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Mont. rancher takes winemaking hobby to next level

Published on December 31, 2010 3:01AM

Last changed on December 31, 2010 5:40AM


The Billings Gazette via Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- For his third career, Clint Peck is making the ultimate jump from a cowboy and writer to winemaker.

At least now he can consume his creations.

Peck, a fourth-generation rancher whose great-grandfather moved to Montana in 1881 and started the town of Roy, north of Grass Range, has opened the first winery in Billings, at least in these times.

On the advice of several local businessmen who told him to start with enough money and to stay focused, he "threw his shoulder into" creating the boutique Yellowstone Cellars & Winery.

"I sold my house. I sold my cows," Peck said. "I even sold my Harley."

With those from-the-heart funds and a U.S. Small Business Administration loan from Yellowstone Bank, Peck bought a half-acre on the old nightly rodeo grounds off Mullowney Lane, drew up rough building plans and started corralling the required federal, state and local licenses. He hired an architect to finalize his plans and then commissioned S Bar S Building Center to build his winery.

Yellowstone Cellars & Winery, offering "Serious wines from Big Sky Country," opened Nov. 30 south of the Holiday Inn Grand Montana Billings.

This wasn't just a lark.

After making hobby wines for years, Peck took professional courses in wine making and tasting and studied for five years at the Dakota Creek Winery in Blaine, Wash., which is owned by his brother and sister-in-law, Ken and Jill Peck. A couple of Dakota Creek wines have gotten 90-plus reviews by Wine Spectator magazine, he said. Jill, who has a top-notch palate for wine, and his brother, a chemist, have inspired and mentored Peck's winery dreams.

A working knowledge of chemistry is as necessary to making wines as swinging a tight loop is to herding cattle.

"I slept through chemistry in high school and I wish now I hadn't," Peck said. "If you have a teenager bored with chemistry, send him to me."

The "reds with meat and whites with fish" rules are too restrictive, and Peck said he prefers the open range approach.

"Drink the wine you like and eat the food you like and you be the judge," he said. "And then tell me about it."

The personality of his business is the Tasting Room, with a granite bar for wine lovers and parties. Direct sales by the glass, bottle or case from the Tasting Room should consume 85 percent of his production, Peck said.

"I've learned that you sell the wines you offer in the tasting room," he said.

To get Yellowstone Cellars established, Peck is offering lifetime memberships of $15 per person and $25 for couples, which gives people discounts on cases of wine and invitations to special tastings.

Nearby is a cavvy of beakers, hydrometers, digital meters and a laptop sitting on an impeccably clean counter. The equipment is framed by stainless steel tanks from Italy that can hold up to 1,080 liters of wine, with a "baby" 100-liter tank reserved for small experimental batches.

Four times a year, Peck will run full chemistry tests on all his wines, a two-day process.

"That's when you find out what the wine is made of and get intimate with it," Peck said.

If something isn't right, you can usually fix it if you catch it quickly.

"I look at my wine every day. They're my babies, but this is also money in the bank," he said.

Behind the sliding pine doors he designed lies the wine cellar, the heart of the business.

Every day, he checks each barrel, releasing the carbon dioxide from the youngest vintage. The artisan wines are priced at $13 to $22 per bottle.

"Wines aren't a luxury, but they're not a staple either," he said.

Housed in 36 barrels (about 10,800 bottles) are the future reds, whites and a rose he plans on selling for Mother's Day. Yellowstone Cellars has room for 144 barrels, enough to fill 43,200 bottles.

While those wines are aging, Peck is selling a 2007 Malbec, a 2008 Merlot, a 2009 Chenin Blanc and five others.

Clint and Ken Peck processed these wines at his brother's winery in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains near Puget Sound, so the vintages are ready to drink. By next year, he'll be selling six reds, a Stillwater Rose and five whites.

"I think my Syrah is going to be my best. I think it will be an outstanding wine," Peck said.

Pointing to the leavings of a record snowfall to explain all the changes in his life, Peck said, "My passion is really cows and being a cowboy and ranching. If I could be ranching today, I'd be riding, even in two feet of snow."

But the family's ranch in the Snowy Mountains sold in the 1980s. Since then, Peck has earned his living writing about farming and ranching for Montana magazines. He also is phasing out of a job as director of Beef Quality Assurance through Montana State University in Bozeman.

Time to work for himself, he decided.

Every new venture means making some mistakes and Peck is honest about making some.

"Any cowboy who said he's never been bucked off probably is telling a lie and any winemaker who says they've never dumped wine isn't much of a winemaker or is a bit of a liar," he said. "If you make wine, you'll be dumping some, and hopefully not on the market."

However, his meticulous research and careful planning landed him an SBA loan in four days and his federal domestic winemaking license, which can take up to a year, came through in three weeks.

With $250,000 invested in the land and building and another $100,000 to stock his winery, Peck plans on making Yellowstone Cellars a success and then selling it in 10 years to someone with equal passion.

When he eats at restaurants, Peck said he's often more critical of the meat than the wine, that's why he loves eating at The Rex.

"I have the passion for beef and my passion for wine is still developing," he said.

Before his wines can be offered at local restaurants, Peck said he has to prove he can make fine wines.

The Rex bar manager Reid Pyburn said he sampled Peck's wines and a couple might make the restaurant's wine list. But he said customers are drinking more wine by the glass now, probably because of the poor economy.

"We definitely see the decrease in bottle sales, not necessarily wine consumption, but the way they are drinking it," he said.

Stella Fong of Billings, a certified wine professional who has passed the tasting test run by the Culinary Institute of America, also said some of Peck's wines have lots of promise. Making wine, especially in Montana, a long way from West Coast vineyards, is challenging, Fong said. But, the buyers will come if he can produce really good wine.

"I'm really intrigued and salute him for making the attempt because Billings is the largest city in Montana and it is also the home of a lot of homebrew beer making, so why not have wine?"

Eighty percent of wine is made at wineries located away from vineyards, so Yellowstone Cellars is not unique, Peck said.

"I suspect that history will say the Columbia Valley is probably one of the premier places to grow wine grapes, especially the Syrah and Chardonnay," Peck said. "So, I'm going to go where the grapes are and put wheels under them."

Four quick trips to the coast should bring enough grapes to Billings for a year's production, he said.

Wine making may be his second passion, but it's one that leaves Peck happy and enthused, waking up sometimes at 3 a.m. to return to his wines.

"I'm 57, but I feel like 37 again," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.


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