Furniture company grows in stature with sustainable philosophy & products made from reclaimed wine barrels

Story by TRISTAN SCOTT  Photography by LIDO VIZZUTTI

Some people might consider Ian Crawford an “idea man,” a kind of mad inventor whose lofty, sometimes manic ambition can either ignite a meteoric rise in innovation or burn up like a dying star. 

But in Crawford, whose artisan, wine-streaked furniture now peppers the Northwest, it’s clear the former is the case.

In the past eight years, he’s lashed himself to the tail of an aesthetic and sustainable venture and ridden its orbit through poverty and despair, negotiating the stumbling blocks and business blunders of an upstart company to a career as an artist-laborer whose custom-made metal-and-wood bar stools and other Baroque décor, made primarily from reclaimed French oak wine barrels, furnishes restaurants and watering holes throughout the region.

Kameron Barge wipes down a Vinoture stool.

Kameron Barge wipes down a Vinoture stool.

“The first two years I was on food stamps living in my van, or in a trailer full of furniture, or in the barn where I worked,” Crawford, 33, said. “I’d scrape up enough money to travel to a trade show and try to sell a piece of furniture. And it worked. Our company has doubled in size every year for eight years. This is my baby.”

Crawford’s Whitefish-based business  has filled a niche developing kitchen stools, tables, and coat racks, all of which combine aesthetic ingenuity with locally sourced materials like wood and steel. It started when Crawford, who grew up in the Flathead Valley, came upon a heap of discarded wine barrels while living in Walla Walla, Washington. Dennis Johnson, owner of The Party Store in Columbia Falls, encouraged Crawford, who already had a burgeoning interest in green building, to tap into his sustainable mindset and talents to build something unique.

With a passion for working within a small footprint, Crawford seized on an idea to combine the utilitarian and artistic work of the vintner, hooper and wood-smith to showcase a product that represented a cyclic, symbiotic relationship between artisan craftsmanship, the vineyard and his hometown community.

A line of finished chairs is seen in Vinoture's production facility in Whitefish.

A line of finished chairs is seen in Vinoture’s production facility in Whitefish.

Vinoture has since furnished dozens of commercial restaurants and bars in the United States and Canada, having produced more than 4,000 pieces of furniture, and the company is edging toward developing a manufacturing plant that rivals nationwide distributors.

His most recent wares are on display at the new Flathead Lake Brewing Co. location in Bigfork, which is certified by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, making the business a perfect home for Crawford’s reclaimed wood furniture and his philosophy of sustainability.

“I grew up on Flathead Lake’s Finley Point, so furnishing Flathead Lake Brewing Co. is one of the biggest, most significant moments of my life,” Crawford said. “The fact that we are reclaimed and they are LEED certified is the kind of partnership I’ve dreamed about.”

At the new Mackenzie River Pizza, Grill and Pub in north Kalispell, Crawford outfitted the restaurant with his signature wine-barrel trees, as well as tabletops hewn out of beetle-killed trees. It is owned by the Whitefish-based Glacier Restaurant Group, whose chairman, Bill Foley, owns a vineyard in Santa Barbara, California, called Foley Family Wines.

Crawford shows some of his original design sketches – including an impressive host and hostess table for Flathead Lake Brewing Company.

Crawford shows some of his original design sketches – including an impressive host and hostess table for Flathead Lake Brewing Company.

Crawford is proud that the staves he used to build the stools originated at the winery, varietals of which are poured at MacKenzie River, which has earned Montana’s Eco Star award for sustainability seven times within the last decade.

“You can literally sit at the bar on a stool made from the barrel that aged the wine you’re drinking,” Crawford said. “You’re drinking wine that came out of your seat.”

It’s these connections throughout the Flathead Valley and beyond that have buoyed Crawford and Vinoture through difficult times, and he said by working with local outfits like RBM Lumber, Precision Woodworks, Countryside Welding and Family, Tilaru Metal Smithing, Iron Cross Iron Works, and mentoring under their craftsmen, he’s helped create an association of businesses that benefit from his venture.

He also gives untold credit to his parents, his son, Nico, and two best friends and business partners, Derek Larson and Kameron Barge, for their support of and belief in the Vinoture model.

“I look at this valley as this network of crafts-people we are orchestrating this sustainable environment,” Crawford said. “It has taken us eight years to figure out the path Vinoture is on. My heart is in this valley, and my heart is in this wood.”

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