Montana Wines

Ξ January 17th, 2008 | → 3 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Wine History, Wineries |

No, not Montana, New Zealand. But Montana, USA. First, a little history: Thomas Pinney, in his excellent A History of Wine in America , writes, “Here, at the end of this narrative of America’s long struggle to discover the ways and means of winegrowing, what can be said about those states that have so far received no mention? In a few cases, almost nothing. So far as I know, the states of North and South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana do not figure even in a token way in the story I have to tell.” Indeed, as he continues in a footnote, “Montana and Wyoming did not become states until 1889 and 1890 respectively, and neither figures in any of the published reports or surveys after the dates of their statehood. There is now a winery operating in Montana, but it has, I think, no predecessor.” His was referring to Mission Mountain Winery, founded in 1979, Montana’s first Bonded winery. In fact, Montana now has at least eight commercial wineries. However, along with Mission Mountain, only two other wineries, as best as I can determine, make at least one cuvée exclusively from grapes grown on Montana soil: Flathead Lake Winery and Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery. More about them in a moment.


I spoke with John Hilton, Deputy Director of the USDA Montana Field Office out of Helena, MT., and he found in the 2002 Agricultural Census for Montana 25 acres of grapes under cultivation in the entire state. The census is taken every five years. The next report will be released in early 2008. But whether information on wine grapes will be gathered is an open question. Far too little is being grown in the state to warrant the Govt. ink spilled. A pleasant surprise.


Working backward, believing a winery later established would have to work harder to brand itself in a small commercial environ, I spoke first with the affable Paddy Flemming of Flathead Winery, Montana’s 6th licensed winery. They began operations in 2003 and produce, in addition to a wide assortment of fruit wines, of course, but also a Gerwurztraminer and a Pinot Noir. The Gerwurtz is sourced from a 3000′ elevation 3 acre parcel on a nearby hillside of rocky, glacial moraine, a very interesting terroir, and the yield is about 1 and 1/2 tons per acre. Fermentation was done in stainless for the ‘06; the ‘07, to be released January 1st, was done in new American oak. 75 cases. The Pinot Noir is sourced from a 10 acre vineyard planted in 1983 in gently sloping loam nearer the lake. Three tons per acre is the yield. This will be Flathead Winery’s first Pinot, and will be released sometime in ‘09. 100 cases. This year’s grapes were picked days before the first snowfall. Indeed, it is the lake which provides a critical, temperate influence without which a vineyard would not prove viable. Intrigued by the ‘06 Gerwurtz, I asked whether the winery could ship to California. Paddy was not sure, went on to discover that a $10 per year permit from the state was required! Delivery is assured as soon as the paper work goes through.


I next spoke with Andy Sponseller, winemaker and co-owner of Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery. Welder/pipe-fitter, former City councilman, Andy works with family and friends 4.5 acres of estate vineyards, all organic, or labeled with a lower designation in difficult years, “made with organic grapes”. A stone’s throw from the Rattlesnake Wilderness, a few miles outside of Missoula, MT, Ten Spoon grows a variety of French-American hybrids: Maréchal Foch, Frontenac, Leon Millot, Swenson Red and St. Croix, and St. Pepin. For 2007, they harvested more than 10 tons, (3 and 1/2 tons an acre was his estimate). At full maturity they hope their holdings to produce 17 tons. But for now they must be satisfied with 5500 cases(!) Unlike the Flathead area, warmed by the lake, they depend on the wind to flush the Rattlesnake Valley, rid the vineyards of frost. This year they harvested the 1st week of October, the whites came in much earlier. In fact, global warming figures prominently in their planning. Just as with Napa and Sonoma in California, along Montana’s ‘banana belt’, inclusive of Flathead Lake and Rattlesnake Valley, vignerons here, too, are experiencing longer, warmer growing seasons. (As brief aside, I chatted with Dave Stalling of the local chapter of the National Wildlife Federation about this matter. More later.) Andy has no barrel program. He uses oak chips because of the great expense of barrels, whether American, French, or other. Élevage is done occasionally in plastic barrels, but mostly in stainless. And he uses cork for all of his wines, saying that the cork industry has improved quality control and that ‘reductive’ issues have emerged with the screwcap. He sells 90% of the winery’s production locally, which includes the tourist trade, bien sûr, and 5% goes to a national following; the balance, I presume, is shared in the tasting room. Oddly, the winery has no Library Wines. I think I convinced him to begin one this year! And, a final observation, they have very entertaining labels.


Lastly, there is Mission Mountain Winery, the first Bonded winery in Montana. They are located near Flathead Lake. Their tasting room closed in October for the season. I was unable to speak with them for this post, hence I cannot offer anything other than what is already written on their well-developed website. Link above.



3 Responses to ' Montana Wines '

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  1. Peter Grantz said,

    on January 20th, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    There is a fellow on the east shore of Flathead Lake growing Pinot Noir. As the area supports several varieties of pit fruits (including three kinds of sweet cherries) he feels given optimal conditions he can get a crop. I believe he is now two years into it, but I haven’t seen him in many months to ask about his 2007 harvest. Thanks for the interest in our great state! Check us out in 75-100 years!

  2. Justin said,

    on January 22nd, 2008 at 7:56 pm

    Truly the opportunities for wine tourism exist almost everywhere, much to the chagrin of my wife. I can spot the little cluster of grapes on a highway sign from 3 miles away.

    That these wineries can exist at all (global warming hasn’t kicked in *that* much yet) is a remarkable testiment to the power of the microclimate. Interesting stuff. Thanks for posting it.

  3. linda wansbrough said,

    on September 10th, 2009 at 9:20 pm

    I’ve been trying hard to enter your competition with out any luck at all . All the sites are down. Therfore have looked at this website. My little label on the montana bottle No is 94453912. Hope you can help. Linda Wansbrough.

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