Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Winery Runs Through It

No Crowds is back - and so are No Crowds reporters Gary Ransom and Lorraine Carulli. These never-really-retired international consultants are now travelling the American landscape and this story, ostensibly about Kalispell, Montana, says a lot about the American spirit and makes me want to head for Montana.

Our Kalispell story begins a few years back and a few miles away, in Bozeman (AKA the Big City). Meredith and her twin sister were both in the pre-med program at the University of Montana. Their dad was a doctor, their grandfather was a surgeon, and, modern times being what they are, the girls were expected to follow in the family tradition. In particular, their science achievement had been exemplary, so they were obviously good material.

But fate intervened. The summer after aceing her MCATs, Meredith took a job at a Bozeman wine bar (I’m guessing it was THE Bozeman wine bar), and discovered a completely different application for her skill in chemistry – she fell in love with wine.

Fast forward to 2018 in Kalispell, an old west town situated, as the guidebooks say, squarely on the continental divide, with mountains to the east and west, still snowcapped in July. Host to the somewhat aspirationally named Glacier International Airport, Kalispell has a fine National Park 30 miles to its north and the crystal clear waters of Flathead Lake 15 miles south. It’s in the process, as the local paper writes, of being discovered.

Meredith is now the owner and proprietor of Tailing Loop Winery (tailingloopwinery.com) out on Highway 35 just at the edge of town. Her voice and bubbly energy seem out of scale for her compact frame – she could command the attention of an audience of 500 without a mic – so everyone in the winery gets entertained by it, whether that was their plan or not. Meredith is an energy machine behind the bar, spinning stories and finding out where people are from and what brought them here.

As we work through our flights of wines on offer, we strike up a conversation with the couple next to us at the bar – locals who are thrilled to have a winery in town. The wife, sitting closest to us, asks where we are from, and replies “oh, Florida”, as if describing a nasty intestinal flu she has just recovered from. But then she brightens and congratulates us on discovering northwestern Montana. I feel that she would absolutely not be surprised if I told her that, after a week here, I had called my realtor back home and told her to sell the place and everything in it, and send us the proceeds so we could buy our cabin in the woods. “We see that a lot”, her husband would say, tapping the bar for emphasis.

Tailing Loop has a d├ęcor that can only be described as a cross between Cowboy Shabby Chic and A River Runs Through It. There are sepia-toned drawings of cowboys and saloon girls (each one armed with fly fishing tackle, rather than weaponry) by a local artist on the wall, an event room dominated by a massive buffalo head, and a front porch that appears to be stolen from the set of “Longmire”. Everything is raw, unpainted wood, with varnish slathered on where appropriate or necessary.

“But wait”, you say, “you can’t grow decent grapes for wine in that climate!” And you’d be right. Which explains why, several times a year, Meredith and a friend set off on a 12 hour journey through the night to Washington State, and return with a truckload of grapes from three vineyards. The rest of the work to produce the unoaked chardonnay, excellent pinot noir, syrah-based rose, tempranillo and more is done locally. And of course, since Tailing Loop has movie nights on a regular basis where an ancient projector runs spaghetti westerns from the 60s, she would have to have a Montana sangiovese to accompany the Italian cowboys.

But Meredith is still following the science closely, and is watching several experiments with developing grape rootstock that is hardy through the high plateau winter. If they are successful, locally grown wines are only a graft away, and it’s clear that by then, Meredith will have herself a vineyard. She’s already started some vines. Meanwhile, she’s comfortable living over the store (she actually does, along with her guard cat) and building an unlikely business in a fascinating corner of the world. And her mom finally accepted Meredith’s unusual career choice, with one condition – that a wine be named after her, and that it would have the saloon girl on the label.

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