Montana Grape and Wine Industry Organizes

Association's first conference embraces hybrid grapes and fruit wines

by Jane Firstenfeld
montana riesling
Riesling grows near Flathead Lake in northwestern Montana. Source: Montana Grape and Wine Association
Kalispell, Mont.—Established in February 2015, the Montana Grape and Wine Association (MGWA) drew some 70 attendees to its first conference in Kalispell on June 11. With only 15 wineries in the state and an estimated 200 acres of planted vineyards, the attendance demonstrated growing enthusiasm for Montana’s potential as a producer of cold-climate wine grapes as well as fruit wines from its abundant orchards.

Association president Dan Getman represents both crops: An established cherry farmer, he recently planted an acre of 500 vines of a newly introduced hybrid grape: Petite Pearl.

Developed by conference keynote speaker Tom Plochard in Minnesota, Petite Pearl and its “sister” variety Crimson Pearl are closely related to Pinot Noir grapes, but they are more cold hardy, Getman said. These varieties have better balanced acids and tannins than many existing cold-climate hybrids.

Getman noted that a number of attendees came from out-of-state, including California, lured by Montana’s lower land prices, clean air and abundant water supplies.

With a short growing season—harvest is typically in September—Montana will never have a wine industry to rival California or Washington, he acknowledged. Few vinifera varieties thrive in the state, and the wine-drinking public is not yet familiar with many of the cold hardy hybrids that do.

“Regional prejudice is rife in the industry,” Getman said. “It is a block. It takes time to develop a reputation. Not that long ago, there was no wine industry in Washington. Our lifetimes are quite short.”

What’s next for Montana? “We need to learn to make interesting, colorful, full-bodied wines out of cold-hardy grapes,” Getman said.

“There is energy and excitement for our new industry. We didn’t know each other; we are geographically isolated, but we have common needs and common goals,” he said. The association hopes to establish equipment and grape exchanges.

“We have oceans of nothing: We have droplets, unique and sacred.”

Extension speaks
Montana State University extension agent Pat McGlynn, who’s been based in Kalispell since 2008, has been studying which varieties are best suited for the terroir and the market, as she told Wines & Vines when we last spoke in 2011. 

She called the conference a “great event that exceeded expectations.” But, despite more than 2 million tourists annually, marketing for Montana wine is still in its infancy, and virtually no Montana wines are distributed outside the state.

“The new hybrids may allow for expansion,” she said. Chemical analyses demonstrate that they are not so high in acid and have higher tannin” than established cold-climate grapes. Although she hails from New York’s Finger Lakes, McGlynn admitted she had not wanted to sample fruit wines at first. “When people think of fruit wine, they think ‘sweet’. But as with grapes, if you ferment out the sugar, you balance it out.”

McGlynn noted that Minnesota wineries have found success with fruit wines in their tasting rooms. “I think that’s going to happen in all the northern states. Things get trendy,” she said, noting the recent market popularity of fruity red grape blends.

With its scattered tasting rooms and tiny vineyards, McGlynn is hopeful Montana wineries could reach the locavore trend. However, “We have a way to go to supply that. We don’t have a climate that will support 1,000 acres of vineyards.”

A true pioneer
Tom Campbell founded Montana’s oldest winery, Mission Mountain in Dayton, in 1985. It’s one of only two state wineries producing 5,000 or more cases annually. Campbell, trained in viticulture/enology at the University of California and a veteran of the Washington wine industry, also stands out because he grows vinifera varieties on about 5 acres. He sells 10% of these (average bottle price $25) directly from his tasting room.

As the owner of vineyards in Washington’s prestigious Rattlesnake Hills AVA, he does import some grapes—notably Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio are more adapted to Montana’s short season and are locally grown; his Riesling is blended with grapes from Washington and Idaho.

“How to market hybrids is the million-dollar question,” he said. “To compete commercially is a big challenge, but becoming a little easier, because the market is fragmenting. When I first planted 35 years ago, vinifera was king.”

Recently, though, Campbell planted 1,200 Marquette hybrid vines on a couple of acres, he said. “It’s suited to our season; when fully ripened it makes a sound red wine, but it will take time to market.” Now distributed solely in Montana, his wines sell toe-to-toe with his former employer Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, but “margins are small,” Campbell said.

Fruit wines, “an unwanted child for a long time,” fit better with the craft brewery business, which is thriving in the Flathead Basin, he said. But like the growing season, Montana’s tourist season is short. Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks are closed to most visitors during the long winters, and tasting rooms are open only seasonally as well.

On the other side
In Miles City, a day’s drive from the Flathead Basin, Tongue River Winery has more in common with North Dakota than the rest of the Montana wine industry. Bob and Marilyn Thaden produce some 800 cases annually, with 50% sold direct at the tasting room for an average price of $14 per bottle. Hybrid grapes Frontenac, Frontenac Blanc and Gris, La Crescent and Marquette grow on about 2 acres of vineyards.

Bob Thaden called the conference “a watershed moment” for the Montana industry. He’s a board member of MGWA, as well as the North Dakota Grape and Wine Association; North Dakota currently has 12 operating wineries.

While lauding the “brave souls who tried to make Pinot Noir happy with our climate, and in minor ways succeeded in our warmest spots….It’s a long shot at best.”

As the only commercial vineyard in eastern Montana, “The northwest (part of the state) has milder winters but shorter and cooler summers. They can grow things that we cannot. The southeast corner has colder winters, but we can ripen any fruit easier than the rest of the state because we have the longest, hottest summers,” he said.

“Montana, like many other Midwestern states, has also seriously embraced fruit wines other than grapes, including fruits like apple, pear, cherry, plum, chokecherry, raspberries, rhubarb, and exotics like aronia (black chokecherry) and haskap (blue honeysuckle),” Thaden said.

“Both the NW and the SE parts of Montana would benefit greatly from grapes that bud out late in the spring (to avoid late frosts) and have a shorter growing season—not only to fully ripen but to allow the plants to harden off adequately before winter smashes down on us,” he said.

“We expect that within five to 10 years there will be some significant new releases that provide exactly those parameters that will make grapes a more reliable and viable crop for Montana. The establishment of this new association is vitally important for connecting those growers with existing wineries in the state. We all realize that we stand to gain significantly from getting to know each other.”

Currently no comments posted for this article.