The story of the Missoula Winery begins almost two decades ago on the French-Swiss border. That's when winery owners Phillipe and Frederique Leiritz, both from France, worked for a Swiss nuclear research company that develops scientific instruments for physicists. Frederique, aka "Frenchie," was a project manager and Phillipe was a designer and technician. It was a good life: They had a child and were surrounded by wine and the breathtaking Swiss Alps.
When the company opened a plant in Michigan, however, Phillipe wanted to take advantage of somewhere new, so he asked if he could go. The family spent nine years in Michigan. They had two more kids. But Phillipe grew tired of the long hours and jet lag, and quit. "I was traveling all over the world and my health was really deteriorating," he says. "I really was going to have a heart attack before 50."
Frenchie and Phil say they also missed the mountains. So when his boss asked him what he was going to do after quitting, Phil told him he was going to Montana. It was a whim, he says, but he decided to take it seriously. "We didn't know Montana. But it is the dream of everyone in Michigan to move to Montana. I said, 'Okay, I'm not going to talk about it, I'm going to do it.' I took a two-month vacation. And one day my wife was tired of seeing me." He laughs. "She kicked me out and said 'Time for you to look for a job.' So I came west."
After Phil scouted out Montana, the family moved to Missoula. Phil worked as the vice president of a company specializing in landing gear for fighter planes. On the side, the couple began to dabble in winemaking. Frenchie started working as an event planner for Lake Missoula Cellars. Lake Missoula closed in 2010 due to economic hardship. Phil and Frenchie bought it and took it on as their new project. Seven years after moving to Missoula, once again surrounded by mountains, they now had a winery of their own, which they opened a year ago.
The wine tasting room is open every day during the summer, but the venue itself is about more than just wine. So far the Leiritzes have hosted country artist Rodney Crowell, plus regionally popular bands like Storyhill and Star Anna and the Laughing Dogs. Friday nights often see singer-songwriters, and Saturdays, jazz bands. But the venue has had some more surprising acts, too. Recently, a theater group put on a play there. In early spring, the Leiritzes hosted two nights of Bellatrix, a local cirque production that included aerialists, fire dancers, and sword fighters. Both nights sold out.
It hasn't been entirely easy. The winery is only six minutes from downtown via I-90, but it can seem farther away, since it's located near the airport. The winery's worked on a few incentives to get people out there: designated drivers can get into events for free, plus a free glass of wine the next time they come. The Leiritzes are also working on other aspects that appeal to Missoula folk, including sustainable projects.
Local musician Kevin Van Dort—the lone American employee—handles the winery's events, concerts, and sales. He's helped Phil and Frenchie build an outdoor stage with reclaimed wood from the old Liberty Lanes bowling alley. The stage is set to be revealed this week, when the winery celebrates its one-year anniversary.
"We soldiered through and made it happen," says Van Dort. "Right now we're in the final stages of taking off all the polyurethane coating, which is very thick for bowling lanes. So it's a been a labor of love, for sure."
When all is said and done, the winery should be able to host 400 or 500 people for outdoor shows.
The Leiritzes have also recently started recycling wine bottles, in a town where glass recycling is difficult to come by. "I started working with a few restaurants in town and the word got out," says Phil. "People are bringing their empties and we clean them, remove the label, and use them. Yesterday we bottled 2,500 and all were recycled, and the bottles are cleaner than new bottles when we finish washing them. In time we're hoping to get the proper equipment to do it on a larger scale."
The winery has also developed an internship program for French exchange students. Jérémy Maggi, their current intern, is working on getting the university crowd more in touch with its inner wine drinker without resorting to vinegar. He's working on a Griz Card deal where students can access good wines for a low price—$3 per glass instead of $6 or $7. It's his way of breaking the average American student of the notion that French culture is snobby or only for the rich.
"In the U.S. the French culture and wine is considered classy, and so it's expensive," Maggi says. "I don't understand why. I want students to be able to afford to try our culture and to taste our wine."
Settling in to their new venture, Phil and Frenchie have started honing the aspect of their winery that makes it unique in Missoula: the French part. Though they'd love to have their own vineyard—their grapes come from the Columbia Valley in Washington and the Columbia Gorge in Oregon—they're looking for ways to keep the French countryside appeal. They offer 11 exclusively French-style wines, including a crisp rosé and a sweet muscat. Every Friday, Phil builds a fire outside for people to stand around, many of whom come to speak French. On Saturdays, they play a French version of Bocce ball, called Petunque, in the grass outside the winery. Sundays they often host barbecues where anyone can bring a dish and, in turn, be treated to a French cocktail called kir, a mix of fruit liquor and white wine. They've offered special events: a fondue party last November was a big hit. In early spring they served raclette, a Swiss and French Alps cheese dish roasted over a fire.
"We don't have a vineyard like you'd have in the south of France," says Phil, "but we try to transform the atmosphere."
In years to come, they're looking to start a wine club, they say, plus plant a small test vineyard, hire a French winemaker, and start distributing their own brand of wine, Mark Rafael, outside Montana. In the meantime, they're striving for a good time—which doesn't always mean it has to be French-flavored. This summer, Frenchie is making sangria. It's "not typical French," she says, "but it's really good. And it's made by me, a French woman—so it's French!"
The Missoula Winery celebrates its one-year anniversary at the winery Friday, May 27, at noon with live music from Ron Dunbar, Marshall McLean, and David Boone, plus lawn games, food, and wine tasting. $10, includes a raffle ticket. 396-5731.