The Bitterroot Valley isn’t normally known for its fine wines and rolling vineyards.
That could change.
Wine made from Bitterroot Valley grapes earned a place alongside some of the best in the world this year at one of North America’s most prestigious competitions.
Considering that the two wines awarded gold medals were the first commercially produced wines using local grapes makes that accomplishment even more profound.
“I haven’t found anyone who would dispute that ours was the first commercial wine produced by grapes grown here in the Bitterroot,” said Ken Schultz, owner of the Bitterroot’s Hidden Legend Winery.
The mead produced at Schultz’s winery has been growing in popularity across the country. It’s currently distributed in stores in eight states and shipped daily to 30.
But it’s been a while since he produced wine from grapes.
“I don’t get to play with grapes very much any more,” Schultz said. “Grapes are ideal for wine making. Everything is there to provide a good balance. I just serve as the guide.”
Schultz said it was on a lark that he packaged up bottles of Skalkaho Red and Skalkaho White to enter in the Indy International Wine Competition at Purdue University this year.
“I like to enter to get the judge’s notes,” Schultz said. “It lets me know if I’m on the right track.”
He’d already missed the first deadline when he heard it had been extended a couple of weeks. After hurriedly packaging up the two bottles of wine and one of his mead varieties, he went back to work making more mead.
A week ago Friday, Schultz was sitting before his computer when he saw the announcement. Both of the wines made from grapes grown just east of Hamilton were awarded gold medals and one of his meads earned a bronze in the celebrated competition.
“I’ve received silver medals before in the competition, but never a gold,” he said. “Gold is like the holy grail.”
The contest has over 22,000 entries from 20 countries.
“It’s huge,” Schultz said. “What this says is grapes grown in the Bitterroot Valley can compete with grapes grown anywhere.”
That was good news to the couple who took a large leap of faith to start their own vineyard on the small parcel of land they own on Cartwright Lane.
Rod and Linda Allen moved from Colorado’s high country to the Bitterroot Valley in 2009 with the idea that they wanted to see something take root and grow. Living in Colorado at nearly 10,000 feet, summer was fleeting.
The retired couple purchased a place with a bit more than an acre of rocky ground just off the Skalkaho Highway. Neither had ever grown a grapevine in their lives, much less cared for a vineyard.
“We wanted to find something that would pay for our property taxes,” Rod said.
After some research and a few calculations, they found that they could grow 700 grapevines on the three-quarters of an acre of former hay ground that was then in lawn.
A little more research pointed them in the direction of the University of Minnesota’s years of work refining a number of varieties of native grapes that fared well in the northern portion of the country.
They decided to start small.
“Not being completely stupid, we decided to plant 100 vines the first year, just to see if they would survive those Banana Belt winters,” Rod said.
After seeing the plants survived just fine through that first winter, the couple ordered another 600 vines from a certified Midwestern nursery and called in a local fence builder to punch in the holes.
The holes were lined with gravel that housed the end of a drip system hose for each plant.
“It is a unique irrigation system that was developed by an 80-year-old guy,” Linda said. “When you get to be our age, you learn to listen to people with lots of years of experience.”
Growing and harvesting grapes isn’t as easy as plunking them in a hole and them stepping back and watching them grow. The Allens have learned, for instance, that they aren’t the only ones who like the sweet taste of a grape.
The first large crop came in 2012. Just as the grapes began to turn color – a signal that they are nearing harvest – a whole array of different birds showed up to share in the bounty.
The Allens responded with bird netting.
Once the birds were fenced out, the couple had to deal with the hornets. Of course, there was also pruning, weeding and some leaf picking to be done.
“There’s always something to do,” Rod said.
The couple is seeing their hard work starting to pay off now. This year’s crop is set to be harvested in September and should be better than last year’s.
With the recent announcement of the gold medal awards, they know their grapes will produce wine that people will enjoy.
“Good grapes make good wine,” Linda said. “When you consider that we were competing against vineyards that have been around for a long time, it’s truly almost an act of God that we were awarded a gold medal.”
The best part of having a vineyard in your backyard?
“There’s nothing that beats sitting out here on our deck with a glass of wine and watching the grapes grow,” Linda said, with a smile.