Blending Wine and Community One Sip at a Time
Vandana Sood-Giddings | Thursday Nov. 1st, 2018
Cheers to a new wine-tasting room in town! Blend is both a wine-tasting room and art gallery. The name aptly evokes both winemaking and artistry.
It’s an unassuming and charming spot to sip wine, catch up with friends, or meet someone new while talking vino. When you walk in, the atmosphere is part coffee shop, part tasting room and bar. Featuring Valo Cellar’s superb wines and delicious small plates created by chef Michael, the place has something for everyone. This past month, Blend had its grand opening, and the place was buzzing with a diverse group of wine enthusiasts. Opening night had raffle prizes, discounted wine and even a giant pair of scissors for the customary ribbon cutting, and people loved it. That same night, Bozeman saw its first snowfall and a power outage, but it didn’t halt the festivities and people stayed warm and content with their wine. Co-owners Michael Ruhland and Sonia Williamson have combined forces to bring this delightful joint to life. The sophisticated tasting room features the stunning imagery of local photographer Chris D’Ardenne and makes you feel immersed in the beauty of mountains and landscapes. Blend hosts its signature wine dinners as well as a variety of other events centered around camaraderie and enjoying wine. I got a chance to chat with chef and owner Michael Ruhland about Blend and its beginnings.
Vandana Sood-Giddings: How was Blend conceptualized? How did this place come about?
Michael Ruhland: When I was a chef at the Rainbow Ranch, I really enjoyed doing wine-pairing dinners, and I wanted to get into the wine making side of things but didn’t necessarily want to leave Montana. I had done wine dinners at the Yellowstone Club and worked up at other places around the state but just loved that combination. Instead of cooking for a 100 people a night this is a very intimate getting to know your guests and catering to them.
From there, I picked up and started traveling around and, like I said, I didn’t want to leave Montana, but I really wanted to get into the wine making side of things, so I started up and got everything licensed in the fall of 2017, found a building and got the winery license up and running and got my first vintage in the bottle in the fall of 2017 and started selling to restaurants and stores. It was the same winter that I found this space on Willson and it was one big open space and a little bit bigger than what I needed for a winery and tasting room so I thought, “What if I put some artists in the space with me to give it more character?” Realistically this place feels like its art walk everyday. Originally, I was looking at having a co-op of artists. During that time frame, I had an advertisement on Craigslist and Chris’s work looked fantastic, and I was interested in bringing him in, and he said he would be keen on taking over the whole space, and so that’s the direction in which we went.
VS: Tell me a little about yourself. What made you want to get into the restaurant industry?
MR: When I was 15 or 16, I started washing dishes at a friend’s father’s restaurant back in Memphis, Tennessee. From there, I started cooking because I liked the fast-paced aspects of working in a restaurant. Then, two of my brothers started waiting tables at the same place, and they went over to a place called Bosco’s Pizza Kitchen and brewery in Germantown, Tennessee, and I followed them over there and just started working and learning and had people teaching me along the way. I essentially worked in restaurants and as a kid kept going back and forth about what I wanted to do and cooking came naturally to me, and I really enjoyed the speed and creativity of cooking. Then, in the winter of 2000-2001, I came up to Big Sky and worked my first winter out there at the resort, and from there I just packed up and moved. I moved to the Madison Valley, worked in Missoula for a little bit, went back to Memphis, where I worked for a chef called Wally Joe who is a James Beard chef, and I started seeing more fine dining food at that point. That’s when I remember it felt like Christmas every other day and I started seeing finer foods. Then in the summer of 2005, I worked at Triple Creek Ranch and the winter of 2005 – 2006, I went to the Yellowstone Club. From there, I kind of had free reign to do what I wanted, and I played with a lot of different food and started seeing my style of food develop. I became a private chef for a little time and was up at Big Easy Lodge, a very lovely intimate lodge, and ended up in the Rainbow Ranch in 2009 to help build the space after the fire. After that, I moved around, spent a summer up at Whitefish and hit Moonlight Basin and was the food and beverage manager up at the basin. From there, through all the bankruptcies, which were really frustrating because you work really hard for something or it changes hands or disappears or whatever the case might be, I got to the point where I thought if I’m going to work this hard for something it’s going to be myself. So, in the spring of 2015, I became a harvest intern and did Oregon and New Zealand. We harvested grapes and stayed for receiving the grapes, processing, pushing through fermentation and then barreling. I had a lot of help with friends along the way, too. Rich Funk, owner of Saviah cellars, helped me get things together, and I aIso met Matias Kusulas in New Zealand. Matias is Chilean and has three master’s in wine making. He is in charge of the harvest, vintage and is the full wine maker of Valo Cellars. Matias and I will be coming up with another brand and opening another tasting room in Walla Walla, Washington in the future.
VS: What makes Blend unique in Bozeman? What do you offer that other places don’t?
MR: We’re actually processing our own wines. What makes Blend a little more unique is that we have taken wine country from Washington and brought it all the way to Bozeman. We have tried to bring this whole idea of having a winery experience from Washington and delivered it to downtown Bozeman. We have that side and also have our amazing wine dinners that we do on a weekly basis and a fantastic wine club membership with great availability to wine and discounts on wine. We are doing solstice and equinox releases, with member only wines and preliminary access to new wines coming on board. Our goal is to create a great community around our wine and space.
VS: What do you want people to experience here when they step through your doors?
MR: The experience I’ve created is a nice light bright airy feeling. I want that feeling of lightness in the space. It’s like art walk every day. You can sit, drink some wine, enjoy the art and come down and have just a glass of wine, but we also have food here as well, so we have small bites and small plates which are a great way to go. The wine dinner is on every Wednesday, and it’s an awesome thing. We offer it four times in a month, which gives upwards of 60 people a chance to come experience these dinners, and they’re three courses, they’re paired with each one of our wines, and they’re an awesome experience. We don’t want to be stuffy, snobby and exclusive but, in fact, make people feel warm and welcome when they walk through our doors.
VS:What do you enjoy most about being part of Bozeman?
MR: I think Bozeman is a great city to be in, in general. There is so much here I enjoy! There is more city life coming to Bozeman, but it’s also a great diving board for being outdoors as well.
VS: What’s your most popular dish?
MR: I like everything. To me, it’s about the seasonality of things. I like bright ceviches in summer and nice braised dishes in the fall. However, I would eat sushi at any given time of the year.
photos Sonia Williamson