Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery
In 1991, joining with two other families, Connie Poten bought 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 Butte over a century ago, in the heyday of the Copper Kings. Local wine for the next century, its time has come.
Preparing 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 eastern mountainsides.
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.
Soil, water, sun and air
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 degrees Farenheit.)
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 just stayed.
Now we depend on vineyard foreman and cellar master Casey Louis. Our former farm Jill-of-all-Trades, Nici Holt, is the artist creating our terrific wine labels. We couldn’t harvest without the volunteer friends, neighbors and students of Josh Slotnick’s PEAS Program associated with the University of Montana.