Tongue River Winery         

                       Quality Made Wines with fruit exclusively from the Northern Plains!  


So Far So Good for 2011 Crop

Posted on March 10, 2011 at 11:15 AM

Every year is a gamble!  Twice the last month I've sample pruned canes from each of our grape varieties, and everything's green!  For two years we've not had much of a crop, but this year things look really good.  There's a good ground cover of snow and spring is warming up gradually.  Hopefully no long chinook warming periods.  Hopefully no sudden deep freezes.

We prune our grapes later each year, in order to allow as many buds to survive late frosts as possible. With a small vineyard, we can wait until well into April or even May and still get done in time. Cabin fever is in full swing!

Harvest nearing completion

Posted on October 2, 2010 at 10:31 PM

Josh and I spent a lovely day today harvesting the last of the grapes:  about a hundred pounds each of Riesling and chardonnay, and a wee bit of Frontenac and Marquette and a few barely there.  The Glenora and Someset seedless have produced about 3 gallons of raisins which we will enjoy all winter.


Since we were really going  at it in the winery with grapes, we also shredded 112 pounds of golden spice pears to mix up a batch of pear wine.


So far we've now reached almost 500 gallons of wine, and with an almost total grape crop failure, we feel really fortunate to have done this well.


At last Sunday's garden club tour and tasting, we found our Sand Cherry Kiss  and rhubarb wines very popular (both sweet), with the Sand Cherry Dry well received by those who like dry wine.  I've also started the raspberry wine (approx 24 gallons) a few days ago and it has reached a simply lovely deep pink color.

Autumn is so exciting!  And Delicious!  Tomorrow we will start harvesting the named cultivars of elderberry, which are twice the size of the wild ones and sweeter.  Yesterday we gathered a bunch more rhubarb to add to our stash for this year's crop.  The only thing left to do in the vineyard is the remaining raspberry harvest which we hope will last another two or three weeks before hard frost.


It has been a good summer and a good harvest, despite our grape failure.  Now it's time to wait for the wine to age a bit, then full steam ahead with bottling and labeling, and finally, selling.


Apples galore

Posted on September 14, 2010 at 11:02 AM

People will THANK you for taking away their apples!  Although apples are beautiful in blossom, and inspiring in fruit, the quantities for today's family, whose pie-making is rare and canning almost rarer, are just overwhelming.  So the average household makes a few pies, gives some apples away, and the rest.....well, they drop and rot.  And need to be raked up, and then raked up again, and then raked up again.

So along comes this winemaker (or jelly-maker) and offers to pick them for you and also offers to clean up the mess.  We thought we'd have a hard time finding as many apples as we'd like.  It turns out we've been offered more than we can use!  The big red crabs make wonderful wine, cider and extraordinary jelly (almost red, itself!)


And all it takes is a polite knock on the door and the courage to ask, and perhaps...a gift of that extraordinary jelly!

Nets all in place

Posted on August 19, 2010 at 10:57 PM

Our first year we netted, we figure we lost 1/2 the crop to birds anyway.  The robins worked from the bottom, the brown thrashers from the top, and if there was even a teensy hole in the netting, the American finches found their way in.  We had nets wrapped directly over each row and tied underneath.  It was comical to see the thrashers jumping up and down on the net and leaves, to press things down enough so that they could peck the grapes right through the netting!


Now we use an overhead net system that is a good 3 feet above the vineyard, like one giant ceiling, with the birds totally excluded unless we miss closing the seams at the corners where the side curtains meet (and the torn places that have developed....)  It is so peaceful to walk beneath the netted ceiling and enjoy a totally bird-free zone.


The last two years, the finches have shown up by the dozens (or maybe 100s)  about the time of veraison— the coloring of the grapes...., and after about two days of NOT getting inside, they simply leave for the rest of the season and never come back!  Now that's a bird I can love!


I have seen robins eat fresh earthworms from Marilyn's hand in the spring when she's pulling weeds, and I LOVE them!  I have seen robins eating our grapes, our sand cherries, our raspberries in August and I HATE them!  By putting up the netting, I can now at least tolerate them.  You can see our netting arrangement on the vineyard photo album.



Eastern Cicada Killers

Posted on August 17, 2010 at 9:50 PM

I knew we should be seeing them mid-August. For three years now, we've been hosts to eastern cicada killers, the largest wasp you're ever likely to see (think 2.5 inches long!). They nest in the ground, and sting and bring back cicadas for their young. Two cicadas are left for female eggs, one for males. When the eggs hatch, the wasp larva feed on the cicadas all winter and remain underground until the following summer. When we heard the cicadas the past two weeks, I kept looking for the big wasps and finally saw one today. They probably could sting, but aren't really interested in us. They're busy getting those cicadas back to their nests.


