There were skeptics when the Rev. Bob Thaden retired as pastor of Butte’s First Congregational Church in 2005 to live in Miles City, operate a vineyard and produce wine commercially.
Though no small task, that dream has come to fruition. The Tongue River Vineyard and Winery’s wines are gaining momentum and favor across the state of Montana and in national and regional competitions.
Thaden, 66, owns, operates and manages the business along with his wife, Marilyn, and their son, Josh. Thaden said that by early this year, the vineyard had reached a third of a million dollars in total sales since its inception.
“For a small family business, that’s not bad,” he said.
In addition to financial success, the Thadens are receiving high praise among wine critics. In December of 2014, the vineyard’s La Crescent variety was noted in the American Wine Society’s Winter 2014 Wine Journal in the article, “21 Wines to Watch.” The winery was awarded gold, silver and bronze medals at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition in New York, in March 2015.
That recognition came on the heels of winning a gold, four silver, and nine bronze medals at the Northwest Wine Summit in Hood River, Oregon, in 2014. Results from the 2015 Northwest Wine Summit are still pending, but will likely prove favorable for the Thadens. (See sidebar for full award list.)
Truly “Made in Montana,” the vineyard features wines crafted from 20 different varieties of locally grown grapes and other fruits and plant varieties, including: apples, pears, cherries, plums, chokecherries, haskap berries, red and yellow raspberries and rhubarb.
“If it looks like a fruit or tastes like a fruit, we’ll make wine out of it,” Thaden said.
“We’ve released over 40 different types of wine since we started.” he added.
Nearly five years since they were officially licensed to sell wine, the Thadens are finding out which grape and fruit varieties survive the cold Montana winters — where temperatures can reach minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit — and which ones don’t.
“Our three Frontenac varieties, noir, gris, and blanc, are doing very well for us,” Marilyn said.
Other varieties don’t fare so well.
“They don’t seem to like the alkaline soil,” Bob added.
Post-harvest, Thaden said that creating a good wine is all about balance —monitoring the process and noting pH and sugar concentrations; then choosing the precise time to suspend the fermentation process, age, clarify, bottle and cork the product. The winery has been averaging 10,000 bottles a year for the past five years.
As the business has grown, the Thadens have been expanding their product distribution outside of eastern Montana -- like Butte.
“We picked them up in February of 2014,” said Scott Thompson of Thompson Distributing in Butte.
Thompson, a fan of the Thaden’s wines, said Thaden contacted him to carry it. Conversations followed.
“From there, we built a list of accounts we’d target with his brand,” Thompson said.
Thompson said that due the smaller size of the winery, distribution has been limited to ensure that demand doesn’t exceed supply.
Thompson distributes the winery’s Cherry Pie, Chokecherry, Foxy Lady, Frongria, La Crescent, Tongue Tied, Warm Front and Rhubarb varieties in southwest Montana.
“The brands have been very well received … we’ve actually seen the sales for their product increase,” Thompson said. “Any time we can see a Montana business succeed in an industry that is, arguably, very difficult in Montana, it’s a fantastic thing.”
Ray Murphy, co-manager at the Flying J Travel Plaza in Rocker, carries a variety of regional wines, including Tongue River wines.
“Our vendors have been very good at bringing in new and different varieties,” she said.
Tongue River products are doing well at the location, Murphy said.
“The rhubarb and the chokecherry are the top two sellers of what we carry,” she added.