Ten Spoon Winery

Blog by Andy Sponseller and Connie Poten.

Soon after we planted our first grape vines, launching the dream of a green vineyard and winery in Montana’s Rockies, excellent friend and author Deirdre McNamer gave us a Salvador Dali sketch of Don Quixote rearing on his fabled horse, tilting at windmills.  This, she said with a resigned smile—that tender look reserved for those hopelessly beyond reason–is starting a vineyard in Montana.

Over a decade later, five acres up and growing French American hybrid grapes bred for winter temperatures down to -26 degrees, we’re still tilting and rearing.  Every year brings new cliffhanging excitements in the field and in the wine-making, and 2010 may be the most tumultuous yet. Last year, 2009, was certainly the most devastating; we lost 65% of our crop to a 26 degree frost on May 18.   Before that, the fires of 2000, 2003 and 2007 sent embers onto the winery roof and smoke infiltrated the grapes.

But this year charged in with a frosty 29.1 degree descent on May 21 that nipped most of our primary buds, followed by rain all June, two hail storms and more rain in August and much of September. The weather conditions set the vineyard back about two to three weeks, and when we edged toward despair, the sun came out.  Suddenly we think we might have a crop after all.   As of this writing, Sept. 27, we are looking at a week and a half of sunshine in the forecast. Some of the leaves are a bit yellow; we hope dormancy doesn’t get us before the frost does. Most of grapes are fully through veraison (color change) and we clipped off the ones that aren’t so the crop consists of the ripest clusters.

We are entering Harvest Alert season.  This is the time when blood pressure goes up and one can find Andy on the computer checking the weather at 4 a.m.  The game is to stall the harvest as long as we can to let the sugar rise in the grapes, make the big decision about the date of picking and sound the bell for the community to come help bring in the crop.  Last year, you may remember the temperature plummeted during the first twelve days of October, ending up at eight degrees on the12th.  We picked just days before the weather collapsed, heading to that shocking cold which tragically killed Lori’s entire lavender crop and fused the leaves to the trees in Missoula all winter long.  It was like the devil from the Arctic visiting the Garden City. Luckily he’s not due back for a century.

Range Rider and St. Pepin are our hundred percent estate-grown wines, and they win awards and get better each year as we, and the vines mature—in spite of the odds.

So, why you may ask, are we continuing to grow grapes here? Most years since we started, the weather has supported a respectable crop given that our varieties are suited to this place. Washington and Oregon are premier growing areas and they have tough years as well. Rarely is the crop off everywhere at the same time, so it is advantageous to have sources in different locations. We buy grapes from family-owned vineyards in both those states, as well as cherries from Fat Robin Orchard on Finley Point and The Orchard on Flathead Lake. Locally grown and produced wines use less fuel in the process. Making and selling locally made wine circulates money in the local/regional economy. Washington and Oregon are the closest producers of top quality grapes.  In the end, we believe wine drinkers will support regional wines as well as the wines from distant countries. Our Montana wines are distinctive and as people experience an ever-widening range of flavors they grow more interested in tasting the place, the soil, the climate–the terroir—in  wine.

Our biggest blessing?  Hawks.  Yes, they have discovered the vineyard to be a rich hunting ground.  The thousands of robins that used to descend on the grapes have lost their dessert special.  Andy no longer has to shoot explosions of blanks into the sky, ride his tractor through the rows honking the horn incessantly at daybreak (much to the relief of the neighbors), or turn on the mind-numbingly repetitive predator bird caller (that fooled not one robin) all day.  Two years ago a sparrow hawk swooped over the vineyard and suddenly huge dark clouds of robins raised up and away, sounding alarms.  The hawk must have told his friends because as soon as the grapes ripen up and robins arrive, a hawk takes up residence, patrolling the rows of vines.  He or she keeps a bird-free vineyard for us.

Want to tilt at windmills in the October sun with us? Send us an email and we’ll let you know when the harvest is–come pick grapes, drink wine and eat delicious food!  Send to: megan@tenspoon.com.  See you in the vineyard ~

Andy Sponseller
Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery