Advances in crop science benefit Montana winemakers

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Polson grape grower Larry Robertson’s vineyard on Finley Point is seen in the file photo. (File photo)

Last year, Eureka resident Barry Roose added a new venture to Montana’s agriculture sector. But he isn’t roping cattle or driving a combine harvester. He’s tending a vineyard.

“We just planted our first plants last year,” he explained. “It takes a lot of prep to get there. You’ve got to loosen the soils, prep soils. It takes a lot of planning” before production can begin.

But he expects the wait to be worthwhile. “There’s microclimates in Western Montana that are particularly suited” for wine production, he said.

A small but growing number of vintners agree. While wine production usually takes place in sunnier climates, they say that advances in crop science have given this craft a niche in Northwest Montana.

“What had happened in the past was that people had said, ‘We can’t grow grapes in Montana’... because they were using the European viniferas,” or grapes, explained Pat McGlynn, Montana State University Agriculture Extension Agent for Flathead County. “They were trying Merlots or Chardonnay or Riesling,” she said, all of which are ill-suited to the area’s climate and soils.

But since the 1990s, scientists at the University of Minnesota and Cornell University have been developing “cold-hardy” grape varieties. The Northern Grapes Project, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has evaluated them since 2011, and studied the best ways to grow and market them.

In the early 2010s, Dr. McGlynn began researching these varieties’ potential in Montana. She put together an advisory group of Montana grape growers, which grew into the Montana Grape and Winery Association.

At this group’s conference in Kalispell last week, board member and Flahead Lake Winery owner Larry Robertson gave an update on the industry’s progress. Since 2010, the number of Montana vineyards has increased from about 20 to over 50. Cold-hardy varieties, like Marquette and Petite Pearl, are the most popular.

Understanding how these grapes thrive in Montana is an ongoing challenge. “A lot of the research that is developed in the warmer climates ... doesn’t really apply to us in Montana,” said the association’s president, Rich Torquemada, who owns Luna Llena Winery south of Missoula.

Much of their knowledge comes from McGlynn’s colleagues in other northern states.

“We don’t have anyone who’s an expert on grapes in Montana, especially when we started this in 2011, we had no one, so I had to go out of state in order to get the information to bring back.”

This work isn’t likely to make Northwest Montana the next Napa Valley. Robertson estimated a Montana vineyard’s average size at 1 acre, foreseeing “much smaller vineyards and more unique areas of grapes with smaller wineries” than in other wine-producing regions.

But he and other association members see that as an edge, voicing optimism that a cluster of small, unique wineries could lure visitors. “We can have a niche here in Montana that blends well with tourism and provides the small farmer with another source of income,” Torquemada predicted.

Discussing the sector’s growth, Robertson said, “I think that’s going to be of great benefit to our state.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at, or at 758-4407.

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