Grant Funds Flathead Grape-Growing Trials

By Beacon Staff

The Flathead is known for its cherry orchards and now a study is underway to see if the valley can gain notoriety for vineyards as well.

Patricia McGlynn, Flathead County’s Montana State University agricultural extension agent, announced that her office is holding trials for 12 varieties of grape hybrids in four trial locations, including Kalispell, Yellow Bay, Missoula and Eureka.

The study will be funded through a state Department of Agriculture specialty crop block grant worth $45,000. The money covers the cost of the grapes and a part-time research technician during the growing season.

Two of the grape varieties will be table grapes, McGlynn said, and the remaining 10 hybrids will be for wine production. The hybrids are a cross between European species and the robust American grape, McGlynn said, and should be able to survive while dormant in winter.

“The hybrids, they’re so much hardier than the other grapes that people have tried before,” McGlynn said. “It’s going to be exciting. But it’s the randomness of our temperatures that will be the challenge.”

Certain types of grapes need various growing-degree days (GDD), which is a formula to determine what it takes for plants to bloom, McGlynn said. For example, the European species of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot require 2,500 to 3,000 GDD.

Western Montana’s GDD range is about 1,600 to 2,000. The hybrids that McGlynn will be testing average 1,600 to 2,200 GDD.

McGlynn is currently conducting a sweet cherry variety trial in several orchards around Flathead Lake; these orchards will not host the trial grapes, she said.

“It’s state funding and I feel that we should share the research knowledge,” McGlynn said.

The trials will be held on land where the owners have already successfully grown Marquette grapes and have the trellis and irrigation systems in place. Using such vineyards is a way to reduce the risk variables in the study because it lowers the chance of failure due to a grower’s error.

Local vineyards could be a boon to the economy, McGlynn noted, because they could increase tourism and provide locally sourced wines for merchants to sell. Other “cold” states, such as Minnesota, New York and North Dakota, have also researched hardy grape hybrids.

According to a statement from Kalispell Chamber of Commerce Joe Unterreiner, “these other ‘cold’ states have benefitted anywhere from $16 million to $6 billion annually in winery related income.”

McGlynn said several master gardeners in the area have successfully grown grapes, and she is currently enrolled in a course on viniculture management from Oregon State University.

The grapes have been ordered and will be planted in May. The trial study could only support 12 typesbut anyone interested in growing grapes can receive a list of other grapes the extension office thinks could thrive in Western Montana.

The trial hybirds for red wine will include Leon Millot, Petite Pearl, Baltica, Rondo, and Castel grapes. The white win grapes will be Louise Swenson White, Espirit, La Crescent (MN 1166), Frontenac Gris (MN 1187) and Osceola Muscat.

Table grape varieties will include Somerset Red and Brianna White.

For more information, contact the county’s MSU Extension Office at 406-755-5553.