DAVID ERICKSON

The Ravalli Republic via Associated Press

DARBY, Mont. (AP) -- If you close your eyes and imagine a wine maker that is the complete antithesis of one you would find in the elitist Napa Valley of California, the image you see would probably look a lot like Keith Smith of Trapper Peak Winery south of Darby.

Although Smith does actually grow his wine grapes in the lush Napa Valley, that is where the similarities end. Dressed in weather-worn work clothes and a cowboy hat on an April day, Smith was busy between burning a slash pile and driving a forklift to unload a case of wine bound for Missoula.

On his 27-acre ranch in the shadow of his winery's namesake, Smith is trying to create a place where people don't feel they have to be so-called "wine snobs."

"I'm trying to make wine approachable," Smith said as he poured a glass of his 2007 Buckin' Blanco Sauvignon Blanc. "I want to take the intimidation out of tasting wine. I want to try and get the beer and whiskey crowd here."

Last year, Smith bottled 3,000 cases of his wines, which include his Rodeo Red Cabernet Sauvignon, Sittin' Bull Petite Sirah and Mule Shoe Merlot. He ships his wine to Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Texas, New Mexico and all over Montana.

He is currently in the process of renovating his property to include a pond, garden and tasting room for people to come enjoy the fruits of his labor. He envisions a tranquil, picturesque place where people can gather to discuss their lives, socialize, and of course imbibe some tasty wine. He says he will allow people with RVs to stay on his property if they are respectful, and he hopes to host more weddings.

"I can see it in my mind," Smith explained as he surveyed his property. "It might take a while, but I'm working toward it."

Smith's current tasting room is a large shed on his property, where antlers adorn the walls and various boxes, tools and pieces of lumber are piled high. He may not look like the usual vintner, but Smith knows his wine. As he sipped his glass of Buckin' Blanco, he casually spit his chewing tobacco into a coffee can.

"It's got bright tropical fruit yet a nice citrus bounce to it," Smith said, with a grin. "However you want to eloquently put that in your story."

Smith comes up with own brand of humorous sayings to put on the wine labels, and it's clear that he is serious about having fun with his wine operation.

As far as the wines go, it is apparent that Smith takes his craft, as well as the marketing portion of the business, very seriously. The Rodeo Red is the flagship wine, and was blended to fulfill every Cabernet lover's desire, according to the Trapper Peak Winery website.

"Intense crimson hues are backed by aromas of dark cherry, cocoa, and ripe berries," the description reads. "It proceeds to hit your palate with the delicate flavors of Flathead cherries, a hint of cedar, and a finish of soft pipe tobacco. This full-bodied wine warms your soul like a cozy tamarack fire in the Rocky Mountain back country."

The wine took the silver medal at the 2010 San Francisco Chronicle wine competition, as did the Sittin' Bull Petite Sirah.

Smith's family moved to Victor in 1940, and he bought his property on Cattail Lane (about five miles south of Darby on the west side of U.S. Highway 93) in 2003. Of course, he had to wait two years for his wine to age in barrels before he could bottle his first batch, but it was worth it.

Smith harvested 400 tons of grapes from his family's property near Mount Helena in the Napa Valley last year, where his father still lives. There aren't many vintners in Montana, and Smith is glad to be part of the business. He has friends visit often, and he always busts out glasses at his homemade wine tasting table for visitors. The wine even comes from a holder that features several old-fashioned spurs.

"This is a beautiful place to live," Smith said as he strolled across his property, wine glass in hand. "Montana's a tough place to make a living, but I'm doing good."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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