Tongue River Vineyard & Winery Inc. of Miles City is the winner of the 2018 Montana Family Business of the year in the new business category, presented by the Montana State University Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship State Farm Insurance Family Business Day.
Tongue River Vineyard started as a hobby 50 years ago in 1967 when Bob Thaden and Marilyn Urban were students at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. They tried to make wine using Welch’s grape juice and baking yeast. It was a big, messy mistake, which they realized when the cut-glass gin bottles began blowing their stoppers, leaving fermenting grape juice all over the kitchen floor.
The very next day, they discovered an amateur winemaking shop in St. Paul, and bought some genuine wine yeast and nutrient, air locks, sulfite and two books. From that point on, the hobby became permanent. For the next 40 years, Bob continued to make wine, almost every year, with any fruit-like thing they stumbled upon.
In 1990, the Thaden family moved from Broadus to their current location in Miles City, where Bob continued his profession as United Church of Christ pastor and Marilyn as a speech pathologist. In 2001, the couple rented out their home in Miles City and moved to Butte for four years.
In 2003, unknowingly approaching burnout as a pastor, Bob read online of people in Minnesota growing wine grapes. After further research, he made a trip to Miles City in the spring of 2004 and planted their first 60 grapevines. By the end of the year, the vines had grown phenomenally, and the Thadens decided to move back to Miles City in early 2006 and plant more vines.
It was still essentially a hobby and was only going to remain a hobby, but by 2007 they realized that the 500 vines in the ground was producing more wine than legal for amateur winemakers, so they finally got serious about opening a commercial winery.
After two years of research and more expansion of the vineyard, they invited their son, Josh, to move back home, broke ground in August 2009, and Bob and Josh spent a year building the winery building, while Bob made applications for state and federal bonded winery permits.
By August of 2010, the winery was built, the permits were in place and because of a really hard winter in 2009-10, the grape vines had frozen to the ground and there was zero crop. The unexpected event proved fortuitous, since it pushed Bob to make fruit wines once again, which has been the mainstay of the young business.
Josh has learned the crafts of grape-growing and winemaking, and in 2015 became both the head winemaker and a full member of the LLC. Bob continues to be the vineyard manager and business manager of the company, while Marilyn handles the tasting room and special events.