Tongue River Winery         

                       Quality Made Wines with fruit exclusively from the Northern Plains!  


Occasional Musings about grapegrowing and winemaking

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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 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 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!


A Touch of Luxury

Posted on November 13, 2012 at 7:05 PM

Marilyn and I drove to Traverse City, Michigan last week to purchase some gorgeous antique blue breganza bottles for this year's release of apple ice wine.  We certainly could have used cheaper bottles, because the cost of the trip and the German imported bottles make them a bit pricey.

But "oh my gosh!" are they beautiful bottles.  And something as tantalizing and smooth as ice wine deserves good presentation.  Here's what they look like:

The dark teal color is so unusual, reminds me of the bottom of icebergs and promises something special.  We hope you have an opportunity to try this occasional wine which we haven't released for two years.  We had our eyes on some crab apples that keep their apples well into winter, so Josh and I spend the past few early mornings picking while the apples were still frozen.  We'll post more on this delightful wine as we make it next week. 

Oh, my aching back (legs, arms, shoulders, etc.!)

Posted on October 5, 2012 at 10:55 AM

Bird Netting. Arrgh!!   Sooooo, on October 2 we picked the last 200 lbs of grapes, and learned that within two days we might very well have snow, and our overhead netting was still up.  We didn't get it down one year, and it was absolutely shredded by heavy wet snow. 

So there were "no excuses."  We climbed ladders all Tuesday afternoon removing C-clips that hold our 50-foot wide sections together.  We unclipped our side-curtain nets and pulled them back.  And before supper we managed to pull back 2 out of 6 sections to the north edge of the vineyard.

Tuesday night it started drizzling, and we spent all Wednesday unclipping and sliding back the other four sections of overhead net in rain with occasional flurries of very large, wet snowflakes.  By morning we were  finished, and spent the whole afternoon with 6 100-foot rolls of 3/16" rope wrapping the net into a tight tube around its support wires, all along the north edge of the vineyard.  And we stuffed the side curtains into 30-gallon wastebaskets with drainholes, then lashed the net tightly to one of the posts.  At the end of the day, the netting was safe and lashed down for the year.

And wouldn't you know it, the next two days have been rain and snow free.  Not warm, but at least not wet!  I think I changed clothes 4 times on Wednesday and was really glad for a hot cup of coffee throughout the day.

Growing grapes in the northern latitudes is not for the timid.  But the sense of accomplishment in doing the near impossible makes it all worth while.

Old wines return, new wines join the list

Posted on September 12, 2012 at 11:25 PM
SAND CHERRY KISS is again available at the winery and at Miles City Reynolds Market and Buy Montana stores. The harvest was slimmer this year so there's only about half as much to offer. Our newest wine is CHERRY PIE, a sweet dessert wine made with pie cherries and sure to please. Try sipping it over a piece of dark chocolate! We have 8 (yeah, that's eight!) new French oak barrels, and will be barreling some of our large batch of chokecherry wine in about a week, and of course our big red TONGUE TIED by sometime in October. We're really excited to add these barrels to our production line. We will have a modest offering of RED CURRANT wine this year by late October. And SWEET PROMISE returns also in October (a blend of plum, apple and rose hip wines!) We will also have a very nice plum wine which will mate well with your stir fries or other asian meals. Watch for fall events as soon as the crush (harvest) is over. We want to show off our new wines! Bob

Equipment makes it happen!

Posted on September 2, 2012 at 11:20 AM

You know how it is....for several years you hunger for a new piece of equipment but keep putting it off because  of cost.  And then when you finally get it, you wonder why you waited so long!!

LADDERS:  6 weeks ago after at least 5 years of yearning, we finally bought a pair of TALLMAN orchard ladders— those three-legged affairs.  We bought a 12 footer and a 16 footer.  These ladders are great!  They are incredibly stable with a very wide base, and the third leg can be threaded through pretty messy branches to get you right to the fruit!  At 29 lbs and 39 lbs respectively, these ladders are very light and easy to handle, although swinging a 16-footer is something else.  We'll post a photo or two one of these days.

