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Vineyard Story

Read more about Rattlesnake Creek Vineyard in a September, 2003 article in our local paper. >>>
Missoula Independent Article - 2/26/04 >>
Extreme winemaking
by Chef Boy Ari

Watercolor of our first grape harvest by Yvonne Fuller, Sept. 2003

Vineyard view from winery.

Tulips in the vineyard by Nici Holt.
In 1991, joining with two other families, Connie Poten bought a pasture in the Rattlesnake Valley to save it from development. Five years later, working on a local campaign, she met Andy Sponseller, then a city councilman and founder of Save Open Space, a nonprofit dedicated to saving the city’s open space. Besides conservation, it turned out they shared a certain zeal for dirt, rocks, wildlife and good wine. So it wasn’t long before they found themselves in a new career--throwing rocks into a pickup to clear the pasture a mile south of the mountainous Rattlesnake Wilderness Area.

The rocky patch happened to have miles of sunlight, a slight slope to the south and good drainage. An optimum site for a vineyard. Why not? We drilled a well.

Declared nuts by family and friends, we rationalized the vineyard-in-Montana’s Rockies scheme as a logical revival of Missoula’s agricultural past. The Garden City, after all, provided fruit, vegetables and flowers for arsenic-blackened Butte over a century ago, in the heyday of the Copper Kings. Local wine for the next century, its time has come.

Preparing the pasture, a 1,000-foot deep glacial outwash, for a vineyard became a geologic experience. It soon called for the enlistment of high school soccer teams, a visiting doctor from New Zealand, young lads earning money for their first cars, strong Russians and numerous friends and fools who happened by. And finally, a tractor and a big yellow rockpicker.

A million years ago, a new series of winds chilled the earth. Glaciers formed in our mountains, sculpting peaks, arêtes and valleys from the stunning Precambrian quartzites and argillites. These, it turns out, would be the source of the naturally clear, vibrant flavors that grace our wines.

We were excavating the exposed top of the remains of Glacial Lake Missoula, part of the ice expansion 15,000 years ago, at the end of the glacial epoch. Geologists believe Lake Missoula formed at least 41 times, and each time it left behind a deep layer of colorful argillite cobble in the narrow Rattlesnake Valley. Lake Missoula’s many shorelines are still visible on Missoula’s eastern mountainsides.

Before long, we’d fenced in five acres from the deer and planted the first rows. Andy studied with U. C. Davis’ oenological department. He visited wineries and vineyards in Minnesota and Wisconsin and stayed with the venerable 91-year-old Elmer Swenson, father of north country grapes. We planted an acre a year with French-American hybrids: Maréchal Foch, Frontenac, Leon Millot, Swenson Red and St. Croix (reds), and St. Pepin, a white grape.

Even though we have a short growing season at 3,450 feet elevation, we have the Far North’s advantage of long hours of sunlight. That gives us well over 2,000 degree days, the amount necessary for the commercial production of grapes. (Degree days are the sum of average temperatures each day over 50 degrees Farenheit.)

Ivan and Vasily building the wall.

Salish crossing, looking West, vineyard and winery in foreground.

Mt Jumbo (looking southeast).
Fertile soil, pure water and an evening wash of air from the Rattlesnake Mountains help nurture our 4.5 acre vineyard. When a couple of cold and windy dry winters didn’t faze the vines we de-hunched our shoulders and bet on the vineyard making it here, three miles north of where Lewis and Clark crossed the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek in 1805. We installed drip irrigation and told ourselves that if our vineyard had been here then, they might have just stayed.

Now we depend on the able assistance of Casey Louis, vineyard manager and assistant winemaker, and his fiancée Kate Keller, who wields a mean pruning shear among many talents. Our former farm Jill-of-all-Trades, Nici Holt, is the artist creating our wine labels. We couldn’t do the harvest without the volunteer friends and neighbors and students of Josh Slotnick’s PEAS Program associated with the University of Montana.

Ivan and Vasily, two Russian craftsmen ingeniously refigured all those rocks mined from the vineyard site into an 800-foot stone wall along the road, fencing in the horses. Hadrian’s Wall, wag Bill Vaughn dubbed it. It contains no mortar and is straight as an arrow, as confirmed by passersby who stop to make sure. The technology behind this feat was one string used as a straight line. Recently, the Missoula Historical Commission honored it with an award for Agricultural Tradition.

But the real history here belongs to the Salish Indians. To avoid Hellgate Canyon where Blackfeet waited in ambush, Salish buffalo hunters crossed this land for generations, camping at a nearby spring on their way to and from the buffalo grounds east of the mountains. In fact, they named the creek “Rattlesnake,” not because any rattlesnakes live here--they don’t--but because the creek twitches and turns out of the mountains like a rattler.

In 1812, David Thompson, the British surveyor known as one of the greatest practical land geographers of all time, walked south through Rattlesnake Valley to map the region from the top of Mt. Jumbo, the valley’s eastern boundary. It was a commanding view from the top because the Salish burned Mt. Jumbo every ten years to clear off brush and trees, preventing enemy cover.

Across Rattlesnake Valley on its western flank lies a historic, unmarked Salish burial ground. The ancestors of the Salish, who live to the north on the Flathead Indian Reservation, remain here, watching over their valley.

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