Tongue River Winery         

                       Quality Made Wines with fruit exclusively from the Northern Plains!  


Occasional Musings about grapegrowing and winemaking

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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!!

Planning for the 2012 season

Posted on March 3, 2012 at 3:35 PM

Phew!  We had a great end of year sales period, and have been steadily bottling the 2011 harvest.  We've just finished a big batch of apple wine.

Now we turn our thoughts to the 2012 season and what it might entail.  Several growers in neighboring states now have vines old enough for fruiting, and several have contacted us to see if we are interested in any or all of their harvest.  Are we?  The questions running through my mind are:

  • How much wine are we likely to sell with existing retail partners?
  • How many more retail outlets might we negotiate by year end?
  • How many tons of grapes do people want to sell?
  • How much do we think we can sell as wine?
  • We processed about 5 tons of grapes in 2011.  What additional equipment would we need to do 10 tons?  15 tons?
  • Do we have the labor for such an expansion?
  • Do we have the working capital to buy more equipment and the fruit?

I find that there's a lot more office/paperwork stuff to do than I anticipated.  Relax...take a deep breath...drink another half-glass of that great dry red Tongue-Tied we made this'll be okay...

The 2011 wines turned our really well, and we've come to appreciate that hybrid grapes grown in SE Montana can produce some really fine wines.

So come see us!  Come taste our wines.  Then buy our wines and take some with you!  And share the joy!


New Wine Offerings for 2011-12

Posted on October 18, 2011 at 9:40 AM

All 16 of our wine tanks are now cradling this year's wine as it clarifies and ages.  If next year's prospects turn out as we expect, we'll need to buy more and larger equipment again.

This year we will be offering four new wines: (well, some were so limited last year that it's as if they were new!)


Perfect Kiss— a field-blended white wine that we sampled last night and found delicious!  Light, semi-sweet, lots of fruit and berries, perhaps strawberry.

La Crescent— This one is a bit like Riesling with an apricot finish in a semi-sweet style.  This has gained a lot of rave reviews from those who have tasted it.

Aranciano— White on skins!  This wine looks pink/orange colored, is tannic, full-bodied and you'd swear is a red wine when you taste it.  It's in an American Oak barrel for three weeks.

Frontenac Gris— Barrel fermented for a week, malolactic fermented (gives a buttery, smoother taste), this wine was produced like a classic chardonnay.  Dry, oaky, a good white table wine.

White V— We don't produce White Zin because Zin won't grow here without protection.  But Valiant will.  When crushed and immediately pressed from the skins, the wine has little color.  Done as an off-dry, light wine something like White Zin with a hint of Concord flavor.


Marquette— The flagship U of Minn. grape which produces a full-bodied red wine with a nice balance of tannins, sugars and acid.  This wine will be oaked and aged at least a few months before release.

Frontenac— Another U of MINN release with very rich, dark color, a hint of cherry.

Unnamed— We will release a blend of Marquette and Frontenac early next year when we determine what blend percentages are the best.  A good, dry, tannic full-bodied red wine. (We named it TONGUE-TIED!)

Sabrevois Nouveau— Done in the style of Beaujolais, a light hearted festive red wine with lots of fruit, little tannin and very approachable.  We hope to release it on the traditional Beaujolais Nouveau date:  The third Thursday in November.

Our other wines offered last year will all mostly be available as well.  Since are tanks are all in use, we cannot make more raspberry, black currant, haskap and Foxy Lady until we empty out some cherry wines.  But they will be coming along again at the turn of the year.

Thanks to all of our customers and retail partners for a great first year!

Season's End

Posted on October 18, 2011 at 9:35 AM

What a great year!  We picked just over 7000 pounds of grapes, bought another 3000, picked lots of other fruit and are set to craft 2 1/2 times as much wine this year as last.

The bird netting is now safely pulled off the vineyard after three days of steady work.  The robins, blackbirds, sparrows and wrens have entirely removed the grapes our pickers missed, and with frost arriving on October 15th the season was over.

Except for our raspberries in the high tunnel, which keep cranking out a half-gallon of berries every day and will probably do so for another month. 

Now the vineyard looks lonely and dead as the leaves increasingly fall off.  Next week we will prune and bury the 700 feet of tender vines and then all is prepared for winter.

Next year?  9000 pounds expected.  We'll know in April when pruning happens what we might expect.  Happy winter, all!

Why I love the unreliable, reliable Mother Nature

Posted on August 16, 2011 at 1:25 AM

Mother nature is a bitch of a friend.  She'll seduce you with beauty, with the promise of great harvests, and just when you feel you have every reason to be filled with joy and gratitude, she'll throw you an early frost in the fall, a late frost in the spring, or a marauding bunch of birds or yellow-jackets that attack your fruit from every direction.

This year we got more rain than anyone remembers.  The grapevines grew like weeds.  But the spring was cool and we're a week, maybe 10 days behind average.  Will we be able to harvest in time, or is Mother Nature going to show her mean side again and throw us an early frost?

Fortunately the very ample supply of grasshoppers would rather eat grass, already picked rhubarb and the leaves of already harvested black currant  than touch the grapevines.  We have only a few sphinx moth larva (tomato hornworms and the like) and a few grape leaf hoppers and 8-spotted forester caterpillars feeding on grapeleaves, and air so dry that mildews just don't show their destructive faces.

