the Missouri River in Vermillion.
“It was a hobby that got out of hand,” Eldon Nygaard said.
Sherry Nygaard is originally from California. Because of this, Eldon Nygaard said the couple traveled to California to visit family and friends often. Through their visits, they realized the acreage price to grow grapes was much cheaper in South Dakota.
In California, acreage was sold for around $1800 Eldon Nygaard said, while in South Dakota land was sold at around $500.
“I saw how valuable it was. So I came back and I didn’t know anything about it,” Eldon Nygaard said. “Many people have bent over backward to help us.”
Valiant Vineyard makes wine, bourbon, whiskey and vodka. One of their more unique wines, Vitis Riparia — made of wild grapes grown by the river that are native to South Dakota — is sold in Paris, France for around $100 a bottle.
Eldon Nygaard said he enjoys experimenting with new flavors and combinations for wines. One he is currently working on is wild grape wine that is being aged in a Jack Daniels barrel. This, he said, will give the wine an interesting whiskey flavor.
“Wine connoisseurs like to try different things, so we try different experiments,” Eldon Nygaard said. “That experiment is going to be an expensive wine. We will probably sell it in a smaller bottle for around $38.”
Valiant Vineyards is a family business. Sherry Nygaard is one of the cooks at the vineyards and son is their winemaker and distiller.
“(Our son) started when he was like 13,” Eldon Nygaard said. “And our daughter was involved when she wasn’t in college or (traveling). It can be a challenge (working with your family). We live together and we work together. But it’s fun.”
Having a bed and breakfast and winery, Eldon Nygaard said, gives a different dimension to Vermillion. Each room in the bed and breakfast has a unique theme — one of them being USD themed. Eldon Nygaard said this makes it more than just a hotel, it’s an experience.
“It’s brought a little recognition to Vermillion. Besides the university, it is also home of the oldest winery in South Dakota,” Eldon Nygaard said. “I think we brought up a little notoriety and tourism to the city and the state.”
In March, Valiant Vineyard switched from making wine to making hand sanitizer while the demand was too high, Eldon Nygaard said, for big companies to keep up with. Now, they have switched back to making wine, but Eldon Nygaard said they were happy to help the state keep up with the high demand and need.
The vineyard was able to sell their homemade hand sanitizer to keep up business while they had to have their doors closed for 10 weeks.
“We just did as much as we could, we worked seven days a week,” Eldon Nygaard said. “We at one point had up to 300 orders for hand sanitizer a day.”
Now, Valiant Vineyard is open again for business with safety regulations in place to keep customers and employees safe, Eldon Nygaard said. The reopening process was slow. At first, Eldon Nygaard said, they only opened on Sundays for their Bloody Mary Sunday special, but now they are fully open.
His favorite part of owning Valiant Vineyard, Eldon Nygaard said is making wine people want to share. He said people come from all over the country and the world and visit their winery and bring bottles home to share with their communities.
“It’s a pride in making a wine people enjoy enough to come back and talk about or send home,” Eldon Nygaard said. “I never really quite envision this large of a production.”