Tongue River Winery         

                       Quality Made Wines with fruit exclusively from the Northern Plains!  

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Occasional Musings about grapegrowing and winemaking

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The mistress you hate to love

Posted on June 11, 2014 at 10:45 PM

I tell people that Mother Nature is the most seductive mistress anyone will ever have.  She wafts beautiful scents your way in spring, bedecks herself with incredible finery and intrigue (think butterflies, gorgeous flowers) and promises wonderful fruits and vegetables and lots of fun.  You can't help falling in love with her again every year.

But then.....hail; or yellow-jackets and birds eating your crop. Or disease.  Or drought.  And it all too often happens after a very promising beginning to the year.  She's seductive, but she's a B____ (rhyme's with itch!)

But we love her anyway.  If growing plants were simple, we'd quickly become bored.  It's partly because every year is a crap shoot that partnering up with Mistress Nature is so much fun.  You never know how the year will turn out.

Like this year.  WE HAVE A COMPLETE GRAPE CROP FAILURE!  The good news:  we're not alone.  Vineyards all over the northern states from Idaho to New York have suffered losses.  The bad news:  we're not alone.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of vineyards took the same hit.

For us, it was -40°F in late December.  That simply burned a lot of vines to the ground, as far as life is concerned.  the roots are alive and pumping up new trunks, but the superstructure was destroyed in most varieties.

But despite the cold, all three of our Frontenac varieties (Noir, Gris and Blanc) braved the winter almost entirely unscathed.  The bad news is, we got a late frost in the spring, and even though the plants are healthy, the primary buds were destroyed, and secondaries never throw much of a crop.

But the good news is, we have a lot of wine left from a very good 2013 year (9600 pounds of grapes in our vineyard!), so our larders are still amply full, and we'll spend 2014 rebuilding the vines with even better support and prepare for the 2015 season.

And the last bit of good news is:  Other crops are thriving.  Great rhubarb crop this year.  The chokecherries are loaded.  Our currant crop looks really good.  There are quite a few wild plums in some locations.  So there's still wine to be made and we'll have a good year of it, if a little less hectic.

Yup, she's a helluva seductive mistress, and I hate to love her....but I do!

Expanded marketing opportunities

Posted on June 11, 2014 at 10:40 PM

It's not every day we get to deliver a whole van full of wine to a single customer.  But tomorrow I'll be driving 400 bottles of Tongue River wine to Geraldine, Montana, which is celebrating their Centennial on July 4th.  I'm delivering Tongue Tied (our dry, barrel-aged red), Frontenac Gris (dry white, somewhat like chardonnay) and our sweet wines, Cherry Pie and Rhubarb.  It's almost a 600 mile round-trip, but it's worth it.

If you or one of your favorite organizations or businesses wishes some specially labeled wine, we can do that for you with enough advance warning (need to be approved by the Feds!)  We've done this for weddings, banks, finance companies and others.  Shoot Bob an email if you are interested.

2014 Kudos

Posted on May 2, 2014 at 1:55 AM

Tongue River Winery showed very well this spring at two important competitions:

Gold and two Silver medals at the Finger Lakes International in New York;

Gold and several more medals, as yet to be announced, at the Northwest Wine Summit in Oregon.

The two silver awards at Finger Lakes were both hybrid grape wines.  The Gold Medal from Oregon was hybrid grape wine, La Crescent.  This is a white wine with moscatto flavors and aromas, having Muscat Hamburg as one of its grandparents.

The importance of these hybrid wine wins, especially at the Northwest Wine Summit, is that they were entered in a competition hugely dominated by European grapes, the Vitis vinifera grapes like Pinot noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, etc.  For us to win any medals with judges used to tasting almost nothing but vinifera wines just goes to show that Hybrids can make not just good, but medal-winning wines.

This is important to us at Tongue River Winery, because that's the kind of grapes that will grow here and in the adjacent states.  If we want to make wines that represent our area, then we want to use hybrids, and fruit wines.  BUT WE DO WANT THEM TO BE GREAT WINES!  And we don't use no west coast grapes!

So when you taste our wines, don't expect them to be very similar to the vinifera wines with the names you already know.  Enjoy them for their own unique flavor, and you're sure to find some you like!

Go West, Young Winery, Go West!

Posted on February 21, 2014 at 10:55 PM

It's always lovely for a small business when "they call us", not the other way around.  So we were delighted when a liquor store called to see if they could stock our wines, and the same week we were contacted by a distributor in southwest Montana because people out there in the mountains have been asking for Tongue River wine!

Monday I drive to Bozeman with 28 cases of wine to deliver to a distributor, which will be doled out to only about 4-6 of the 100-plus retail stores they supply.  Why so few?  Well, we're a small winery, and we want to make sure our loyal eastern Montana customers always have the first and best choice.  We're glad to expand our market base, but "the other Montana", the one without Mountains, the part sometimes disdainfully referred to as "Western Dakota"— namely this far eastern third of the state— has been the Montana that supported the start of our business, gave us our first markets and has encouraged us along so faithfully.

