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 most common grapes used in wines like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon 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 with grapes that came from Finley Point, Thompson Falls, Hamilton and Laurel.
“We’re trying to make Montana wines,” Murphy said. “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 to the public.”
The Montana grapes, which are in the vitis riparia category, are bred in Wisconsin and Minnesota to handle cold temperatures. Even though the grapes are meant to survive in Montana, Murphy says Columbia Falls is still a challenging climate for growing grapes because of the unpredictable late spring and early fall frosts. That’s why he also sources about 60% of his grapes from the West Coast.
“We’ll source grapes from out of state,” Murphy said. “Being a major tourist ally, we want to make sure we have wines that people are comfortable with and some Montana wines that they get to try. It’ll be something new and different that they’ve never had.”
Murphy will eventually produce more Montana wines and use his own grapes from his 18-acre vineyard just south of the business once the grapes are mature.
While the grapes take three years to mature, Murphy says a proper vineyard needs poor soil to thrive. When grapes reach their peak, he takes the fertilizer, water and nutrients away to make them suffer.
“The grape freaks out saying, ‘Oh my god, I need to make the best berries so I get the best seeds so I can procreate,’” Murphy said. “It puts all the flavor into the berries, then you give it back the water and nutrients and make it happy and it shuts down for winter. They need to suffer because it makes better wine.”
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 just moved back to Columbia Falls last year. Now, he’s the winery’s self-described lab rat, doing everything from building furniture to creating the perfect wine formula.
“This is a labor of love,” Neiman said. “I knew a little about wine coming in, but I’ve learned a lot about pairing wine with food and the process of taking a grape off the bush to pouring it into a glass.”
Wine and food pairings will be a focal point for the business in the near future, Murphy said, with winemaker dinners and pairings in the works, and he plans to have specialty meals once a month where he’ll hire a caterer to develop a meal, like steak and smoked salmon, that pairs with specific wines.
“I want people to experience the wine, and it’s totally different with food,” he said.
Murphy plans to run the White Raven slightly different than other wineries, not only with Montana grapes but also with earlier hours.
“The main focus is, come in do some tastings, buy a couple bottles, go home and cook a wonderful meal and share with friends,” Murphy said.
White Raven Winery’s winter hours are Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Summer hours aren’t official yet, but Murphy says the winery will likely be open seven days a week with extended hours.
For more information, visit www.whiteravenwinery.com. White Raven Winery is located at 7451 U.S. Highway 2 East in Columbia Falls.