Two colleges out east have been studying these insects, and I've sent them some two years in a row. In all of Montana, they've only had three sightings reported: two near Bighorn, and our vineyard. Call me or email me if you find them too. Here's what they look like— they're gorgeous:

Yellow Chokecherry

Posted on August 14, 2010 at 7:53 AM

My friend Carl told me he had one, but I didn't believe him.  Then two days ago, while I was out scouting wild fruit on a friend's land, suddenly, there it was!  A flash of yellow colored fruit I'd never seen before.  Gary and I stopped, walked up to this small tree, and there, as real as can be, were about a half-dozen strigs of unmistakable chokecherries.  They tasted like chokecherries, looked like chokecherries, except that they were yellow!  As yellow as this smiley face ;).


I had a 2-foot piece of orange flashing tape in my pocket, and tied it on the tree about eye-height so I could find that very chokecherry next March.  I'm going to take some cuttings next year, root them out, and get a dozen or two of these planted so we can have our very own yellow chokecherries.


It's fun to watch for mutations.  Nature does "throw a curve" once in a while, and creates something new.

Sand cherry variability

Posted on August 9, 2010 at 10:23 PM

There are actually 4 different colors of sandcherries in our vineyard.  Since these are seedling plants, every single one of our 175 plants is technically a different variety.  Some are earlier, some are later, some sweeter, some more astringent.


All but a small handful of plants produce black cherries.  We have one that produces absolutely yellow cherries.  We have one that produces a deep maroon cherry when ripe.  Then one other that is a greenish/yellowish/red when ripe, and very sweet, and just loaded with fruit.

We plan to ferment the yellow and greenish/yelloish/red together for a white sandcherry wine.  If we like it, I'll take cuttings this next spring,  root them and grow them out for planting, then set out a new row with about 25 plants of yellow cherries and 25 of the other.  Since they fruit the year after planting, we should have a good sized batch of white cherry wine in 2012.  That is, if we like it!  All part of the fun.

Cherry Ripeness

Posted on August 8, 2010 at 6:28 PM

I asked a couple of people the last few days, "How do you know when cherries are ripe?"   I think I figured it out:  if the birds already got them, you're a day late.  So the best way is this one:  if the fruit comes off without any real pulling, just strips off in your hands, it's dead ripe.  Wait a little longer, and it starts dropping by itself.


Our sandcherries are all under birdnetting, but I leave it a little unprotected so a few birds get inside.  I can quickly identify which bushes are dead ripe by the bird-pecked cherries on the shrubs.  Those are the ones I hit first.

Sandcherries are interesting fruits.  Most of them are a deep purple-black when they're dead ripe.  But some of them are more of a burgundy color, and some are actually a sort of greenish-red.  The most interesting are the yellow ones.  Of 175 sandcherry bushes we've planted, only two of them throw yellow cherries.  Next year at harvest I'll start marking the best fruiting bushes, and take cuttings of them in the spring for more identical plants.  Then we'll start pulling out the worst of them and replace them with the best rooted cuttings we make.

Today I've picked 80 pounds so far.  I can easily pick 20-25 pounds per hour.  I think we've got at least another 300 pounds to pick and it could be much more.  And I think they'll all probably ripen this week.  So pray for cloudy days, so we don't cook in the sun.

First official wine on the way!

Posted on August 4, 2010 at 1:23 PM

Sandcherries.  We have 150 sandcherries planted last year with a lot of small fruit, and 48 sandcherries planted 3 years ago with a good amount of large fruit (some more than a half-inch.)


Sandcherries (Prunus besseyi) are actually more related to plums than cherries according to the experts, but they taste like an astringent black cherry, much like  a chokecherry.  In fact, they resemble giant chokecherries in appearance and flavor more than anything else.  They are a beautiful white-blossoming bush in the spring, and a weighted down, sprawling shrub in early August, covered with black and sometimes maroon and rarely yellow fruit.

There are those who make pies from sandcherries, but they're really not quite big enough.  But for jelly and wine....aah!  The bird netting went over them two weeks ago so WE could get the crop!


I have been picking them since August 1, a few each day, choosing only cherries from the highest, sunlit branches on the ripest plants.  At this rate, the harvest might spread over three weeks.  But I want to get a few gallons fermenting so that I can have an early wine-tasting available in September when we hope to open.


High tannin fruits can be done up as "quick wines" because the tannin helps the wine clarify quickly.  It's possible to have a crystal clear, dark red/maroon sandcherry or chokecherry wine three weeks from picking!  A bit rough, but that's what new wine is all about.  Sweetness masks some of the roughness, so we'll present it as both a sweet and dry wine.


If any of you local folks have sandcherries or other fruit (chokecherries, raspberries, apples, grapes) you don't want, let us know!  We'd be glad to turn it into refreshing Montana wine!