It will probably always remain that our most unusual or small-lot wines will only be sold at the Winery or a few local specialty shops.  OR, to customers who have us ship them from the winery:  wines like Haskap and White Raspberry for example.  But it's time for our bigger batches to stretch their wings and fly beyond Billings to demonstrate to the mountain people just how fine the flatlander wines can be!

Sip and Shop is coming up soon in early March!  Take note that we'll be closed for about a month in Mid-March to mid-April, so stock up before or after we re-open.

Yet more Medals!

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 11:00 AM

TONGUE RIVER WINERY entered the Northwest Wine Summit in April 2013, and earned 9 medals!  This competition is open only to NW wineries— from Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Manitoba.

GOLD— White Raspberry

SILVER— Red Currant, White V, Apple Ice

BRONZE—Frongria, Frontenac Gris, Sweet Promise, Pear and Tongue Tied.

Furthermore, we believe we were the only entries of some 800 who won medals with hybrid grapes.

 

We believe our Gold medal is the top winner in Montana, which would also give us the Granite Peak Award for best Montana wine.

Our very large (2 inches?) silver medals for Frongria and Tongue Tied from the FInger Lakes International Wine Competition have arrived and are proudly displayed in the winery entryway.  As soon as they arrive, the Northwest Wine Summit medals will join them as a testimony to our efforts to provide our customers the best wine we know how to make.

NEW MT. LAW: Yes we can ship in state!

Posted on May 30, 2013 at 10:45 AM

Effective on October 1, 2013, (our winery's anniversary date from our first sale Oct 1, 2010!), all US wineries will be legally able to ship wine direct to customers in Montana!  This has been a long time in coming. Here is a listing of the most pertinent changes:

  The Wine Connoisseur's license is now done away with as of that date.  Beer purchasers still need the beer connoisseur's permit.

  There is a limit of 18 cases (12 750 ml bottles per case) per year to any one individual.

  The winery is required to use UPS/Fedex and have the appropriate alcohol permit with them (WE DO!)

  There is a host of record-keeping for the winery.  But no more record keeping for the customer!

 

The law has been codified, but the working details will be worked out in the next couple of months.  WE will apply for our Direct Shipment Endorsement as soon as we are able.

First Medals Won

Posted on April 2, 2013 at 11:20 PM

Okay, so now we're a bit more proud and excited.  It's one thing when we win some "People's Choice" awards voted on by our friends.  It's quite another when we win Silver Medals in a competition of 3500 wines judged by 80 professional wine tasters from around the world.

It is devilishly difficult to discern whether our wines are top quality or we just think so.  Tasting one's own wines as a judge is an exercise in either self-adulation or overly critical perspective.  So we ask our customers what they like and why, and we study and read about what makes wines better, and keep working on improving the quality and presentation of our wines.

But sooner or later, you need to make the financial investment and emotional investment and put them out there for strangers to love or hate!

The financial investment is typically about $100 for each wine entered, by the time you give up three or four bottles of wine and the entry fee and shipping for each wine.  But the emotional investment is the more costly one— sleepless nights and restless days once the judging has happened and the word has not yet gone out.  Did we win ANYTHING?  Did they HATE our wines?

The Finger Lakes International Wine Competition which awarded us Silver medals for our Frongria and Tongue Tied wines (same ones that won 2 of the 3 people's choice awards in North Dakota), is the largest non-profit wine competition in the world.  So we were really pleased for the affirmation.

Do we "sit on our laurels" now?  Absolutely not.  We're entering a dozen more wines in another competition and hope to gain critical affirmation for more of our wines. 

Meanwhile, we'll be doing our own careful evaluation, wondering why we didn't win GOLD or Double Gold, so that we can try to make things even better with the next batch of wine.

Keep pushing us toward excellence!  And we'll try to meet your expectations.
Bob

Awards: the Joy and the Reality

Posted on February 10, 2013 at 3:20 PM

This past weekend, Marilyn and I were present at the North Dakota Grape and Wine Association annual meeting in Bismarck and received the People's Choice award for commercial wineries  in all three categories:

Red Wine:  Our Tongue Tied dry, barrel aged blend of mostly Frontenac and Marquette

White Wine:  Our new FRONGRIA, a citrusy, tropical high alcohol wine made with Frontenac Gris

Fruit Wine: Our White Raspberry, the color of water and a lovely, smooth raspberry flavor and aroma.

There were other good wines to drink, and others certainly got some good votes.  But we were surprisingly chosen in all three categories.

