Montana might often seem short on luxury, but part of the greatness of the place is that it never lacks dreamers. Andy Sponseller and Connie Poten are two of them, and after five years of dreaming, scheming, and just plain sweating, the pair's far-sighted vision has ripened to fruition. By Christmas, the first bottles of wine produced by their fledgling Rattlesnake Creek Vineyards should be available for glorious, luxurious consumption.
Fittingly, Sponseller sounds more like a technician than a connoisseur when he inspects his own product. He swirls a crystal goblet of ruby-colored Flathead cherry wine in the autumn sunlight, then lets the wine settle. "See the glycerin in that?" he marvels, pointing as a thin, nearly imperceptible seep of tinted liquid creeps back down the wall of the glass. He takes a test sip, and the connoisseur in him emerges. Another month of this wine in the vat, he declares, and he'll have perfection.
He's proud of the cherry wine, but more proud still of his recent grape harvest, the first serious, commercial yield since the initial crop of seedlings were planted in Missoula's upper Rattlesnake valley five years ago. In the meantime, he and Poten have bankrolled their vision for a local winery largely through a combination of sweat and sacrifice, including selling their house and taking up temporary residence in the barn they built beside the neat rows of grapes on the valley floor. These days the two are surrounded by the fruits of a long labor - second-hand vintner's equipment purchased from a defunct winery in Pennsylvania occupies the back half of their living space, while eight tons of crushed, crackling pinot grape pulp ferments in tubs nearby.
Though the vineyard's most established vines date only to1998, the roots of the enterprise run decades deep. Twenty-three years ago, Sponseller was working as a welder with his friend Tom Berger, who happened to have a passion for fine wine. "Tom got me dialed into drinking nicer-quality wines," Sponseller remembers. "We were having lunch one day, taking a break from welding pipe, and Tom said, 'I'd like to have a vineyard here,' because he thought the weather in the Bitterroot was perfect for it."
In the meantime, longtime Rattlesnake resident Connie Poten had purchased 20 acres in the upper valley in a private effort to protect at least a part of the neighborhood from housing sprawl. By the time Sponseller decided to retire from welding, he and Poten were married, and looking to try their hand at organic farming. It occurred to them that the weather in the Rattlesnake Valley - high above Missoula but a five-minute drive to downtown - wasn't all that different from the weather in the Bitterroot.
Poten flashes a golden grin. "I had the land, and Andy wanted a vineyard," she says, as though the fit were dovetailed in heaven.
Truth be told, the initial endeavor had its own fair ration of trial-and-error disasters. They began with two grape varieties, Riesling and Marechal Foch, the latter a proven performer in a colder climate. The first sub-zero snap burned the Riesling to the ground, Sponseller recalls. A wry smile crosses his face. "When we started this venture up here, there was a little murmur around town: oh, Sponseller and Poten, we told you they were crazy..."
But the Marechal plants survived with flying colors, and Sponseller settled down to learn about other cold-country varieties. These days the vineyard supports a number of hearty grapevines, mostly French-American hybrids with names like LaCrosse, Swensen Red, and St. Croix. All are thriving, and so is the dream of a commercial winery in the shadow of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, thousands of acres of wild Montana, just out their back door.
"Wine making, as well as wine drinking, belongs to everybody," Sponseller says. He and Poten have taken pains to make the vineyard grounds as aesthetic as they are functional, with the express purpose of creating a destination for wine lovers to relax over a glass of the local vintage. The vineyard's burnt-yellow "barn" is really a barn by analogy only-the open, airy interior of the building will eventually house a tasting room. Brick patios and walkways give the place the pastoral charm generally associated with other vineyards in other places - California's foothill country, say, or the centuries-old wineries of southern France.
The process of building a commercial vineyard hasn't solely involved the romance of working the land and mastering the magic of converting ripe fruit into the nectar of the gods. This remains the 21st century, with its layers of bureaucracy and applications and permits. The two just received federal licensing from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and Sponseller spent much of last year working with a wine attorney - yes, there is such a thing - to lobby the Montana legislature for a provision allowing local wineries to self-distribute their product.
"Otherwise, we'd have to hire an outside distributor just to take our wine down the road to Rattlesnake Gardens," says Poten.
Like those Marechal Foche grapevines that first winter, Sponseller came through the legislature with flying colors. By the end of this year he and Poten plan to have around 12,000 bottles of wine ready for the local palate, using grapes from their own vines, a load of Pinot grapes brought over from Oregon, and the aforementioned Flathead cherries.
Sponseller's larger dream is to have the entire Clark Fork River basin, from Missoula to Sand Point, Idaho, declared an Approved Vinticultural Area, similar to Napa Valley in California or the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The weather here is perfect for certain types of grapes, he says, and there's something about fruit that thrives at the most extreme boundaries of its range, something durable and rich. He hopes he's at the vanguard of a much larger phenomenon; he can see this area as a destination for wine lovers, and he can see the potential for a sustainable future in the orderly rows of grapevines.
That, and the heady, crimson juice carefully aging in the vats. After five years, the harvest is in, the grapes nurtured and flavored by mountain air and the glacial till of Rattlesnake valley bottomland. "We think that we can make a living at this," says Sponseller, admitting that he and Poten have sunk pretty much all their savings into their 20 acres of heaven. "But it's important to us to do it in a sustainable fashion. We're certified organic ... that's what our place is about."