There was some interesting buzz at the Minnesota Grape Growers Association’s Cold Climate Conference last month, and it didn’t have anything to do with Minnesota grapes.
Instead, growers learned about what’s happening in Montana, now billed as one of the next great cool-climate wine regions.
“Montana’s climate is perfect for the new cold-hardy wine grapes,” said Tom Eggensperger of Thompson Falls, who owns a small vineyard and operates his home-grown Gut Craic Winery.
“These grapes are able to withstand 30- to 40-below winters,” he pointed out. “These new varieties thrive in our mild winters and long summer days.”
Larry Robertson, a soil conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, grows grapes and is starting a home-based winery in the bottom floor of his Polson home, taking his 45 years of home wine-making to the next level. His Flathead Lake Arrogant Bastard Microwinery will be unique because he heat-treats his wine with steam, a process that pasteurizes the wine without adding sulfite.
Robertson heartily agrees with Eggensperger about the potential of the grape industry in Northwest Montana, and has networked extensively with others in the cold-hardy grape industry. What the experts tell him is this: “You do have the potential to raise the best grapes in the world.”
“We’re exploding so fast with vineyards,” Robertson said, adding that grape production in the state likely will double every few years in the foreseeable future.
Robertson has been working closely with the Western Agricultural Research Center in Corvallis on the technical end of growing cold-hardy grapes. The key to successfully growing grapes in this area is manipulating the amount of irrigation, he said.
“We have to irrigate because we don’t get enough moisture, so we can get enough moisture [to the grapes] in the spring, then after that, don’t give them as much water,” Robertson explained. “We can manipulate to increase quality.”
A three-year research trial for cold-hardy grapes that wrapped up in 2014 provided the data and insight about the feasibility of developing a grape industry in the region.
Pat McGlynn, the Montana State University Agriculture Extension agent for Flathead County, won a state agriculture grant and led the grape trials. Four plots were established in 2012 to test 10 wine grape and two table grape varieties.
A dozen hybrid varieties were planted at vineyards at Ronan, Yellow Bay, Plains and Kalispell. The test plot in Ronan was discontinued after the grapes froze.
“One of the things that was so great about the research we started is that we had really good expertise,” McGlynn said. “We’ve been able to hire good consultants, and we’ll continue doing that.
“What we’re identifying is there are certain areas where grapes” grow better, such as the Eureka area,” McGlynn said. The Tobacco Valley’s lower elevation and warmer temperatures — it’s often called Northwest Montana’s “banana belt” — appeal to the cold-hardy varieties.
“Just a couple degrees make a difference,” she said. “Grapes go into and come out of dormancy slowly.”
Barry Roose put in a test plot two years ago on part of the old Osler Brothers mill site between Fortine and Eureka. That convinced him of the potential for grape production on his property. This year he’s starting 650 plants on a little over an acre. He’s busy terracing hills with a backhoe and expects it will be three years before he has a marketable crop.
Roose, a fourth-generation Eureka-area native who worked in economic development on the state level, sees the economic potential for cold-hardy grapes.
Areas around Flathead Lake also are quite conducive to growing grapes. Dan Getman has a relatively young vineyard of 750 grape vines in the Yellow Bay area that already has produced a fair amount of juice and jams with the early grapes.
“The wine is coming,” he promised. “It’s really amazing the growth [in the industry] in the last three years. More people are understanding we can grow grapes here.”
Also a cherry grower, Getman has a variety of other fruits such as apricots, peaches, pears and apples, some of which are sold to D. Berardinis Winery in Polson. He and other growers see a lot of potential in a cold-hardy hybrid called Petite Pearl, a variety developed by renowned Minnesota grape breeder Tom Plocher.
“We’re always planting new varieties and experimenting to find out what flavors we can get out of them with our unique climate,” Getman said.
While the cold-hardy hybrids have opened the door to more growers eying grapes as a potential cash crop, it’s labor-intensive, Robertson cautioned. It takes about 750 hours of labor per acre during the growing season to trellis the grapes, control weeds and irrigate.
“I want [growers] going in with open eyes,” he said.
Getman also acknowledged the manpower it takes to successfully raise grapes.
“It’s real farming,” he said. “It takes focus, requires attention.”
McGlynn said growers need to consider the infrastructure investment upfront if they’re in it for the money.
“There are certain places where it’s going to make economic sense,” she said. “[However], if you’re not worried about return on investment, you can grow in many places, but you have to limit the amount of vines; it’s canopy management.”
The Montana Grape and Wine Association started three years ago as the research trial was wrapping up and now has more than 50 members. The association has been a beneficial platform for growers wanting to learn more about grape varieties and what it takes to successfully grow them.
The association’s upcoming annual conference March 30 to April 1 in Polson will feature several industry experts — including Tom Plocher — that will address a range of topics, from pruning and watering grapes to advanced winemaking.
McGlynn had economic development in mind when she launched the grape study here. She had seen the success of the wine industry in the Finger Lakes area of New York where she grew up. Nebraska also has developed a successful wine industry that adds $5.3 million annually to that state’s economy and states such as North Dakota and Minnesota also have made in-roads in the industry.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.