Editor’s Note: This is the first feature story of a two-part series
Sometimes it takes a bit of a fanatic to make something big happen.
For making Montana into a producer of excellent wines and building a diverse wine industry, Larry Robertson of Polson is one of those people. Besides having been an avid wine-maker for the past 50 years (fermenting batches in his parents’ attic as a teenager), Larry is obsessed with wine grape research, grower assistance, and developing the wine industry in Montana.
And now, his obsession is on the cusp of a potential boom.
“A lot of people don’t believe Montana can grow grapes, let alone the best wine grapes in the world,” Larry said.
A bold claim, perhaps, but hear him out.
Tongue River Winery (Miles City) was invited to compete for the 2018 Jefferson Cup. This event invites only the “best of the best…from tastings and competitions in America” to enter. Tongue River’s 2017 Marquette, a red from Montana-grown cold-hardy hybrid grapes, won the coveted Jefferson Cup in the Red Non-Vinifera (hybrid) category.
Two things make Montana wines so good, Larry said. First is the cold-hardiness of the grape hybrids developed for these climates by breeding old world varieties with native North American grapes. Because they can grow so far north, they get longer days in the summer sun to develop the sugars and metabolize the sharp acids, making for a smoother flavor.
The second boon is that Montana has about 80% of the semi-arid area of the world’s cold climate wine range. The Midwest, Canada, and northern Europe are more humid and receive much more rain.
This means that mildew and fungus are less of an issue here, and growers here can control the amount of water the grape plants get, unlike in vineyards subject to heavy rainfall. Too much water may dilute the grape’s flavor and can lower the quality of a year’s vintage. But dry sites can be managed for each individual vine’s water needs to maximize quality and yield.
“We will be able to manage for the quality they don’t have any control over because of so much rain,” Larry explains.
Montana’s wine story starts, as it has everywhere, with people who just love to grow the vines, regardless of whether they ever make a profit. In the 1980s, one of those people was the late Dudley Page, whose wife Anne still owns one of the vineyards they started together on Finley Point. Dudley recognized that Montana’s cool weather could be terrific for growing grapes, while Flathead Lake’s influence moderates the harshness of the cold winters.
Dudley started with Pinot Noir grapes, but they didn’t ripen most summers. So he became an early adopter of hybrids specially bred for cold climates.
A Pinot-descended hybrid, developed in Minnesota and trademarked as “Marquette,” has become one of the most successful grape crops in the state. It is still grown on the Pages’ place, alongside newer strains such as “Petite Pearl,” a type which won “Best of Show” at the Montana Grape and Winery Association (MTGWA) convention in Polson two years ago.
Thanks to cooperating growers and researchers, years of breeding and experimentation have created several hybrids cold-hardy to 30 to 40 degrees below zero, so growing grapes is no longer limited to the lake area. That is how even eastern Montana is getting in on the action.
Poised for expansion
Currently, there are only about 45 to 50 acres of vineyards planted in the entire state.
With many cold-hardy varieties now widely available, and more on the way, people can start to plant with more confidence. It takes 3-4 years from planting to put out a grape crop, so, yes, it is going to take some time, but the idea is starting to catch on.
“Locally grown wine is the only void in the state liquor industry,” Larry says, referring to the booming microbrew and distillery trend. Recognizing there is more to it than just growing grapes and making wine, he and many others with the MTGWA are working to build the “business end” of the industry. They are hosting an educational event with the Billings Chamber of Commerce Ag Committee in September to encourage and inform bankers and investors, alongside potential growers and customers.
“We want people to start seeing that this is something ranchers and farmers can do to bring their kids back to the farm,” Larry says. “And there’s always that hot hillside somewhere on a ranch that can’t feed cows. You can grow grapes there.” Despite the labor-intensive work vines require, the younger generations are enjoying the wine culture, and by adding the cultural aspect to the business, it can be quite lucrative.
“You cannot really make a profit just selling the grapes,” he says. “But people love local products.”
Creative growers provide U-Pick opportunities, other specialty crops, volunteer opportunities, event space for weddings and reunions, and many other “value added” activities that draw people, help support the vineyard, and contribute to the community. Larry foresees a time when Montana has its own “wine trails,” a popular tourist activity of following a map and tasting and buying wines throughout a region.
Finley Point’s Ken Pitt and Eileen Neill, of Spotted Bear Vineyards and Lavender Farm (one of Dudley’s original vineyards), offer a lovely vacation rental surrounded by vineyards, lavender, and fruit trees. “Half of our guests come here just to be in the vineyard,” Eileen said.
On the verge of greatness
“The whole thing is volatile right now,” Larry says. He cites Mike White of Iowa State Extension, who was one of the key advocates to help develop the Iowa wine industry from five wineries to a current 105.
“Mike tells me we are at about year five of what for them was a 20-year journey.”
“We’re not there yet,” he says, “but we’re already raising their eyebrows.”