Laurel vineyard in realm between hobby and business

Kathleen Gilluly
Thursday, September 12, 2019
Larry Robertson, owner of Flathead Lake Winery, was one of two grape growers who attended a tour at the Felder Vineyard in Laurel last week. The growers showed enthusiasm for the future of cultivating grapes in the Yellowstone valley.

Larry Robertson, owner of Flathead Lake Winery, was one of two grape growers who attended a tour at the Felder Vineyard in Laurel last week. The growers showed enthusiasm for the future of cultivating grapes in the Yellowstone valley.

Kasey Felder

Kasey Felder

Although Kasey and Aaron Felder aren’t yet popping corks, the grapes they’ve cultivated just south of the river off of Thiel Rd., have been used in several Montana wines. At a tour of the family’s vineyard last Friday, Montana grape growers and a horticultural specialist were on hand to provide their expertise on the enterprise.

Larry Robertson who owns Flathead Lake Winery and is a member of the Montana Grape and Wine Assoc., said most growers begin like the Felders. “It starts as a hobby and then folks become more and more enamored with it and want to expand their operation. We want to help all growers do it right, no matter how big they are.” He said it is usually hobbyists who end up growing commercially.

According to Kasey, a Laurel High School graduate, after the family moved to the 11 acre property in 2011, Aaron discovered a neighbor who had grape vines still producing decades after she received them from the county extension office.

“He got a few vines from her and that started us off,” Kasey said. Unfortunately, during the week-day tour Aaron was at work as a crane operator and wasn’t able to attend. “Even though we’ve expanded now, we can’t quit our day jobs,” Kasey said. She runs an in-home daycare which allows her to be on the property, do some work in the vineyard during the school day and spend time with the couple’s daughter. That isn’t much of a hardship for anyone who enjoys the bucolic beauty of a vineyard surrounded by other fruit, lovely landscaping and flowers.

The land, once covered by an ancient sea which left valuable sediment behind, and the climate in the Laurel-area of the Yellowstone valley, is almost perfect for anyone interested in cultivating grapes, according to Bob Thaden, who with his wife Marilyn and son Josh, own Tongue River Winery outside of Miles City. The award-winning vintner said he enjoys experimenting with new grapes and techniques and plans to try a new grape being developed in North Dakota next.

“The ND 4 number 1 looks really good to me,” he said displaying some of the fruit. “It’s hardy to minus 40 degrees, which is even hardier than the Felder’s Petite Pearl grapes and I want to try breeding it with Marquet this year.” To protect his Swenson Red grapes from an extended cold spell, which could be death to the next year’s crop, he is laying the vines on the ground and covering them with soil.

“It will be very labor intensive in the spring,” he said. “But, this will be good for the plants in the long run.” Thaden said he’s learned to expect winter kill at least one year out of every 10.

Both Thaden and Robertson acknowledged that in addition to all the hours of work, starting a vineyard is an expensive business to get off the ground and the State of Montana hasn’t made it easier, although the Montana Grape and Wine Assoc. has a bill in the works to remedy that.

“We can have wine tastings once we have a winery license,” Robertson said, “but, we aren’t allowed to sell bottles of wine at them. We have to go through a distributor.”

Kasey said she wasn’t even able to purchase crop insurance to cover their one and a half acres of grapes because the industry is so new to the area. Since the Felder vineyard isn’t a winery, they aren’t able to host tastings yet either.

“You really have to have a value-added activity or product to make this work,” Thaden said. He and his family have a bed and breakfast to complement their operation. Other vineyards host weddings and events.

The grapes the Felders planted in 2017 are almost ready for harvest. “We hope to get a ton of grapes this season,” Kasey said. “But, it’s still a learning process for us. This year we lost 40 percent of our white grapes to wasps.” They also had to net their other grapes to protect them from raccoons. She said some of the lessons were learned through trial and error.

The job of teaching Montana growers to implement best practices is on horticultural specialist Tim Weber, who is working on a Montana Extension Guide for novice and experienced farmers.

“There are a lot of techniques growers can use to make sure their grapes get adequate sun, air and moisture,” he said. “We are really encouraging people to plant with mechanical adaptations in mind.” The Felders do most of the work on their vineyard by hand, with Kasey in charge of mowing between the rows and the couple sharing other duties.

“Growing grapes gets in your blood,” Robertson said. “Taking care of the vines is very calming and then knowing the end product will be featured at happy social occasions and shared is very rewarding.”

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