BARRELS:  This past week, 8 nice French oak barrels arrived at the winery!  We've had a couple in the past, but have put off more barrels because they cost so much, especially the French oak ones.  Many winemakers find them more desirable than US barrels because they use a different species of oak with tighter grain, which produces a more subtle and gradual oaking of the wine.

You know, you can put wine in oak (barrels) or you can put oak (chips, cubes, staves, shavings) in wine.  We've done it both ways and.....I really believe there's nothing that replaces a good barrel for aging and giving character to wine.  We'll age some of our chokecherry wine in these new barrels and much of our Tongue-Tied red wine.

THE BIG TANK:  As we planned for this year's harvest and purchased grapes, we realized we needed a bigger tank for our Tongue-Tied red wine blend.  Our largest tanks in the past were 160 gallon tanks, but now we own a 400 gallon tank!  (I know, I know.  It's just a baby to those big, huge wineries!)  We can't wait to fill this monster and enjoy blending.

MACRO BINS:  We also purchased four Macro Bins, the staple fermentation tool of larger wineries.  These are approx. 4-foot square plastic tanks.  Ours are 33 inches high and they are a great way to ferment a lot of juice in one place.  In the past, we had 3-4 55-gallon drums fermenting the same wine, and then we'd have to try to blend them together.  This way we can ferment up to 200 gallons in one place.  The garage is getting crowded, but it sure looks like we're serious about wine-making now!


We'll put up some new photos of our new toys sometime soon.  Meanwhile, the crush will begin in a week and we'll be busy as can be for the rest of September.  Raise a glass...for our success in the 2012 crush!

The Thrill of new wines

Posted on August 14, 2012 at 10:05 PM

Cherry Pie!  Chocolate Covered Cherry!  We're playing with a couple of new wines made with sour pie cherries.  The wine will be a medium high alcohol (15% or so) and quite sweet— definitely a dessert wine, and we might make it both with and without chocolate or cocoa flavoring.  I there anything that goes together better than chocolate and cherries??!!

The wine has fermented and we are awaiting its clarification.  It tastes lovely but needs a bit more sweetening.  It will definitely be ready before October, and will probably be offered in splits (half-sized bottles.)  Ask for it at the winery!

This year will also be the first year we ferment Frontenac Blanc grapes.  We'll try a few styles, but we expect to make a crisp, flinty semi-sweet white wine with these grapes we planted 3 years ago.  We'll let you know when it's ready.

A long hot summer

Posted on July 30, 2012 at 12:25 PM

Wanted to let you know that we and the grapes are surviving this long hot summer. After several irrigation/pump breakdowns the watering is going somewhat more smoothly. The grapes on the whole are loaded, especially the Frontenacs. Bob and Josh have been picking a LOT of chokecherries thanks to a bumper crop this year all around town, and have also picked some sour cherries for a fun new wine coming out this fall! Soon the bird netting will have to go up as the grapes are already starting to color. Working outside has been a challenge for sure; we all look forward to some cooler fall weather. It is a good thing to have to work at fermenting and bottling in the air-conditioned winery. We have also been appreciating the internet and the ability to take credit and debit cards with the iPad - customers appreciate it as well! We finally have some signs up at the corners so visitors can more easily find us here in the valley, thanks to Vida Landa (whose artwork is on our label!).

New Staff!!

Posted on June 27, 2012 at 1:35 AM

Hello from the newest full-time member of the Tongue River Vineyard and Winery - Marilyn!!  I have now quit my day job and have joined the guys in helping out in the garden, vineyard, and tasting room.  Hopefully we can increase our marketing, offer more "fun" items for sale at the winery, and be more available for your special events.  Look for more information on the web site as well!!

Right now we are challenged, not by frost as in the last blog, but by significant heat and dry.  Difficulties with our drip irrigation system has been frustrating, but we are encouraged by how the grapes are growing and developing.  The Frontenac grapes are especially doing well this year, and new plantings of Frontenac Blanc and Brianna (a lovely pineapple-scented grapes) have been put in to replace other grapes that have not done as well.  Feel free to come out and tour eastern Montana's only vineyard - and taste the new wines!

Measuring Spring: Dreading frost!

Posted on April 15, 2012 at 10:30 AM

April 15 (OMG it's Tax Day!)

