joining with two other families, Connie Poten
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.
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
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
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
Ivan and Vasily building the wall.
Salish crossing, looking West, vineyard and winery in foreground.
Mt Jumbo (looking southeast).
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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