Now let's put this into perspective.  The North Dakota wine industry is young.  I've been making wine for 45 years.  I SHOULD be making some of the best wines in the group.  The wines in North Dakota have been improving noticeably each year.  And the very same red wine, TONGUE TIED, that won the hearts of most tasters in this competion, was entered into the big Cold Climate Wine Contest a couple months ago in Minnesota and did NOT win gold, silver or brass.  Perhaps if they gave an award named LEAD, it might have gotten that far.  There were a few critical comments from the Cold Climate judges but not much more feedback.

I read a very interesting blog a few days ago about how difficult it is for a winemaker to remain objective about his or her own wines.  One can easily develop "cellar tongue", which might be defined as an inordinate appreciation of one's own wines, so much so that it is difficult to see one's own faults while not appreciating the quality of another's wines.

The bottom line is:  Professional wine tasters were dismissive of the five wines I submitted.  Amateur wine tasters liked what we produced.  The take-away meaning for me is:  Okay, I've made some fairly good wine.  But what I really want to succeed in doing is to make ever more excellent wine, and do my best with my fellow winemakers to help each other discover our strengths, our flaws and new possibilities so that together, we can all move the quality ever higher.

Thanks to the North Dakota Grape and Wine members for your vote of appreciation.  But let's keep pushing and challenging all of us to dare to admit our mistakes, share our insights and create some truly great wines in the future.  We're not there yet!

Bob

End of Autumn Wine Tweaking

Posted on December 14, 2012 at 10:05 AM

What?  It's still fall?!  With snow (SNOW??!!) on the ground, icy roads and chilly nights?  Oh well, Winter's got to come sometime...

APPLE ICE WINE: This week our Apple Ice Wine will finish fermenting at about 11% alcohol and 10% sugar.  It's only got a half-percent to go, and will probably finish later today.  Then outside it goes to chill the yeast down to stop their multiplying and sugar munching.  After a few days, we'll pump it chilled downstairs in the winery, run it through 5 grades of filter cartridges until it's crystal clear, then kill off most of the remaining yeasties with sulfite, and then stop any left in their tracks with sorbate (the birth control pill for yeast!) which doesn't hurt them....it just prevents them from multiplying, starting up a ferment again and blowing up bottles!

FRONGRIA: Meanwhile, we're fine-tuning our Frongria, a new sweet version of Frontenac Gris.  It's a "white port" style of wine— strong and sweet.  With 17.2% alcohol, this wine is loaded with tropical fruit flavors and aromas including banana, pineapple, peach, and apricot.  Darn it!  If it had hints of coconut we could have called it "Pinã Frongria!"

CHILL PROOFING:  We moved our Frongria outside a few days ago to "chill proof" the wine.  Grape wines contain both potassium and tartaric acid, and if you chill them down they will often precipitate some of  those chemicals in the form of potassium bitartrate, known to you as cream of tartar.  It's tasteless and harmless, but looks like a layer of glass shards on the bottom of the bottle.  We do our best to get rid of them by chilling the wine, then when the crystals drop out and stick to the sides and bottoms of the cold containers, we pump the wine into clean tanks and leave the crystals and some of the acid behind.  WE DO ALL THIS BECAUSE WE KNOW YOU LIKE THE APPEARANCE BETTER!  Last year we didn't chill proof.  We could have run a pretty good competition with Jack Frost for "Most artistic crystals!"

See you next week....in winter!   Bob 

Apple Ice Wine under way

Posted on November 30, 2012 at 11:15 AM

Ouch!  Freezing!  That's how we responded two years ago when we first started picking apples to make apple ice wine.  This year we wore thick rubber gloves and it was just fine!  That year we picked about 80 pounds of apples.  This year we picked more like 800 pounds.

By law, fruit must be frozen when picked and frozen when processed if you want to call the result "ice wine".  We pick the frozen fruit, hold it outside or in the freezer, and then press it while still frozen.  We use just a slightly warm water in our bladder press to get the fruit soft enough to give up the juice.

First of all, it's hard to find apples that remain on the tree until frozen.  If you have some and you live near Miles City, by all means give us a call!  We're after the large crab size (1 to 1 1/2 inches).  We've found three trees so far.

Normal apple juice runs between 7-9% sugar.  It might run a little higher as the apples dry out in winter.  But when pressed while still frozen, the sweetest fraction oozes out first leaving the ice behind, and increases the sugar levels to as much as 40%!

We save the very sweet juice when it gets down to about 30%.  We then press the rest out until we're in the 15-20% range and freeze that portion in plastic buckets or carboys.  After they are frozen solid, we invert them into another bucket and let about half the juice thaw out— again the sweet part— and end up with about half as much juice with twice the sugar.  For example 10 gallons of frozen 18% juice can become about 5 gallons of 36% juice when cryo-extracted in this fashion.

We will end up with almost 50 gallons of very sweet apple juice somewhere between 30-36% sugar.  If everything turns out well, we'll end up with about 375 bottles of smooth, sweet intense apple wine presented in gorgeous 500 ml German antique blue tapered bottles.  It's chilly work but the result is delicious!

Happy holidays!

Bob


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