In a life-altering career change, lifelong cowboy Clint Peck traded his chaps and spurs for vineyards, wine barrels and fine varieties of red and white wines.
A fourth generation Montana rancher, 57-year-old Peck has spent his career, until this point, working in the agricultural industry as a director for the Montana Beef Quality program and a past senior editor for BEEF Magazine.
Now Peck has gone lock, stock and barrel, literally, to opening Yellowstone Cellars and Winery in Billings, MT.
During a recent open house at the new facility, Peck estimated 800 people dropped by to taste the varieties he has in stock, and to learn about his new venture.
"When I learned that my work with the Beef Quality Assurance program was winding down because of funding limitations, I needed a job," Peck says.
"Rest assured that I'm not leaving my agricultural roots and cowboy boots behind," he affirms. "In fact, it's my great appreciation of how a good Montana beef steak and brilliant Montana sunset can enhance a glass of fine red wine; that is partly responsible for my ride down this trail. I still am and I always will be a champion of beef, the cattle business and of family ranching in the West."
The decision to makes wines, however, was actually not that instant.
For years, Peck has made hobby wines and has taken courses in wine making and tasting. For five years, he studied at Dakota Creek Winery in Blaine, WA, which is owned by his brother and sister-in-law, Ken and Jill Peck. Ken, a chemist, and Jill have a superb knowledge of tasting wine, and mentored Peck's career-changing aspirations.
"I've gone from cattle production to wine production and in the process, I've sold my house, sold my cows and even sold my Harley-Davidson motorcycle," he notes.
Liquidation was necessary to create the capital needed to establish the winery, which is located at 1335 Holiday Circle in Billings, MT, close to the Holiday Inn Grand.
The winery has both a tasting and party room, where Peck expects direct sales to account for about 85 percent of his business.
Peck obtained a Small Business Administration loan to purchase the half-acre lot and to construct the building, which now houses his winery and retail store. In conjunction with the business, it was necessary to obtain appropriate licensing.
The current stock of wines that Peck offers comes from his brother's operation in Washington state, while his own wines begin to age and "do their thing" in the Billings facility, Peck says. The wines were processed at his brother's winery near Puget Sound.
Those wines include a 2007 Malbec, a 2008 Merlot and a 2009 Chenin Blanc. He has a total of six reds and three white wines, and will continue to expand the selection in the months ahead.
At this point, a 2008 Syrah is one of his favorites - a dry, full-bodied older-vine Syrah made from Columbia Valley grapes. Peck describes it as "fermented and aged in French and American oak, and it is a finely-balanced wine which will pair extremely well with light red meat entrees, wild game, roast chicken and hearty casseroles."
In his wine cellar, Peck currently has 100 barrels of wine that are aging.
As part of Peck's operation plan, he purchases grapes from growers in Washington State. In mid-May, he traveled to Washington to negotiate additional contracts to purchase more grapes that are harvested in the late summer and fall months.
"I want to stress that we'll produce and market wines crafted from traditional premium wine grape varieties stemming from Old World wine grape regions like Burgundy, Bordeaux, Loire, Rhone, Tuscany and Rioja," Peck says. He is also working with a Yellowstone Valley farmer to see if a plot of European-type grapes can be grown in the region.
Once the grapes are harvested, he drives to Washington and hauls them back to Billings to begin processing.
Peck picks up the grapes at the vineyards, fresh on the stem, and transports them in special bins. The next step it so crush and de-stem grapes, before being sent into the fermenters, which takes from 10 to 20 days.
The fermented juice is then pressed and placed in barrels for aging - a process that takes two years. During aging, Peck continually monitors progress by checking the barrels each day to release carbon dioxide.
"I am 100 percent owner - and floor scrubber, fork lift driver, winemaker, dishwasher and chemist as well," Peck laughed.
editor's note: to learn more, visit yellowstone cellars web site at www.yellowstonecellars.com.