You know that little glow you get tasting excellent wine? Imagine when it is grown, harvested, pressed, fermented, bottled, and sold in your own local area.
Step around the corner from the Polson Farmers Market on Fridays, and into the cool depths of the Bickford Building at 220 Main. You will be greeted by Dana Berardinis, serving up sips of an impressive array of her hand crafted, local wines. Surrounded by her own fine paintings, barrels of fermenting fruits, an old-fashioned press, and many cases of wine, the atmosphere of a dedicated handcrafter envelopes you. Even her labels are works of her own fine art.
The D. Berardinis Winery currently offers six very distinct wines. Five of them have already won bronze medals at the Fingerlakes International Wine Competition: Cherry, Pear, Apricot, Italian Plum, and a surprisingly light (and hugely popular) dessert wine, Strawberry Rhubarb. Her latest addition, the heralded Montana cold-hardy Marquette, is a complex, deep red that has not yet been entered.
“I wasn’t expecting to win any award the first time I sent my wines in,” Dana says. “I just thought, well, we’ll see how it goes. That was pretty exciting.”
Several small orchards and three vineyards supply much of the winery’s fruits. About 3000 pounds of Marquette grapes were harvested in 2017 from Van Dyck Vineyards in Big Fork, almost 2,000 pounds from Spotted Bear Vineyards on Finley Point, and a small amount from Bear Dance Vineyard in Yellow Bay.
Cherries come from Glacier Fresh Orchard in Yellow Bay, Bartlett pears from Gannon’s on Finley Point, Italian plums from Getman’s Orchard in Yellow Bay, and apricots from Best Orchard, an old orchard on the east shore of Flathead Lake. Dana picked most of her own strawberries from a farm in Mission Valley, and the rhubarb is grown by Hutterites in the Choteau area, who come to the Farmers Market in Polson. “It’s been fun meeting the people growing these fruits. It’s a great relationship,” Dana says.
You might say Dana has wine in her blood. Her great-grandfather grew and made his own wine in the Abruzzo region of central Italy in the early 1900s. His passion for making wine came with him when he brought his family to the U.S during prohibition, and indeed, the habit landed him on the wrong side of the feds. “Hearing the stories about that is such a big part of my family,” Dana says. “Wine in general is a big part of my family.”
Dana grew up in Ohio, but had a fascination with Montana her entire life. After she received a fine arts degree in painting from Cleveland Institute of Art, she came here to explore and paint, working as a river guide for several years on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
Her own wine-making began in 2007 by experimenting with fruit from a small orchard around a little cabin she rented. Making small batches in her home in a five-gallon bucket, she came up with her own recipes. “I really fell in love with the process,” she says.
Dana started her namesake winery in 2013 with cherries in a 55-gallon drum. “I wanted a way to incorporate my art and the wine, to bring both of my passions together,” she says. At the time, she didn’t even know grapes were being grown here. “Ken Pitt and Eileen Neill of Spotted Bear Vineyard on Finley Point, and Rick Hartman from Yellow Bay came in and asked if I was interested in experimenting with Marquettes.” She made an experimental 10 gallons her first year, and soon saw its potential. The next year, she bought both of their whole harvests. “I was the first person to buy the Marquette from both of them.” She then found out through the Montana Grape and Winery Association that the Van Dykes in Big Fork, had a huge Marquette vineyard, had been selling to Flathead Lake Winery, which moved to Bozeman. She bought all three vineyards’ whole harvests in 2015, ‘16, and ’17, much of which has been aging in oak barrels in her winery’s basement for two years now.
“Each year the grapes have gotten better, and I am also learning how I want to make the wine. It takes a lot of patience, but it’s a really nice complex wine. Really deep, dark red, excellent. It’s very unique to Montana and definitely popular.” Dana will bottle the 2017 vintage over the next winter and thinks it will be “my best vintage of that grape. That was a really great year, the vines have matured, the sugars were perfect.”
There were times when it was a struggle to make a go of the business, she says, and she questioned “whether it’s really going to work.” Apparently it is. D.Berardinis wines are now selling very well in stores from Whitefish to Missoula. She is making 2,000 to 4,000 bottles a year, bottling more when it is needed. Wine sales are busy in the summer, and in the winter, she has time to focus on her art, which is represented at Dana Gallery on Higgins in Missoula, as well as on her wine labels.
“Montana is where I always belonged, and it’s been amazing,” she says.