HUSON — Jorge Oaxaca just shrugged and smiled Monday as he surveyed his vineyard west of Missoula along the banks of the Clark Fork River, where two dozen vines nearest the water collapsed last week due to the recent flooding.
He couldn't help but think that the incident spotlights the challenges Montana winegrowers face in establishing themselves in the often harsh natural conditions.
Two years ago, he lost an entire year’s worth of work in two hours as an early frost wiped out all the grape leaves just three weeks before they matured. It’s par for the course in Montana agriculture, but that hasn’t stopped Oaxaca in his years-long quest to try to petition the U.S. Department of Treasury to establish the Missoula Valley as the state’s first American Viticultural Area.
There are more 230 such designations in the country, such as the Snake River Valley in Oregon and Idaho and areas in the Napa Valley in California.
Oaxaca believes, with the backing of scientific research, that global climate change will warm Montana to the point of being the next great wine-growing region of the United States, and he wants to get in on the ground floor and encourage others to do the same.
Oaxaca works as a dentist in California, but his wife is from Great Falls and they’ve owned property in Huson for more than a decade and spend lots of time here. They’re also starting a vegetable farm in Frenchtown.
He believes in Montana as a viable wine growing region, and his vineyard overlooking the river produces about a ton of cold-hardy Marquette grapes every year that he sells to Ten Spoon Winery in Missoula. However, the steep hillside beneath the vineyard gave way as the river rose, and more than 20 vines collapsed down the embankment, along with his deck.
Oaxaca plans to have a civil engineer evaluate his property to see what can be done. It’s not in the floodplain; it was just that the river caused the ground to be so much wetter than usual.
The long-term mission, for Oaxaca, is to eventually have people associate the Missoula Valley with places like Sonoma County, California, or Burgundy, France.
“What it really comes down to is, it’s really a branding issue,” Oaxaca said. “If you read a bottle of wine, it very specifically states, for instance, if you go into a wine store and buy a cabernet from Napa Valley, probably in your head you know you’re going to spend a few more bucks. You’re going to spend $30, $40 or $50 for a bottle of that wine. Whereas if you buy a bottle of cabernet from Washington, it’s going to be less because it doesn’t have that brand name.”
Oaxaca wants the Missoula Valley to have that same prestige.
“That’s really what this is about,” he said. “It’s about defining an area where what’s grown in there the consumer knows. That’s really the crux of the whole American Viticultural Area thing, is it creates some sense of exclusivity for lack of a better term. And in the marketplace, when consumers go and buy wine, they know what they’re getting. And in wine that’s kind of a big thing.
"You know Dom Pèrignon came from a certain region in France. You’re willing to pay $120 for a bottle or whatever it is. That’s kind of what we’re doing.”
He spent two years working on a petition to send to the Tobacco, Tax and Trade Bureau, but he was ultimately turned down because, among other reasons, there were too few acres being utilized as vineyards here.
“I think it’s sometimes a political issue,” he explained. “It’s somebody on the East Coast that’s never been here looking at a piece of paper. There are places with less acreage growing grapes that have been designated.”
As the climate warms, mounting evidence shows that the inland Pacific Northwest will become the next wine-growing hot spot. Gary Tabor, the director of the Center for Large Landscape Conservation in Bozeman, co-authored a paper called “Climate Change, Wine and Conservation” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013.
In the paper, they found that western Montana’s climactic suitability for growing grapes will grow exponentially by 2060. Tabor said the Missoula area will become more suitable as well.
"Climate models indicate from Missoula north to Flathead Valley, where moisture allows, certain wine variety growing will be a more viable small farm enterprise," he said. "But as a newer agricultural venture in Montana, we are asking growers to pursue this new opportunity with an eye to soil and water conservation with permeable landscapes for critical wildlife movement."
Greg Jones, the director of the Center for Wine Education at Linfield College in Oregon, said the main challenges for Montana wine growers are winter extremes and the length of the growing season.
"If climates continue to change at the rate they currently are then at some point in the future these limiting conditions could conceivably get suitable to viticulture and wine production, but I would see this possible until mid to late century, and only if temperatures continue to trend as they are doing today," he said.
Oaxaca sees the opportunity for Montana as the silver lining of climate change.
“The bigger question from a commercial standpoint is how much are you able to scale this up?” he said, pointing to his vineyard. “You go down to California and there’s literally hundreds and hundreds of acres of vines, with an ungodly amount money put into it. Each acre is $30,000 to $35,000 to plant. You’re doing a bonsai treatment on every plant."
Growing grapes is extremely labor-intensive, he said, which is why many vineyards are huge, to take advantage of the economy of scale.
"We’ve got a few hundred here and each one has to be handled individually," he said. "And you’ve got all the drip irrigation and all the wires and all the labor. So this is somewhat of a pilot project to see the viability of it. And it works, when you don’t have the river wash it away.”
Oaxaca believes there is a healthy market for more locally produced wine.
“My general observation, having been here since 2005, is people from Montana like to buy things from Montana," he explained. "They have the whole ‘Made in Montana’ program and that’s just my observation. The whole locavore movement is really strong here. People are all about it. That’s why I’m trying to raise some public awareness. That’s the long-term vision once I get here on a full-time basis. The goal is to add more vines.”
There’s an economic incentive for more property owners to give grapes a try as well, he added.
“I don’t know of any places where vineyards go in and property values go down,” he said.