But vineyard owners in the  midwest haven't been thinking about taxes.  They've been consumed with information about frost.  For many, this has been the worst year on record.  Let me provide a bit of background on how we measure and what we do in the spring.


  • PHENOLOGY:Vineyardists, like many nature watchers, use a concept called "phenology" which is the study, notation and attention paid to when things happen.  Generally, grapes bud out in Miles City around Mid-May.  This year, it appears likely to happen around April 20th, more than three weeks early.  Generally, our flowering crabs blossom about May 15th as well.  This year they are already in blossom.  Everything across the midwest has been about a month or more early.
  • GROWING DEGREE DAYS (GDD):  This is a measurement tool that sums up the average heat above 50° F. throughout the growing year.  50° F because that's approximately the temperature above which grape tissue actually does something and doesn't just sit there.  In Miles City, we get about 2700 GDD each year.  Generally about this time, we've only had 15-20 GDD.  But this year we're already up to 85.
  • STAGES OF GROWTH:  Why do GDD matter?  Well, with most hybrid grape varieties, budbreak happens at about 100 GDD, and up until just before budbreak, the vines can take a pretty good freeze.  At budbreak and after, just a couple degrees below freezing can be deadly (literally!)


  • LATE FROSTS:  With spring so early this year, we are all at risk for late frosts that can kill the buds (but not the plant.) It just means that we might have to do all the work of pruning, training, etc. and get nothing in return this year. SO FAR with 85 GDD, we have not reached budbreak, so the frosts haven't harmed us.  But our last hard frost average is close to the middle of May, so we might lose our crop in the next four weeks even though things look good now.
  • HOW ARE OTHERS DOING?  GDD in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan is well up toward or above 200.  That means their buds have burst, and they have little canes between 1-3 inches long.  And they are having hard frosts in some of those locations. 
  • HOW BAD CAN IT GET?  I just read last night that it appears that up to 90% of the Welch's controlled vineyards in Michigan might be a total loss this year. Iowa reports that they believe they might be somewhere between 10-90% damaged, depending on location and variety.  Damage is being reported everywhere in the frost zone  that has had such a warm spring.


  • HEAT:  A number of vineyards use huge propane jets (like a salamander heater only 10 times as big) and drive up and down the rows trying to heat the air.  Some hire expensive helicopters to hover over their vineyards in a moving pattern, to push warmer air above down to the ground.  Others light smudge fires.
  • OVERHEAD SPRINKLING:  Some vineyards are set up to spray water on their vines overhead, coating the leaves, buds, twigs, everything.  The science of this is that as water freezes, it gives off heat, and keeps the tissue beneath the ice just above freezing.  But it's tricky to do, and most of us don't have the equipment or enough water to do this job.
  • SPRAYING WITH CHEMICALS: Some vineyards have tried spraying with certain fertilzers/chemicals that are supposed to be cryo-protectants.  There IS some evidence that this might work, but only for a few degrees.  You might survive at 30° F, but not at 22° F if the buds have opened.
  • PRAY!
  • DIVERSIFY.  Here at Tongue River Vineyard & WInery, we had a total crop failure two years ago due to frost at the other end of the year:  Early hard fall frosts can severely weaken the above-ground portion of  vines if they haven't had time to harden off and get ready for winter.  We got caught due to frosts on my wife's birthday (Oct 10th) and a couple more days in 2009, which basically killed everything above ground.  We spent all of the summer of 2010 rebuilding the trunks, cordons and canes for the 2011 harvest and it paid off.

But many vineyard/winery operations have ONLY grapes, and that's where the real hurt comes in our unpredictable climate.  We did pretty well our opening year because of all of our fruit wines, and we continue to increase and expand our offerings there.  We will pick our first haskaps and Canadian cherries this year.  We've significantly increased our holdings in apples, pears, black currants, sand cherries, raspberries, elderberries and rhubarb.  And our two highest selling wines continue to be rhubarb and Foxy Lady (our apple/currant blend.)

Anyone engaged in any farming venture needs to be able to shrug one's shoulders and say, "oh well, next year."  Or as our friends in Broadus, just south of us like to say even more cynically, "This is year after next country!"

Pray for frost free weather for the rest of spring.  Please.  Double, triple infinite please!!