Montana: New Wine Destination?

Flathead County hopes to experiment with cold-hardy winegrape vineyards

by Jane Firstenfeld
Flathead Lake Map
Flathead Lake, Mont.
Kalispell, Mont.—Of all the U.S. states bordering Canada, Montana tops only its eastern neighbor, North Dakota, in total wineries: 13 and eight respectively, according to WinesVinesDATA.

With abundant acreage, water and labor force, a highly educated, prosperous population and a long-established tourism industry, the Big Sky State seems to lack only a long growing season to establish itself within the wine industry. Barring major climate change, not much can be done about the growing season, but an ag-extension agent with a background in cold-climate viticulture is now working with the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce to explore possibilities to establish vineyards and wineries around scenic Flathead Lake.

Located in the extreme northwest of Montana, Flathead is the largest natural lake in the western U.S., 300-feet deep with 160 miles of shoreline, it was carved by ice-age glaciers. On the west side of the Continental Divide, near Glacier National Park, its climate has more in common with Eastern Washington than with less temperate Eastern Montana on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

Montana State University extension agent Pat McGlynn grew up in New York’s famed Finger Lakes wine region and worked for seven years at Cornell University before arriving in Kalispell in late 2008. Her first project was finding funding to test new varieties of cherry trees, already a successful local crop. Now, supported by the local Chamber, she is in the preliminary stages of putting together a similar project to determine which winegrapes would bring sufficient yields and quality to existing—and potential—regional wineries.

McGlynn told Wines & Vines the grape trials will likely favor hybrid grapes: tried-and-true varieties like Leon Millot, Traminette and Marechal Foch, as well as relatively new releases like Marquette and Frontenac from the University of Minnesota; and Cayuga White from Cornell. She’d also like to test varieties enjoying commercial success from other Rocky Mountain states.

Although she’s hoping to obtain grant money for vines and related materials, McGlynn said finding potential vineyard sites should be easy:  “People are already calling to say ‘Test at my farm.’ The wine industry is sexy. Lots of people are already doing it as a hobby, and it would be a nice fit for our tourism. When I arrived here in November 2008, I was surprised not to see grapes growing,” she said. “Now, there is excitement from just talking about it. We have a large population of people who’ve retired early, with funds, who have certain upscale tastes. Wineries would lend themselves so well to the community.”

Fed by glacier melt, the area has no problems with water supply, McGlynn said, and with the recent, economy-related collapse of the lumber/housing industries and a local aluminum plant, “Labor should not be a problem. We have a lot of people recently unemployed who are used to outdoor work.”
Flathead Winery
Flathead Lake Winery
A 25-year history
Although at least one local vineyard has grown Pinot Noir and Gewürztraminer for decades, yields are minute, and the Pinot produces a commercial crop only one out of three years, according to Paddy Fleming, owner of 800-case Flathead Lake Winery. Fleming buys his grapes to produce 100% Montana-grown wine, and also makes wines from various local fruit and berries.

Like McGlynn, he’s optimistic that hybrid winegrapes will help define Montana viticulture. “Grapegrowers are convinced they cannot get consistent yields from traditional vinifera varieties,” he said. “We’ve had good success with Leon Millot and Marechal Foch, and we’d hate to see the study not take that into account. As a winery, we’d try to make wine out of any great grapes they can grow.”

Fleming sources his grapes from one of the deans of Western Montana viticulture, Dr. Dudley Page, a now-retired physician from Ohio, who first fell in love with Eastern Washington’s Palouse decades ago. Page first planted his vineyard in Polson, Mont., in 1985, around the same time that the Tom Campbell family established Mission Mountain Winery in Dayton, Mont. Mission Mountain currently produces some 6,000 cases per year, but sources many of its grapes from family-owned vineyards in Eastern Washington.

“I started growing all the standard grapes of California:  Riesling, Cabernets, Syrah,” Page recalled. “But you cannot apply growing principles from California here. We have a short growing season. Buds swell at the beginning of May; bud break is around June 1, and harvest comes around the end of September.” While Page always aims for around 23° Brix, “If we could get 20°, we’d be lucky.”

Although at around 2,900-feet elevation, Polson has a much higher altitude, Page likened its climate to that of Nova Scotia: “Short season, hot in the summer.” Nova Scotia wines made him a fan of Leon Millot: “I’ve had a couple of Nova Scotia Millots that were fabulous. I’d put them up there with Pinot Noir. It produces well here,” he said: Last year, his 30 vines yielded about 350-400 pounds. “I’m in the process of breeding my own vines to get more volume,” he said.

Page is also growing Minnesota-developed Marquette, which produces a light, red wine. “If you know how to make it, it’s delicious,” he said.

Montana and Flathead Valley, he predicted, “Will never be another California, Washington or Oregon. We do not have enough area with good climate.” Suitable vineyard sites are small: “I’d guess the largest you’d ever find would be 5-10 acres. But there are plenty of those with south, southwestern and southeastern exposures, and that’s what we’re encouraging, especially for retirees.”

Vineyards larger than 2 acres, he noted, “Are a lot of work. But, if a couple wants to do something, if you’ve got farmland, your taxes will go down considerably. After three or four years, you’re off and running: You just need to learn how to plant ‘em, prune ‘em and pick ‘em.”

Establishing a Montana vineyard/winery association, he said, “Will be one of the next steps.”

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