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Flavors: 2024 MSU Billings Foundation Wine and Food Festival Winemasters

Todd Graff of Frank Family Vineyards and Michael Davies of A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill came to Yellowstone Public Radio the morning after the Winemasters Soiree during the 2024 Wine and Food Festival hosted by the MSU Billings Foundation for the raising of scholarships.
Stella Fong
Todd Graff of Frank Family Vineyards and Michael Davies of A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill came to Yellowstone Public Radio the morning after the Winemasters Soiree during the 2024 Wine and Food Festival hosted by the MSU Billings Foundation for the raising of scholarships.

Experience abounded with the Winemasters for the 2024 MSU Billings Foundation Wine and Food Festival. Both Todd Graff of Frank Family Vineyards and Michael Davies of A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill each held 20 plus years of wine making experience. At the Winemasters Soiree held at the Northern Hotel, Graff and Davies shared their wines with food prepared by Executive Chef Sarah Seltvedt.

With Graff from the Napa Valley and Davies from the Willamette Valley, the wines they shared at this tasting were distinctive to the regions they were from.

One of the main intentions of both winemakers was to have their wines tell a story. They hoped to create wines that reflected the land, the season and the skills of the winemaker. For Davies, with his Rex Hill wines that was a medium sized winery with making wines for collectors, he was “trying to capture in the bottle a reflection of that site, because wine is really a liquid manifestation or a memory.”

“It’s about creating a wine that people are going to enjoy and a wine that will age and continue to tell a different story as it ages,” Davies shared.

With the A to Z Wineworks, “one of the larger wine labels from Oregon, and my job is to really help introduce Oregon wine to people from all over the country.” With these wines, “I think about the landscape, the crazy wild coast, the beautiful mountains, the lakes, the verdant valleys, the Columbia Gorge.” The memories of these places ‘have a freshness to them, have a vivid quality, have beautiful colors. That’s what we want in the wine.”

For Graff, “Even though it’s Napa Valley, we’re breaking it up into parts of Napa Valley, and putting that in our bottles.” The Napa Valley is home to about 500 wineries. The valley has 16 official subregions which include AVAs like Stags Leap District, Yountville, Rutherford, Howell Mountain and Oakville.

Graff plainly explained the long tradition of making of wine, “You get some juice. You ferment it. You get it into a bottle.” The process has proved the test of time. “But now, we’re better farmers. We’re better stewards of the land. I think when I started, you basically said there was the winemaker in the winery and the grape grower out there.” Graff continued, “The vineyard manager is in the winery a lot of times and the winemaker is in the vineyard all the time.”

He continued, “Our equipment is getting better. Technology is coming along. We still want to have this handcrafted product, but great equipment does the pressing.” Also, “we have more information available.”

Graff did not hesitate to picked up the phone and call a colleague for help. “So it’s a big world with a really small community of wine,” he said.

When grape growing for wine began in the Willamette Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the first grapes put into the ground. From Davies perspective with his arrival in the area in 1999, “in Oregon, it had cabernet, Riesling and chardonnay as the main varieties. Oregon basically still makes a decent amount of Riesling, but Cabernet doesn’t really exist much in the Willamette Valley.” “It can’t assume that what one region does well will automatically transfer. And that’s why we’ve seen such incredible growth of Pinot and Chardonnay.”

“And I think that’s the exciting part, where you borrow an idea from somewhere else, you try it, and then you pivot and you experiment,” Davies spoke of how grape growers eventually find the right varietal to thrive in his environment.

“There’s a lot of competition, there’s more competition out there, and competition of good wines,” Davies shared.

“You cannot sell a bad wine these days. I believe the consumers pick up on it and I don’t think your lifespan is going to be very long, unfortunately,” Graff said. With many years of experience and success, he continued, “We play in the top of the pyramids. The competition is fun, but it’s friendly rivalries.”

Graff liked to keep an eye on the competition and to continue to learn what others are fermenting, “When I go out to dinner, I’m buying somebody else’s wine because I want to try it.”

Wine making combines science with art. During the Winemasters Soiree, Davies spoke of enjoying the process of “geeking out” when wine making. “I love understanding more and more, better and better, the different soil types,” he admitted. “I think most winemakers become amateurs meteorologists during harvest. The grapes are vulnerable to what’s going to happen whether its hail, whether its rain, whether its sunshine, whether its pests. So I think the “geeking out” can be at a chemistry level of understanding what bacteria might be doing a secondary fermentation in a barrel. It can be understanding yeasts and how a yeast works.”

For Graff, “I think my “geek out” time is usually blending, sitting alone in the lab.” Reflection and refining combinations made for satisfaction and challenge for both winemakers. Graff continued, he enjoyed “putting these blends together, walking away, coming back, doing it again in the morning, or taking it home and drinking it with a meal that night.”

Blending is a two-year process as the wine needs to ferment before it can be combined to be put into the bottle. The readied wines are brought together to create a more complex and balanced wine.

Graff likened wine making to raising a child. “You know it from the day it came home basically, and you watched it crawl, walk, run.” “That child is going to go. You’ve raised it. If you did your job right, you know you’re going to let it go off into the world.”

With years of experience Davies shared, “We’re tasting wines in their youth often quite young. We know the consumer is not going to taste them for a couple years later. We’re trying to anticipate what the wine is going to taste like 10 years later, 15 years later. And I think that experience that we both have gives us more confidence that we know where it might be going.”

Along with producing wines that can move their business into the future, both winemakers were realizing practices that allowed for sustaining those who work for the winery along with their environment.

Visitors were encouraged to visit Frank Family Vineyards and A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill. “There’s always something new and exciting to see and taste,” Graff said.

Stella Fong shares her personal love of food and wine through her cooking classes and wine seminars as well as through her contributions to Yellowstone Valley Woman, and Last Best News and The Last Best Plates blogs. Her first book, Historic Restaurants of Billings hit the shelves in November of 2015 with Billings Food available in the summer of 2016. After receiving her Certified Wine Professional certification from the Culinary Institute of America with the assistance of a Robert Parker Scholarship for continuing studies, she has taught the Wine Studies programs for Montana State University Billings Wine and Food Festival since 2008. She has instructed on the West Coast for cooking schools such as Sur La Table, Williams-Sonoma, Macy’s Cellars, and Gelsons, and in Billings, at the Billings Depot, Copper Colander, Wellness Center, the YMCA and the YWCA. Locally she has collaborated with Raghavan Iyer and Christy Rost in teaching classes.