One of the gardens at Ten Spoon.
Veraison at Ten Spoon, the time
when green grapes begin to ripen

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Dinner Provençal at the Rattlesnake Winery

From the Winter 2005 issue of Three Rivers Lifestyle

It is dusk on a warm late September eveining at the Rattlesnake Winery. From where I sit at the wraparound bar, I can see the light fading out of the vineyard and further south, Mount Jumbo, rounded ad radiant with the setting sun. Connie is lighing a wide array of candles that give a soft warm holiday glow to the expansive room. It serves as a dining room, guest room, kitchen, reading nook, and a storage area for hundreds of cases of wine that stack high to the raised ceiling, bisecting the eclectic space.

Connie catches me staring at a small black-framed picture of a vineyard that hangs delicately from one of the cases as though ithas morphed into permanent residence. “You want the wine industry?” she says, her left arm thrown out in theater like drama. “Well there it is, you got it!”

Chef Jim Gray cuckles and goes about his work quietly and confidently, preparing the first course, a wild mushroom tart, in tune to a muffled Grateful Dead song that emanates from behind two large swinging doors where winemakers Casey Louis and Kate Keller connect hoses, clean tubs, and monitor the press that buzzes and slowly squeezes the juice out of the organic Pinot Noir grapes Andy Sponseller just brought back from Redwood, Oregon.

The Rattlesnake Winery is the brainchild of two forward thinking minds. Connie Poten and Andy Sponseller. Conie originally bought the land in 1991 to save it from “a hundred houses.” Five years later she met Andy while working on a local political campaign. “We just wanted to do something different, a job working the land and I have always enjoyed good wine,” Sponseller explains. The property has good sunlight and air drainage so we said why not.” Plantings of organic root wine stock began in 1998, but first they had to prepare the vineyard by hurling thousands of rocks left by Glacial Lake Missoula into an old pickup truck. There were so many rocks, that they built a stonewall that now lines the eastern border of the property.

”Welcome to the Left Bank of the Rattlesnake,” Connie announces graciously as we approach the table a little awkward, searching for our places. On the table before us is Chef Gray’s mushroom tart, a mixture of five mushrooms grown by Garden City Fungi that rest on a layer of goat cheese, supported by a puffed pastry. The mushrooms literally melt in your mouth and the cheese has a sharp herbal bite that balances the wild earthy flavors of the fungi. The wine is rattlesnake Winery’s Blind Curve, a Sauvignon Blanc that is very deep in flavor and color, more like a German wine than what you might expect from the more grassy style of California. “Hey, this is good wine,” says Sponseller, who can be a little fastidious. “This hasn’t been my favorite you know, but with time, it’s coming together nicely.”

Andy, whose motto is, “You can make a bad wine from good grapes but you can’t make a good wine from mediocre grapes,” was not always as wine savvy as he is now. He was a welder and had to learn the craft of growing grapes and making wine. He took courses from U.S. Davis’ oenological department and the University of Montana. Later, he visited several wineries in California and Minnesota. Minnesota has a thriving vineyard sand wineries industry, thanks in part to the University of Minnesota focus on developing grapes that thrive in northern climates such as Frontenac and La Crescent. These grapes can handle the long, cold winter of the upper Midwest but retain many of the qualities found in the Noble Grapes such as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. Sponseller and Poten may well be the first to grow such grapes in Montana. “The land will tell you what it will grow and what it won’t, a good example of that is the Leon Millot. It was producing fantastic grapes and then we found out it was susceptible to crown gall so we had to take it out,” Sponseller explains.

Chef Gray is hiding in the kitchen, plating he herb-crusted rack of lamb with a Provencal-style tomato-olive compote as the conversation bubbles dangerously close to politics, the wine loosening our inhibitions. All eyes turned to the Chef as he arrives with the lamb steaming from the plates. This course is served with a generous glass of the big-flavored Flathead Cherry Dry that Connie pours into my glass with abandon. The Lambert cherries used in the wine come from an organic orchard on Flathead Lake’s Finley Point. The wine is not at all what you would expect from a fruit wine, which can be overly sweet, tasting a little like a child’s cold medicine. This wine’s bright fruit flavor is even throughout and ends with a b lack pepper finish and similar in style to a Barolo. We bought the racks from Ray Johnson who raises the lamb out on Spurgin Road. I had feared that the lamb  would be gamey, being raised on grass, but instead found it to be velvety tender, tasting of roasted garlic, its rich ruby red juices mixing with the firm polenta and slightly acidic compote.

It’s fully dark outside, a few of this year’s remaining crickets play summer’s fading sonata. Lucy, one of the winery’s two dogs, which Connie refers to as the “Deer Chasers,” lets out a deep, pleasing groan that seems in tune with the mood of the table. We sit back, heavy in our chairs, and swirl the vibrant red wine around in our glasses, inhaling the complex deep cheery aromas. “Did you know this wine is in a store in Havre?” Andy asks, his face becoming one big smile as he stares lovingly at his glass. “Havre, Montana! Isn’t that fantastic?” This facet of the business clearly thrills the couple as they wax on about their many road trips through the hinterlands of Montana. “I just love what we do here,” Connie says, “making wine that people will enjoy around a table like this with good people and good food. I just love it.”

Chef Gray has created this meal in the style of Provence, which means we will have the salad course after the entrée. In theory, the light salad will give us a boost and cleanse the palate for the dessert. We used Missoula’s own Clark Fork Organics Mixed Field greens as the bases for the salad. Gray added some black truffle goat cheese from Belgrade, Montana’s Amaltheia Dairy and a few slices of crispy sweet pears to offset the nice bitterness of the different lettuces, mustard greens and beat greens. The wine for this course is a delicate apple wine called Temptation. Its subtle apple flavor doesn’t overpower our taste buds, making it the perfect intermezzo before dessert.

the salad course seems to have done its job; our conversation is spirited and splinters into small fractions with many guests talking across the table abou books, writing, local politics, the Griz fooball program, and, of course, wine. I have just misinformed Connie on a short story I thought was written by Flannery O’Connor, but was actually written by Richard Ford. She is smitten with the possibilities and then equally crushed by my folly. Andy is telling my wife just how rare it is to have a fully organic winery. “You know, only a few people do this, probably a dozen or so wineries across the country do what we do. It’s hard. You’re just relying on mother nature because we do not use sulfites in our wine or chemicals in the vineyard. You’re at nature’s mercy.” That could not be more true in this season as Sponseller is sweating the looming frost. They need more sun to fully ripen their grapes and are hoping to make it to mid-October before they start picking. “Things are a little tense around here right now,” explains Sponseller, “but we are hopeful. Things have a way of working out.

The dessert course is here and it dazzles the eyes. Chef Gray has poured a little creamy anglaise sauce on the what he calls Gateau de Pommes a la Parisienne, a very light and moist tart infused with fresh Duchess of Oldenburg Apples from Home Acres Orchard located in the Bitterroot Valley. Connie arrives from the cellar with a surprise, two bottle of fat Cat Wine—these are the last two bottles in the winery’s stock. Fat Cat is made from Saint Pepin grapes that are grown right here in the vineyard. The wine is steely in its dryness much like a French White Burgundy or a Sancerre. The lemon like finish of the wine could not go better with the tart apples of the dessert. Everyone raves and a toast goes up to our gracious host, the hard working Missoula food purveyors and the humble chef, for a job well done.

As we pile into our cars, a little heavier and little happier, I notice Andy Sponseller looking out toward the vineyard, taking a deep breath of the unseasonably warm night air. “It’s nice out,” I say. “Yeah,” he agrees, I hope it stays that way.”
—Written by William E. Marshall