A trip to the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale in May provided the perfect opportunity to visit the Tongue River Winery. I’ve always wondered how a winery could flourish in eastern Montana, where the landscape is dominated by sprawling farms and ranches and interspersed with sagebrush and badlands.
After a visit to the winery, I understood how this agricultural endeavor has thrived since it opened for business in 2010. Bob and Marilyn Thaden are the brains and brawn behind Tongue River Winery, the only such operation of its kind east of Missoula. I chatted with Bob in the vineyard, where row after row of naked vines were close to budding out. Next to me were two rows of Carmine Jewel cherry shrubs in full bloom with fragrant white blossoms.
Bob was dispensing an earful of technical info about hybrid grapes, growing seasons, soils, and temperature data that sent my brain into overload. It boiled down to this. Eastern Montana has the longest and hottest summers in Montana, resulting in the fruits and grapes maturing and ripening quicker than what is grown in northwest Montana’s climate.
Bob was 18 and a sophomore in college when he made his first wine. “I didn’t want to see fruit go to waste, and I’ve been making wine ever since, now for 54 years.” He and Marilyn met at Macalester College in 1966 and have been lifelong soulmates and partners with a passion for growing all things edible. Bob spent many years as a pastor in Wisconsin, North Dakota, then Broadus. In 1990, they moved to Miles City and purchased land adjacent to the Tongue River. In Miles City, Bob served as pastor of United Christian Church before moving to Butte and serving the UCC church there, while Marilyn worked for St. James Hospital in Butte.
When they moved back to Miles City in 2004, they settled in and planted the first grapevines. The idea was to grow enough grapes for the two of them to make wine as a hobby to enjoy when they retired. As Bob points out, their hobby got out of hand. Today, the vineyards encompass 3 acres, along with a half-acre of fruit trees.
In 2010, they were ready to open for the business of selling their wines. Today, they produce around 2000 gallons of wine per year. The wines grown at Tongue River Winery include Frontenac, Frontenac Blanc, Frontenac Gris, Itasca, Marquette and La Crescent. All are hybrids developed at the University of Minnesota. Bob explains that most folks are familiar with the European grapes — Merlot, Cabernet, Riesling and Chardonnay, which are hardy to about zero degrees. But when crossed with the Vitis Reparia (wild grapes that grow in the northern plains), the result is a grape that is hardy to -25 to -40 degrees. These hybrids can tolerate Montana’s climate and survive harsh winters.
The Thadens also grow apples, pears, Carmine Jewel cherries, raspberries, yellow chokecherries, Aronia (black chokeberries), black and red currants, rhubarb, plums and haskaps (edible honeysuckle fruit). Between the fruit and grapes, they produce 35 different varieties of wine that range from dry, sweet, and semi-sweet in both white and red options. Some of the fruit is purchased from neighboring states. The winery prides itself on only using fruit from the Northern Plains.
Their hard work has paid off with more than 75 medals awarded in competitions across the U.S. In June 2020, the winery won Double Gold with Cold Front and St. Pepin wines in the Great Northwest Cascadia International. Tongue River Winery was invited to submit wines to the Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition in October 2020 and brought home Gold for their blended white hybrid wine, Perfect Kiss. Tongue River was the first Montana winery invited to this competition, which invites wines from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia and now Montana.
Each variety of wine has a unique label, featuring a photo or drawing along with a colorful description of the contents. The semi-sweet Haskap wine label reads, “Who would expect such a wonderful stretched blueberry-like fruit from such beautiful blossoms. With blossoms hardy to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, this beautiful flower produces ripe fruit by late June, with a flavor somewhere between raspberry, strawberry, blueberry and cranberry.” A bucking horse graphic is on the label of Tongue Tied, a dry red wine. The label states, “Made from a blend of Marquette and Frontenac hybrid grapes, this wine has notes of cherry, black currant and a hint of smoke. The wine is then barrel-aged for 9 months to soften and integrate the tannins. Pairs well with red meats, sausage, dark chocolate.”
From the planting and harvesting to the processing, labeling and bottling, all is handled in-house and truly represents a labor of love. A welcome addition has been Melodie Seymer, who joined this mom and pop operation in 2020, bringing with her 12 years of experience in running a nursery. While Bob is the winemaker and lead horticulturalist, Melodie is his viticulture and enology assistant. Marilyn is in charge of the tasting room and gift shop. They are always open for business. As Bob says, if you show up and nobody is around, call one of the cell numbers listed on the door.
As if all the pruning, picking and weeding weren’t enough work, Bob and Marilyn opened a B&B in their home. Their facility is also a Harvest Host, a membership program that invites self-contained RVers to camp at over 2300 wineries, breweries and farms across the U.S. Did I mention that Bob still does occasional pastoring? I wouldn’t say in his spare time, as I don’t think there is such a thing with this couple.
Tongue River wine is sold at the winery and in 17 cities in Montana, including eight locations in Miles City. The winery currently ships direct to customers in 41 states. To date, over 75,800 bottles of wine have been sold, which equates to 2 1/2 semi-trailers full! That idea of bottling of the blood of the grape to enjoy in their retired years doesn’t seem like an option for Bob and Marilyn, who are still hard at it.
Customers can order directly from their website, which details the specifics of each variety they produce.
Donnie Sexton, who retired in 2016 after a long career with the Montana Office of Tourism, currently freelances as a travel writer and photographer, covering destinations around the world.
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