So come on, summer heat!  Blow on us for 7 more weeks with all you've got and ripen these grapes with gusto!   Then the cool of fall may come and we won't mind a bit.

Bird Free Zone Again!

Posted on August 16, 2011 at 1:15 AM

We again have a bird free zone!  Thanks to a dozen scary assistants, who yelled, woo-wooed and waved their arms from one end of the vineyard to the other, the remaining birds last Friday evening fled the vineyard which was netted overhead and on three sides.  Josh and I quickly pulled shut the southern curtain, hung it up on the poles to close the remaining openings, and we had, once again, a 2-acre bird-free zone.

It is such a pleasure to go out and finish picking the sandcherries, to check on the grapes and do some final combing of the canes with no birds within at least 5 feet of any of the vines.  Now if we just keep getting super-hot days for a long season, we'll be in harvest heaven in the early days of October.

I love the robins in April when they return from wherever they go.  A few years ago, a hungry spring robin even took a worm from Marilyn's fingers before flitting away.  But by August, I hate them with a passion.  They are voracious feeders, and anything not netted is fair game for them.  Thankfully our nets provide us total protection and we can enjoy them gazing mournfully at the ripening grapes from OUTSIDE the vineyard.  Go to town, Robins, and rob someone else's vineyard!


Buds galore!

Posted on May 20, 2011 at 7:26 PM

This looks to be a great year!  We've pruned 80% of the vineyard, sometimes in steady rain (wettest spring in years!) and every single variety is budding out nicely on the canes!  If we have a nice warm season and no sudden early fall frosts, we should harvest  a significant crop from our premier varieties:  Frontenac and Marquette for the reds, and Frontenac Gris and La Crescent for the whites.  In addition, we have a good crop of Swenson Red coming on, which is said to make a very nice white wine.  We also have our Riesling and Chardonnay budding out well.

And it's not just the grapes.  Sand cherries, chokecherries, elderberries, plums, apples, pears— everything seems to have enjoyed our very steady, gradual, cool spring and is eager to push fruit this year (can plants be eager?)

Josh and I hope to finish up the pruning later next week, but first:

2011 Rhubarb, first batch!  We've already gathered over 400 pounds, with probably another 150 pounds coming in, early this next week.  Our goal of surpassing last year's 50 gallons by producing at least 300 gallons this year, is looking very promising!  We should be able to do two more batches this size this summer.  And since rhubarb wine was clearly the favorite of our customers, we're glad to be able to put away a large number of cases.  We expect to have some of it bottled by the end of June.  Thank you, Rhubarb Gods!!

Planting up a Storm!

Posted on April 27, 2011 at 4:35 PM

Josh and I have been planting like crazy!  This spring we've planted 200 Rosa rugosa roses (very large hips for our rose hip wine and blends), 50 yellow anne raspberries, split our half-dozen rhubarb into approx 40 plants, planted 60 more rhubarb, and will be putting in 6 apple and 4 pear trees, 150 more Univ. Saskatchewan cherries and 50 more haskaps, not to mention about 50 more grapevines.  Oh, and 100 more sand cherries and some more black currants.

The Other Big Project will be to complete the erection of two "High Tunnels", which are unheated greenhouses with one skin instead of two.  They give you approx. one more month on both ends of summer.  Fall bearing raspberries in high tunnels produce 2-3 times as many berries, so we'll fill one with raspberries and the other probably with seasonal garden crops (tomatoes and peppers in summer, greens in spring and fall.)

And still have time to make wine....!

Gathering Discarded Bottles

Posted on April 6, 2011 at 1:02 PM

It all began in 1958, when I was 10 years old, spying on lovers in parked cars nestled between trees and sand dunes fronting the beach of Bass Strait, at Ulverstone, Tasmania, Australia.  My mother, the native Aussie, had convinced Dad to move to Tasmania for a couple of years so she could reconnect with family, friends, haunts and memories in her homeland.

I was a young kid, and the beach was only 4 blocks from the house.  So sometimes on Friday nights, I'd drag my brother, Ron, along and go down to the Sand Dunes for an adrenaline rush.  We'd sneak up on a couple making out in a car, reach down and grab a handful of sand and fling it in the open window and run like bloody hell.  Of course my parents never knew!

Sometimes we got chased, but we knew the vine-covered trees like the backs of our hands and never got caught.  But just as often, a beer bottle would come flying out the window.  Now these were the large bottles, akin to our wine bottles, and somehow we discovered that a rather frightening character known to us only as Blind Pete made his living gathering and selling glass bottles, and he lived only about 5 blocks from the beach, just two blocks past the candy store near our house.  And we heard that he paid.  In cash.

So on Saturday mornings, my brother and I began to go down to the beach with gunny sacks, gathering beer, wine and champagne bottles from the clearings and dune areas, and when we'd gathered all we could find, or all we could haul, we'd walk over to Blind Pete's place and knock anxiously on his door, and watch spellbound as he came shuffling  outside with his cane moving back and forth, and then would examine our bottle booty entirely by feel, determining whether each bottle was worth anywhere between a hapenny or thripence, which was reserved for the heavier champagne bottles and then put them in the correct piles.

Ron and I would gather up the change he paid us and slip over to the candy store and stock up on licorice and Velvet Crumble bars, little knowing that someday, 50 years later, I'd again be gathering up wine bottles, but this time donating to Eastern Montana Industries, our adult disabled local recycling business, for the thousands of bottles we receive from them each year.

Life is a strange circle sometimes, eh?