MONTANA! It’s Big Sky Country, the Treasure State, and Land of the Shining Mountains. A river runs through its dense forests. Wheat crops flourish on vast prairies, and cows outnumber people 3 to 1. The fourth largest state in the union is renowned for its glaciers and grizzlies…but grapes? Is Montana the Last Best Place for vineyards?
This is the question I posed to attendees that recently gathered at the Montana Grape and Winery Association conference, now in its third year. This gregarious group of grape growers and winery owners collectively answered a hearty and affirmative YES! And it truly is with affirmative heart that those affiliated with Montana’s promising wine industry perseveringly pursue their passion in a challenging climate where Mother Nature’s dalliances with Father Winter often deliver meteorological mayhem.
Montana sits between the 45th and 49th parallel north, just within the temperate latitude for vineyard planting. But because of its short growing season and harsh winter temperatures (snow has been recorded every month of the year), grapes are slow to ripen and are at risk of winter kill. Vineyards are concentrated in Northwest Montana, many hugging the pristine shores of Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. Thanks to the lake’s moderating influence and the surrounding slopes of the Mission and Salish Mountains, Mother Nature’s temperature tantrums are tempered. Other vineyards are nestled in “banana belts” where warmer temperatures and lower elevations provide a more hospitable environment.
While Montana grape growers in the roughly 45 vineyards across the state have each carved out their ideal geographical niches, they have consulted with specialists to help hone their craft and guide their endeavors. I’ve dubbed these experts the DIVINE VINE SUPER HEROES, the caped grape crusaders who are noted scholars in their respective fields. They wield their collective expertise, granting grape growers the extra edge needed to maintain viable vineyards in cold climates.
DR. PATRICIA McGLYNN, the Montana State University extension agent for Flathead County, is the GRAPE GROWER GURU. Instrumental in forming a grape grower advisory panel which evolved into the Montana Grape and Winery Association, she also wrote and was awarded two grants to establish the Cold Hardy Wine Grape Trials in 2011. Four plots were planted to test 10 wine grape and 2 table grape varieties. The research trial just concluded providing helpful data on the feasibility of establishing a viable grape industry in the state.
DR. ZACH MILLER is an assistant professor and superintendent of the Montana State University’s Western Agricultural Research Center located in Corvallis, Montana. He has traveled the globe conducting research in plant and pest ecology. His mission is to serve agricultural producers in his region, guiding them in the latest technology and methods of producing high-value specialty crops. His role as the AMAZING AG ADVOCATE is a bounteous boost to local grape growers.
LARRY ROBERTSON, a soil conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is also a grape grower and vineyard owner in Polson, Montana. He has been working closely with Dr. Miller at the Western Ag Research Center on the technical aspects of cold-hardy grape growing. In addition, he provides technical and financial assistance to Montana grape producers. He advocates careful irrigation and water management in successfully growing grapes in the state’s challenging terroir. His expertise and incessant practice of his craft deems him the SAGE OF SOIL.
DR. HARLENE HATTERMAN-VALENTI, a professor at North Dakota State University, has conducted research on cold-hardy grape varieties since 2001 when the ND state legislature allowed for commercial wineries. Though her emphasis is on weed science and not plant pathology, she is a veritable GRAPE DISEASE SLAYER for her astute diagnosis and treatment of the most common Montana vineyard ailments: black rot, powdery mildew and downy mildew.
TOM PLOCHER, co-author of the book, Northern Winework: Growing Grapes and Making Wine in Cold Climates, is the GRAPEVINE WHISPERER. A retired staff scientist at the corporate laboratory of Honeywell International, he mentored under the venerable Elmer Swenson, the pioneering cold-hardy grape breeder. Tom now devotes his time to creating cold-hardy wine grapes in Hugo, Minnesota, ravaged by winters even more wretched than Montana’s. His Petite Pearl, Crimson Pearl and Verona grapes were bred to hold dormancy with delayed bud break and are being successfully grown in Montana vineyards.
Both Tom and Larry conducted a pruning workshop during the conference. Larry recently took over a vineyard on Finley Point in Polson, Montana. Believed to be one of the oldest Montana vineyards originally planted with Pinot grapes, Larry is now nurturing Marquette, Verona and Petite Pearl grapes. Tom advised the workshop attendees in how to best prune these cold hardly grape varieties and was bold enough to hand a brown thumb like me, a.k.a. the Serial Plant Killer, a pair of pruning shears!
Patricia, Zach, Larry, Harlene and Tom are the FANTASTIC FIVE of Montana’s up-and-coming grape industry. Montana’s climate would otherwise be the wrath of grapes if not for the expertise of these grape crusaders. They indeed are a treasure of the Treasure State. Paired with the passion of Montana’s vineyard owners and winemakers, the Big Sky Country has the potential for making a big mark in the wine world.
The grape growers and winery owners certainly sing the praises of the FANTASTIC FIVE and I in turn praise the growers’ and winery owners’ dedication and dogged devotion to their dream of nurturing great grapes destined for great wine. Coming from all walks of life and seasons in life, many of them husband/wife dynamic duos, I was duly impressed with their craft. Because my educational focus is more on the “A.D.” side of the industry – ACTUAL DRINKING, I was delighted to macerate in the “B.C.” angle of wine – BEFORE CONSUMPTION.
