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Flash in the Pan

Extreme winemaking

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“Look at that color!” exclaimed Sponz, holding the glass of ruby red wine up to the light. It’s the smoothest shade of red you can imagine, with a faint ring of honey amber around the edge. He put the glass on a sheet of white paper, in the direct path of the light bulb, and swished the wine around in the glass. Red shadows sparkled and danced on the paper.

“C’mon Sponz,” boomed Pepe Luis to his boss, Andy Sponseller. “It’s time to don the proctology gloves.”

It was 7 a.m. in the production room of Rattlesnake Creek Vineyard. We were surrounded by gleaming stainless steel tanks criss-crossed with hoses connecting one of the tanks with filter and pump. Today, 850 gallons of wine was to be poured into 4,000 bottles. Luis’ fixation with the latex gloves was to insure that no fingerprints defiled the finished product: a full, corked, foiled, and labeled bottle of Flathead Cherry Dry. To neglect the gloves would mean wiping fingerprints off the bottles later.

The organic Lambert cherries came from Finley Point, which juts far into Flathead Lake. They were harvested in the fullness of their flavor and brought down to Missoula, where they were crushed, fermented, and aged with French oak. Now, it’s time to bottle it.

Rattlesnake Creek grows its own fruit as well: organic grapes. Planting began in 1998, when bare-root vine stock was punched into the glacial outrun soil of the upper Rattlesnake Valley. “In California,” says Sponseller, “they say that grapes hit their full flavor at seven years. Up north, we add another year.

“There are a few people growing grapes farther north from us, but not very many at this altitude,” he adds. “As a function of latitude and elevation, we are one of the most extreme vineyards around. But we think this works in our favor, because the best fruit grows at the northern extreme of its range.”

What? I have never heard this. Why is that?

“Abuse,” sang Luis, farm manager at Rattlesnake Creek. “A little plant abuse makes a better fruit. We have a friend who beats her apple trees for the same reason. The plant senses a problem and figures, ‘Uh oh, trouble. Better focus on my gonads and get out the next generation.’”

And that’s how I stumbled upon the secret of plant S&M. Spank me if you love me. It stimulates my family jewels!

“The cold weather does it,” said Luis. “And cultivating between the rows nips the roots a little bit. Also, some cussing here and there. But we don’t beat our grapes.”

Last year they harvested four tons of such extreme grapes, from which they are now making Red Gate Rosé, Montana White, and Farm Dog Red—a combination of Maréchal Foch and Frontenac grapes alleged to bear the smoky flavor of the burning forests of last August.

Rattlesnake Creek purchased the cherries to increase wine production—and to advance their winemaking skills—while their own grape crop matures. To this end, organic Pinot Noir grapes were also purchased last September from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Pinot is still aging. Meanwhile, the folks at Rattlesnake Creek are so happy with their Cherry Dry that they plan to continue it in perpetuity.

“It’s a strong Montana product,” says Sponseller, “a value-added situation for high-quality, local fruit. It’s a good example of how sustainable regional economy takes place, adding value to local resources. And we are doing it without crazy fertilizers or pesticides. The craziest thing we use here is chicken feathers.”

The Cherry Dry is smooth, non-offensive, surprisingly dry, and dangerously drinkable. Although you can detect the cherries if you know to look for them, it doesn’t taste like “fruit wine.” And that’s a good thing, according to Luis.

“It’s dry, rather than sweet and syrupy,” he says.

“It’s like a California Zin,” says Sponseller, “a Zin of the north. It’s not the most complex wine out there, but it’s much more complex than people would expect. And unlike, say, an Australian Shiraz, which has a big taste at the front end and then quickly fades away, the Cherry Dry stays full from start to finish.”

To properly test this local product, I cooked the following test meal, from entirely local ingredients (except for the oil).

Chop garlic, shallots and basil (stored in oil from last summer). Crush in the mortar and pestle. Mix in olive oil, vinegar from a jar of pickled hot peppers and Flathead Cherry Dry wine. In this, marinate antelope chunks.

Prepare the pan with a chopped slice of local bacon fried in some olive or grapeseed oil. Remove crispy bacon bits and fry antelope in the marinade. Fry it hot, until it’s brown on the outside but still rare on the inside.

Put antelope in your mouth. Chew. Sip wine. Chew. Close eyes. Experience divine local flavor. Repeat.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: flash@missoulanews.com

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