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Montana wineries have grape expectations

Posted at 4:23 AM, Aug 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-08-29 06:23:23-04

HELENA - Picture this. You're relaxing outside, the sun is shining, and you're looking out at a beautiful vineyard. You've even got a glass of local wine in hand.

But you’re not in Napa. You’re right here in Montana.

If one grape-grower has his way, we'll soon enjoy more wine, produced right at home. Right now, two-thirds of Montana’s 17 wineries use fruit from other states, and Montana only boasts a few dozen acres of grapes.

But Larry Robertson, who runs a small vineyard and makes wine in his Polson home, says viticulture could be vital to Treasure State tourism, and the economy.

“I realized several years ago, and I started talking about it, that we’re gonna raise the highest quality cold hardy grapes in the world,” Robertson told MTN News.

Hybrid grapes like the Marquette variety can handle Montana's frigid winters. Plus, less rain means less fungus growth.

Still not convinced grapes even grow here? Just look at the vineyards along Finley Point, on the shores of Flathead Lake.

“I’m a soil scientist. I’ve known for years these grapes are going to do well here. We just have to put the work in,” Robertson said.

That’s where viticulture specialist Tim Weber comes in.

“We have these really cold winters that are killing off a lot of our pests, then we have those hot, dry summer days,” he said.

Thanks to a recent grant from the USDA and the Montana Department of Agriculture, he travels the state, using science to help grape growers raise the best crop possible.

Robertson believes they can recreate what's happened in other states. An independent study done in Iowa in 2008 found the full economic impact of wine and vineyards in the Hawk Eye State totaled more than $200 million.

Dana Bernadinis of D. Berardinis Winery is already started.

“It’s definitely a surprise to people when I tell them I make wine and have a little winery,” she said.

Inspired by her Italian grandfather, she’s made wine for several years from Montana cherries, plums, and now the Marquette grape.

“A little bit of a higher acidity to it, but kind of a smooth finish too,” she said.

She’s even won awards for her blends, from the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition.

“I’ve just known these grapes are gonna do well here,” said Robertson. “We just have to put the work in and manage them properly for our climate, our short season.”

Robertson says that successful grape growers work hard, spending about 750 hours per acre per year.

Getting started can also be pricy; planting one vine costs about $15.

Robertson hopes in five years, there will be 500 to 600 acres of grapes in Montana.