Cellarmaster Casey Louis at the grape crusher
Lise and Al, delivering organic cherries from Flathead Lake
Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery
From the Spring 2006 issue of Latitude, the Big Sky Arlines in-flight magazine
«BACK TO THE BEGINNING Just above the kitchen, literally overlooking the stocked living room and bustling bottle station, is the pair’s bedroom—a quaint living space perched within the burgeoning business operation. And just out the kitchen’s window you can see where it all starts: four and a half acres of vineyard, improbably set against a backdrop of Montana’s Rocky Mountains in a pasture 3,450 feet above sea level.
“There’s no escaping the action,” says Poten happily, and she’s right. It’s impossible for either her or Sponseller to get up in the morning or go to bed at night without thinking about Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery, and their challenge of producing top-quality wines from the rugged terrain of Montana.
“We may be the most extreme vineyard in North America,” says Sponseller. “A lot of people think this is just for fun, some crazy idea, but this is our livelihood. We’ve put everything into this, day and night, and been working at it for more than eight years . . . The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and we’ve been disproving the naysayers by producing fine wines.”
In 1991, Poten purchased land in the Rattlesnake Valley, near Missoula, to help save it from the city’s increasing development. She met Sponseller a few years later and the two hatched an idea to turn the pasture into a vineyard, figuring the rich soil and incredible light could overcome Montana’s harsh climate. By 1997, the first rows of grapes were planted and Sponseller began studying—he took classes at the University of California-Davis, visited colleagues in Minnesota and Wisconsin and was mentored by one of the preeminent northern grape growers, Elmer Swenson. For five years Sponseller only monitored the vineyard, seeing which varietals prospered and which faltered while simultaneously scouting other areas for grapes and fruits that could be produced at Ten Spoon. There were numerous trials and errors, but by 2004, the first year they could commercially sell wine, 3,200 cases were produced. Last year, according to Sponseller, sales more than doubled.
“And I expect them to double again in 2006,” he says, adding that two new wines will be distributed exclusively at Yellowstone National Park.
Once they solved the issue of producing fine wine in Montana, the vineyard faced another significant challenge. At the end of last year, Sponseller and Poten were blindsided by a trademark complaint. The original name of their vineyard, Rattlesnake Creek, was similar to a wine produced in Washington, and Sponseller and Poten were forced to make a change. Instead of letting this sort of momentum buster thwart their growth, the pair turned the name change into a publicity event—an open contest drew more than 1,000 suggestions from across the world, as well as attention from regional media and Wine Spectator magazine. As Sponseller and Poten see it, switching to Ten Spoon—a loose combination of their names, suggested by a man from Denmark—turned out to be a huge promotional boost and an opportunity to reaffirm their vineyard’s image.
“The key is to put the accent on the first part,” explains Sponseller, sounding it out like John Wayne with a heavy Western twang. “TEN-spoon. It sounds like an old ranch out in Montana when you say it like that, and that’s what we are—an old ranch obsessed with making fine wine.”
Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery produces seven different certified organic wines, including their signature Flathead Cherry Dry, Moonlight Pinot Noir and a newly released Range Rider Red.
—Written by Skylar Browning