Clint Peck lives with the mantra of, “Don’t say whoa in the middle of a mud hole.” Peck left cattle ranching to make wine, fermenting the dream at his Yellowstone Cellars and Winery in Billings, Mont. Tucked in a small industrial space on the West End of town, the winery will produce about 3,400 cases of wine this year.
Peck spent part of his childhood in Pompey’s Pillar, a small farming and ranching community about 30 miles east of Billings. As a child, his father moved the family frequently. Peck had to reestablish himself over and over again. “I learned a lot o
f social skills as the new kid on the block,” he said. “I was the boy named Sue.” He became stronger and tougher with the changing scenarios. His parents never offered any apologies for moving the family around; his father was just going where the jobs were, ranging to Colorado and Washington.
Eyes softening, Peck shares that his father lived with him for the last six years of his life. “Dad was a kindly mind until the day he died. He had all his faculties.” His parents' 54-year marriage was a good partnership. Peck fondly remembers, “My mom kept us all in stitches. She loved the attention.”
Peck attended Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, and graduated from Montana State University in Bozeman with a degree in Agricultural Production. He worked as a ranch foreman for geneticist Dr. David Cameron. The majority of Peck’s career was in agricultural journalism specializing in beef production. His writing took him to Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Canada and Australia.
Peck always kept a connection to Montana, keeping a small cattle ranch in the Bull Mountains. He admits with humor, “If I was not chasing a story on cows, I was on a horse chasing a cow.” However, he credits his daughters, Sarah and Ellen, for being his “rock and stability.”
In 2010, Peck took a leap of faith and opened Yellowstone Cellars and Winery. He sold his house, his Harley Davidson and his herd of cattle. He had been studying his brother’s business, Dakota Creek Winery in Blaine, Wash., and made his first wines with the help of his brother and sister-in-law.
When asked why he opened a winery in Montana, he states, “I live here.” Peck admits, “I have to credit my brother, Ken, and sister-in-law, Jill.” He knew that it would take three to four years before he would have a drinkable product if he started from scratch. He laughs at how similar the cattle business is to the wine business, as there is no income from either calf or wine until “three years down the line.”
In the beginning, Peck struggled to make ends meet, waking each day filled with anxiety, relying on friends and family to keep him afloat. Peck’s Malbec was, and is, his iconic wine. He could not make if fast enough, knowing that the wine would improve in flavor with some aging. In 2013, he ran out of the wine and some customers have not forgiven him for selling out. His 2010 Malbec received a score of 88 from Wine Spectator.
Peck sources his grapes in eastern Washington, driving 750 miles to the Yakima Valley in a truck and trailer to retrieve his grapes. In one run he might pick up several varietals that ripen at the same time. This year he will be making 3,400 cases of wine, featuring 11 reds and 4 whites.
Friends and family are recruited annually to help bottle and label the wine. It starts with a crush, where volunteers crush grapes with their bare feet. This year's Grape Stomp is scheduled for Sept. 24.
“I do not buy a lot of advertising.” He credits some of his success to having an inviting patio with live music. Luckily, “Billings is blessed with talented entertainers.” Live music is presented on Friday and Saturday nights, with Wednesday dedicated to an open microphone night. His success clearly stems from his hard work, tenacity, and constant presence at the winery, building a strong relationship with the community.
What are the characteristics of Clint Peck’s wines? Peck describes his wines as having a soft mouth feel, being fruit forward, and often containing higher alcohol. He believes his wines are “easy to drink, and good with food”. His loyal supporters agree.
Obviously, Clint Peck is not mired in a mud hole. He has spurred his horse forward to making good wine in Montana’s Trailhead.