TOM and BINA EGGENSPERGER of Thompson Falls have been growing grapes since 2010 when they started with 25 vines of Marquette, a crossing with Vitis vinifera and Vitis riparia developed at the University of Minnesota. In 2012 they added 75 more vines and debuted their first vintage in 2014. 2016 was a banner year with a harvest of 725 pounds, double the amount from the previous year. His label “Silcox” is inspired by Mt. Silcox, a well-known peak in Thompson Falls named after the first regional forester in northwest Montana. The Eggensperger’s winery, GUT CRAIC is an homage to Tom’s German heritage and Bina’s Irish roots. It translates to “Good Fun” and is an apt name that reflects Tom and Bina’s infectious enthusiasm and friendly demeanor.
The Eggensperger’s Silcox is 100% Marquette and their wine embodies the classic profile of the grape which is a grandson of Pinot Noir and a cousin of Frontenac, another cold-hardy grape planted in Montana. The Silcox 2016 is unfiltered and sulfite free. I was enamored with its deep maroon hue, fruity bouquet and high notes of cherry and strawberry punctuated with black pepper and spice. Tom and Bina used a yeast strain to lower acidity then aged the wine for six months in medium toast American oak and a malolactic bacteria inoculation.After several satisfying sips followed by a flurry of note scribbling, I walked to the next winemaker’s table display. Tom followed me, eyes twinkling, and eagerly asked, “So what did you think of the Silcox?” I answered honestly with a broad smile, totally incapable of maintaining any journalistic neutrality. “It was sensational! I’m impressed!”
KEN SCHULTZ of Hidden Legend Winery is a sensation himself. Clad in a kilt and highland boots, he makes quite an impression standing next to his winery’s logo, a burly Viking. Ken launched into the world of wine as a teenager. His uncle, a research scientist, made wine and Ken was so fascinated by the process, he presented his 8th grade science project on fermentation. In 1975, he began making wine as a hobby, sourcing native grapes from the Great Lakes region. In 1979, he and his wife moved to Montana where they began producing mead, eventually including their sons in the business.
Today, in addition to making mead, the Schultz’s make wine sourced from grapes grown in Montana. Their wine line-up features several cold-hardy grapes: Marquette, Frontenac, Frontenac Gris, St. Pepin, Marechal Foch and La Crescent, a relative of St. Pepin. Their catchy labels, savvy marketing and charisma attract a loyal following. But it’s the contents in that alluring bottle that brings in the awards.
One of their award winning wines is Skalkaho White made from St. Pepin grapes in a Rhine off-dry style. The 2014 vintage won a gold medal in the Indy International Wine competition. The 2015 vintage won a silver medal in the Tasters Guild International Wine Judging and a bronze medal in the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.
ROD and LINDA ALLEN, who live just a few miles from the Schultz family, have sold their grapes to the Schultz’s and have partnered with them in producing award winning wines. Their Allen Ranch Somerset wine took 2nd place in the conference’s people choice competition. Though known as a table grape which is cold hardy to -30 degrees, they’ve created a lovely wine from it that is fruity, slightly effervescent, and much like a Riesling in its flavor profile.
Rod is a graduate of University of California, Davis, renowned for its viticulture and enology programs. Linda is his avid vineyard keeper (and wine taster!) and a font of information on cold hardy grapes.
“St. Pepin is not self-pollinating so Frontenac Gris is often chosen to grow alongside St. Pepin since they flower at the same time. Marechal Foch and Marquette grapes are wildly prolific and spread like crazy,” Linda explained, gesturing widely with her arms. “But Petite Pearl is much more mannerly.”
Indeed, the well behaved Petite Pearl is meeting with great success in Montana. SAM and CATHERINE BERGMAN of Billings, Montana, own North Slope Vineyard founded in 2013. The windswept south central portion of the state suffers especially blustery winters, and it was during one of these challenging seasons that Sam delved into research about growing grapes. On his in-law’s plot of land, he was determined to show Mother Nature who’s boss.
“My goal is making a great quality wine,” stated Sam as I savored North Slope Vineyard’s 2016 Petite Pearl. As first time conference attendees, Sam and Catherine were unaware that they needed to bring several bottles for the competition. I was fortunate to sample the last few drops from the last of the two bottles they had brought as Catherine quipped, “Don’t you love our fancy label?”
Never judge a book by its cover, as the adage goes, and indeed I was quite impressed with the complexity of their wine. A medley of blackberry, raspberry, leather and chocolate sang on the palate in perfect harmony.
It’s no surprise that Sam and Catherine took the People’s Choice first place award in the red category. What perhaps came as a surprise was how impressed I was at the caliber of wine presented at the conference. Montana is better known for its craft beer and microbreweries which understandably take the limelight. But stay tuned! Montana is gearing up to make its mark in the wine world.
This won’t be the last word from the Last Best Place!