Columbia Falls man making wine with Montana-grown grapes

Will Neiman and Dan Murphy of White Raven Winery, pictured Nov. 4 in Columbia Falls, Montana, use grapes grown in the state to make distinctive wines.

COLUMBIA FALLS, Mont. (AP) — In a former auction house on U.S. Highway 2 in Columbia Falls, White Raven Winery co-owner Dan Murphy is making wines that most people have never heard of, with names like Marquette and Petit Pearl, out of Montana-grown grapes.

While the grapes used in wines like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon most commonly come from temperate climates on the West Coast and Europe, there are around 30 small vineyards in the state that produce a more acidic Montana-branded wine flavor. After opening in late October, Murphy now has three Montana wines made with grapes that came from Finley Point, Thompson Falls, Hamilton and Laurel.

“I want to make all of our wines and use as much Montana grapes as possible because I think that’s what’s really going to set us apart,” Murphy said.

The Montana grapes, which are in the vitis riparia category, are bred in Wisconsin and Minnesota to handle cold temperatures, but Murphy said Columbia Falls is still a challenging climate for growing grapes due to the unpredictable late spring and early fall frosts. That’s why he also sources about 60% of his grapes from the West Coast.

“Being a major tourist alley, we want to make sure we have wines that people are comfortable with, and some Montana wines that they get to try,” he said.

Murphy said he’ll eventually produce more Montana wines and use grapes from his own 18-acre vineyard just south of the business once they’re mature.

While the grapes take three years to reach that stage, Murphy said a proper vineyard needs poor soil to thrive. When grapes reach their peak, he takes the fertilizer, water and nutrients away.

“They need to suffer because it makes better wine,” he said.

Born and raised in Columbia Falls, Murphy and his wife and business partner, Rebecca, are in the process of returning home after running a wine-bottling business in California for nearly 10 years. “It’s always been the dream to come back home,” Murphy said. “But you need to bring jobs with you, so we did.”

Murphy hired his childhood friend, Will Neiman, who does everything from building furniture to creating the perfect wine formula.

“This is a labor of love,” Neiman said.

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