MILES CITY — When you think of the best wine regions in the world, your mind might wander to Tuscany, Bordeaux or Napa.
With passion and the fruits of labor, one Miles City wine maker is determined to add Montana to that list of wine greats.
Wine making started as a hobby for Bob Thaden when he was only 18.
“It was legal at 18 back then, 56 years ago, and not because I liked alcohol but because there was so much fruit going to waste back in Minnesota with all the rain they had. My wife, girlfriend at the time, she and I made lots of jam and jelly and canned fruit and there was still fruit leftover, so I started making wine. First batches were horrible, but I’ve learned a lot in the last 55 years.”
And there’s something poetic about a winemaker whose life and career has been spent as a pastor.
“I am a United Church of Christ pastor and there’s a certain spirituality to that.”
Bob and his wife, Marilyn, moved to Miles City from Broadus over 30 years ago.
The couple planted their first crops in 2004, hoping to have a mature orchard and vineyard ripe for winemaking by the time they retired.
But the hot, dry summers and water from the Tongue River yielded amazing crops and sped up the plans for the Tongue River Winery.
“We opened up October 1st, 2010. Since that time, we’ve sold over $1 million worth of wine, somewhere around 85,000 bottles. By California standards that’s teeny. They do that much in a weekend at the big wineries. But for Eastern Montana, we’re the only winery with a vineyard east of Missoula.”
Now the president of the Montana Grape and Winery Association, Thaden has staunch principles in making Montana wines.
“On my website for the winery, I say specifically we only use fruit that will grow in Montana. We don’t use any fruit that is brought in from California, Washington, or Mars. It’s all fruit that we grow in Montana. Not many wineries are doing that and I think more of them should.”
“Why drink California wine in Montana? Let’s drink Montana wine in Montana. And that’s why one of our mottos is, 'If it won’t grow here we won’t ferment it,' because we want to make Montana wine in Montana.”
Thaden grows a hybrid variety of grapes that carry the genetics of wild grapes, vitis riparia, that are native to Montana and can survive our cold temperatures.
“Native Montana grapes crossed with the European grapes like Cab, Riesling, Merlot, Shiraz, and so forth, and that gives them their heartiness. The wild grapes are hearty to more than -50.”
Thaden says if the right fruits are planted, Montana, especially the hot stretches of Central and Eastern Montana, can become wine-making titans.
“I want to see more wineries in Montana and especially in southeast Montana. So if there are people out there on the northside of the Yellowstone on a south-facing slope with water rights that have 5 or 10 acres that they would love to turn into a vineyard, they ought to seriously consider that because it could really be a powerful, new direction for the wine industry in Montana."
Thaden’s wines are already proving his point by placing in wine-making competitions. The feather in the cap for the Tongue River Winery is the award of a Jefferson Cup for their 2017 Marquette Wine.
"A Jefferson Cup is a ‘best in show’ kind of cup. This is the only Jefferson Cup won so far by any winery in Montana and the only one across the whole of the United States for a Marquette wine. There’s probably 600 wineries that make Marquette and we own the only Jefferson Cup for a Marquette, so we’re pretty proud of that.”