The Idaho Wine Scene
A promising new generation takes hold in the Snake River Plain
A lot can change in a few years. Back in 2006, it wasn’t clear if Idaho wines measured up to the rest of the Northwest. Our state is better known for our potatoes than our vineyards. But Idaho has a long wine-making history that dates back to the 1860s. Prohibition devastated the wine business across the country, but even after its repeal, Idaho was especially slow at staging a comeback. Washington State saw a vineyard boom in the late 1960s. But in Idaho, it wasn’t until 1971 that the state liquor board relinquished its monopoly on wine sales. Before then, a limited wine selection was only available at state-run liquor stores, and the limited market discouraged investment in the local wine industry. With that impediment lifted, Ste. Chapelle, Idaho’s first modern-day and still-largest winery, opened its doors in 1976.
But while Idaho languished, the Washington State wine industry exploded over the next few decades. Today they boast some 35,000 vineyard acres across 600 wineries. By contrast, Idaho has less than 2,000 acres planted on just over forty wineries. Four years ago, with many factors working against Idaho wine, many winemakers and connoisseurs were pessimistic about the future of Idaho wine. Some very good wine was being made then, but overall, very few captured the imagination the way the best from Oregon and Washington could. Fortunately, we were completely wrong.
A Growing Movement
Today, the Idaho wine scene is abuzz with activity, and there are several Idaho wines worthy of a connoisseur’s palate.
What’s changed? In 2007, the Snake River American Viticultural Area (AVA), Idaho’s first, was declared a unique grape-growing region. Washington State has eleven recognized growing areas, so while it may not seem like much, the Snake River Valley AVA has been crucial in putting Idaho on the national map.
Idaho now boasts double the wineries it did just four years ago and, most impressively, some of the newest kids on the block are making some of the state’s best wines. Attracted by the quality of the grapes and the climate of the Snake River AVA, winemakers who were trained out of state have decided to locate in Idaho. They have brought an enthusiasm that’s contagious, with the talent to match. They are also contributing to a spirit of cooperation and sharing. There had always been camaraderie among the area’s winemakers, but we Idahoans are a fiercely independent lot. Greg Koenig is a great example of how one talented winemaker can have a ripple effect in the community. Besides heading his own Koenig Vineyards, he works with Williamson Vineyards, Bitner Vineyards and, most recently, 3 Horse Ranch, making the wine bottled under all three labels.
Taking a cue from Koenig, three of Idaho’s youngest wineries formed the Urban Winemakers Cooperative on Chinden Boulevard in Garden City, just outside of Boise. This is where Melanie Krause and her husband Joe Schnerr started their promising young enterprise, Cinder, in 2008. Krause had moved back to Idaho after a stint at Washington’s Canoe Ridge winery. The couple invited two other wineries to join them: John Danielson of Vale Wine Company and Mike Crowley with Syringa Winery. The Urban Winemakers Cooperative was an immediate success. When the three winemakers quickly outgrew the space, Cinder took over the Garden City location, Syringa moved just down the street, and Vale relocated to Caldwell, about twenty-five miles west. Continuing that spirit of cooperation, Vale now shares its Caldwell tasting room with Bitner and another newcomer, Fujishin Family Cellars. Named after the College of Idaho mascot, the joint operation was named Coyote Fine Wines on the Creek.
The Future is Bright
Other exciting new wineries to watch include Fraser Vineyard, Davis Creek Vineyard, the Snyder Winery and 3 Horse Ranch. With Idaho wine changing so rapidly, this list is sure to grow. While the numbers of producers are expanding, production remains very limited. Each specializes in just a few varieties and all are working to find the best grapes possible through meticulous vineyard management. The 2,000 acres planted in Idaho were (and to some extent still are) a mishmash of forty-five different vinifera grape varieties. It takes years to sort out what grape grows best where, but it’s essential to do so if you want to get the most out of your vineyard. It’s said great wine is made in the vineyard—and Idaho has seen great strides in that area over the past few years, partly by working closely with winemakers who demand the best.
Today, almost every Idaho winery makes a good Riesling, and there are several good Cabernet and Chardonnay out there, but the future looks especially bright for Rhône varieties. Syrah is a standout red. Look for 2008 3 Horse Ranch, 2008 Cinder, 2008 Coiled, 2008 Fujishin, 2007 Koenig Three Vineyard Cuvée and 2006 Williamson. The Snake River Winery combined Syrah with Grenache and Mourvèdre in their 2006 blend with beautiful results. For whites, think Viognier with the 2009 3 Horse Ranch, 2009 Cinder, 2009 Fraser and 2007 Williamson as great examples of what this variety can achieve.
Limited production and increased demand mean that many of the best Idaho wines sell out quickly. That’s one of the drawbacks of success but, hopefully, as vineyards expand and we attract more start-up wineries, this too will change. The future looks much brighter than many dared imagine just a short time ago.