Montana wants to be the next wine country

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Lena Beck

(Daily Montanan) It was a warm early September morning, and Roxann McGuire was walking through the rows of crops at Willow Mountain Winery, strategically sampling grapes from the vines. With each grape she tasted, she looked for the signature combination of sour and sweetness that told her the grape was ready to harvest.

McGuire has trained his palate to be able to taste this nuance – thanks to years of experience in the wine country of Italy, the vineyards of Argentina and beyond. Today, she uses that expertise in a place that isn’t known for its winemaking prowess but might one day be: Montana.

The grapes that Roxann and Brian McGuire grow here are cold hardy interspecific hybrids. Almost all well-known wines – Malbec, Merlot, Chardonnay, etc. – are made from Vitis vinifera grapes. V. vinifera is a European grape species that consistently produces good wine but does not lend itself to cold environments. In the United States, you’ll find V. vinifera pervading the wine country of California, Oregon, and Washington.

But over the past half-century, researchers — including from Cornell University and the University of Minnesota — have been experimenting with breeding V. vinifera with grapes native to the United States.

These interspecific hybrids are more cold hardy (some withstanding temperatures as low as -35 degrees Fahrenheit) and are more disease resistant. They taste different from the wines people are typically familiar with, and those unique flavor profiles are something the McGuires love to embrace and explore.

“I’ve said many times, ‘You have to let the wine be what it is,'” Roxann McGuire said. “Montana wines are different. Don’t expect them to be what you’re used to – know they’re different when you try them and appreciate that they’re lighter and fruitier.

McGuire walked over to a row of grapes that are going through a process winemakers call ‘véraison’ – turning from immature green to dark, full purple, and opened one in her palm, noting the garnet-colored juice flowing from the break. These grapes are almost ready to harvest.

They’re called marquette grapes, and they’re the “grandchild” of the pinot noir grape, bred with native American grapes. In the finished wine, the taste of the berry is recognizable. It carries some of the deep jammy flavors of its Pinot Noir ancestor while being pleasantly tart. Grapes like Marquette represent a new chapter – or rather a first chapter – for the Montana wine industry.

But to continue to grow, the industry must overcome persistent environmental and legislative obstacles.

“A blank slate”

A 2022 report by the Montana Grape and Wine Association indicated that Montana’s total vineyard acreage was approximately 50 acres. The report was authored by Dan Vogel, a Certified Sommelier knowledgeable about Montana wine. Vogel conducted extensive investigations during his reporting to determine the state of the wine industry in Montana. According to its results, seven out of 10 wineries surveyed favor the use of local fruit. And overall, Montana wineries see access to local fruit as one of the key things that can drive industry growth.

“Montana is a blank slate for vineyard development,” Vogel wrote. “Montana’s wine industry can only grow.”

Montana is famous for some of its local fruits – mountain blueberries and flathead cherries are two examples. But wine grapes are a relatively new addition to the state’s crop inventory.

In 2004, Montana pastor Bob Thaden made a phone call to a Minnesota man named Ray Winter. Thaden had heard that Winter was successfully growing cold hardy grapes developed at the University of Minnesota and wanted to know if it was true. Winter assured Thaden that not only could these grapes grow in Midwestern winters, but they could also thrive in Thaden’s home state of Montana. In Miles City, Thaden planted some vines in the ground. They did well, so he planted a few more the following year.

“We’re enjoying it so much we just haven’t stopped planting,” Thaden said.

Thaden officially opened his winery in 2010. Today, Tongue River Winery is still the only commercial winery with a vineyard in Eastern Montana.

Even with the help of cold hardy hybrids, Thaden would still call Montana a tenuous landscape for growing grapes. Winters are cold in Miles City, with temperatures often below zero Fahrenheit. But the summers are long and hot, which means it’s easy for the grapes to ripen quickly. In 2020, an unusual cold snap in October forced Thaden to cut all his plants down to the root and let them regrow. But, he says, that’s not common. Thaden is still invested in the art of growing Montana grapes.

“Philosophically we’re committed to the ideal that we refuse to make wine from anything that won’t grow here,” Thaden said. “As I sometimes jokingly say, we’re not interested in making wine from California or Oregon or wine from Mars in Montana. We want to make Montana wine in Montana.

“We grow hybrid grapes,” Thaden said. “And we are committed to finding the cultivars [plant varieties produced by selective breeding] who work here, and then experimenting with winemaking techniques to make the best possible wine that can be made with the cultivars that are hardy enough to grow in Montana.

Yet these kinds of cold-hardy interspecific hybrids — and by extension, the Montana wine industry — are relatively young. Frontenac, a popular interspecific hybrid, was released in 1996. Marquette was not released until 2006. Given the timing of distribution and the growth of plants to fruiting age, winemakers n have only really experienced the marquette in the commercial place for about 10 years. In comparison, French wine as we know it today has been recognizable since the 6th century BCE.

“So there’s all kinds of exciting research and testing that should be taking place over the next 25 years to try to really fully understand these new cultivars and figure out how to make the best possible wine out of them,” Thaden said.

Dr. Andrej Svyantek of the Western Agricultural Research Center at Montana State University is one of the people researching wine grapes in Montana. Svyantek says he’s excited about the new cultivars being developed for these harsh climates – and what these vine seedlings can offer in terms of cold tolerance, disease resistance and flavor.

“We’re really at the dawn of viticulture in Montana,” Svyantek said.

“Legislative Obstacles”

But even as grapes become more feasible crops in Montana, winemakers like Thaden and the McGuires have legislative hurdles to overcome. As written, the Montana Code Annotated presents some obstacles to grape growers in the state. Most of the code was first written in the 1970s and 80s, before cold-hardy hybrid grapes were predominant on the commercial scene, and certainly before Montana had any notable wine presence. . This means that the code was first written primarily for the distribution and sale of out-of-state wine in Montana. And just because the state’s wine industry has grown doesn’t mean the legislation has caught up.

In one example, Montana law prohibits producers from opening a tasting room unless it is attached to the property of the winery. When Brian McGuire inquired about opening a tasting room in the city of Hamilton, a busy little town off Highway 93, he was told he couldn’t operate it on a separate property from the current cellar. On the other hand, if you are a business that imports bare wine bottles into Montana from out of state and adds labels and branding to them once they arrive here, you can legally call your operation a cellar. And if you’re doing this process in a storefront in a downtown area, you can operate a tasting room from that same space. That means it’s easier for out-of-state importers to gain a foothold in the urban wine scene than it is for people like the McGuires, whose vineyard is actually part of the community and the local economy.

That leaves Montana winemakers like Thaden and the McGuires to face the holes in the legal code — and try to change them. Thaden and Brian McGuire have been active in the campaign to update wine laws in Montana. Many attempts like last year’s House Bill 688, which would have created a committee to study wine in the state, have ultimately failed.

“It’s disappointing from a producer’s perspective to have to deal with a lot of hurdles that other states have already overcome,” Thaden said.

At this point, Montana is home to less than 20 grape growers who grow and produce their products in the state. This contrasts with hundreds in states like Oregon and Washington. Thaden says he and others will continue to try to show lawmakers the economic opportunity wine grapes could bring to the state — and find ways to help growers get established more easily. From here, Montana’s wine scene and its unique flavors and contributions could continue to grow.

“Don’t make the mistake of comparing a Marquette to a Cabernet,” Thaden said. The chemistry of the grape is different, the amount of tannins, different. “But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fucking good wine. It will just be a different wine.

This article first appeared on The Daily Yonder and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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