by Amanda Baltazar
Potatoes might be Idaho’s most famous product, but its fastest-growing industry is wine.
Unknown on the wine scene just a decade ago, Idaho now produces world-class wines that are finally gaining recognition, thanks in large part to its high elevations, great drainage in its volcanic-ash soil and diurnal temperature swings. But what’s had a huge impact on Idaho’s wine industry was the creation, in 2007, of its first wine appellation, the Snake River Valley AVA.
Snake River Valley covers some 8,000 square miles and includes 34 wineries and 34 vineyards, mostly clustered around Boise. Hot on its heels was approval of the smaller Eagle Foothills AVA, followed by the Lewis-Clark AVA, just approved in April 2016.
“The world started taking us seriously when we got the [first] AVA,” says Dick Dickenstein, former owner and winemaker of Parma Ridge Winery, “but it took us six years to get it. We were totally ignored before that.”
Idaho’s wine industry is growing faster than anyone anticipated and it’s now ranked 22nd in the nation. “The most growth we’ve seen over the last couple of years has been in the quality of wine made here in Idaho,” says Moya Shatz Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Producers Commission. “This growth is just as important as the number of wineries and vineyards in Idaho and we are very proud of the success we’ve seen here.”
We were intrigued and decided to explore some of Idaho’s wine country. What we discovered was a diversity and sophistication in wines, styles and philosophies that we didn’t expect here, a region most Americans consider a wilderness.
Just three miles from the capital is Cinder Winery, operating in a former vegetable processing facility and owned by Melanie Krause, the winemaker, and her husband. Her winery is named after the volcanic cinder cone that creates the unique terroir in this area. Krause sources her grapes from nearby vineyards – Viognier, Syrah, Tempranillo and Chardonnay, among others
“What I’m trying to showcase is how much fruit Idaho grapes show,” says Krause, who ferments her Viognier in stainless steel. “I think it’s a wine that really showcases what Idaho wine can do. It’s got powerful aromas and fruit flavors yet it’s graceful and balanced,” she says.
About an hour away sits Snake River Vineyards, owned by Scott DeSeelhorst (the winemaker) and his wife Susan. There’s not much Snake River Vineyard doesn’t grow—from Syrah and Grenache to Blauer Zweigelt, a light-bodied and fruity Austrian grape that has low tannins and high acidity, and Tinto Cão, a Portuguese grape DeSeelhorst grows for port-style wines.
Last year the vineyard became totally sustainable. Instead of chemical compounds, DeSeelhorst uses a nicotine-based product, old vines and chicken compost. While the formula does attract vine-eating bugs, it’s also allowed predator bugs to survive, so natural selection means a lot of those enemies of the vines are gobbled up themselves.
Almost all of the grapes for Snake River’s wines are estate-grown. “I don’t want to make wine from somebody else’s grapes,” DeSeelhorst says.
A little further north, past elaborate wrought iron gates, sits Ste. Chapelle Winery. Established in 1975, Ste. Chapelle is Idaho’s oldest winery and is surrounded by vine-covered slopes, the source of its acclaimed ice wine Riesling. Ste. Chapelle is one of the top 10 Riesling producers in the country; it also produces the top-selling red wine in Idaho—its Soft Red, a low-alcohol, sweetish wine.
“We start off making a red wine and halfway through fermentation switch over and make a white,” says longtime winemaker Maurine Johnson. “It’s a red wine for people who wouldn’t normally drink a red.” Soft Red’s blend varies from year to year, though the grapes are mostly Bordeaux varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah.
Johnson will depart her position later this year to join a winery in Washington – but that’s not the only big change coming to Ste. Chapelle. Its owner, Seattle-based Precept Wine, announced in June that Ste. Chapelle’s sister operation, Sawtooth Winery in nearby Nampa, will move its production facility and tasting room to Ste. Chapelle. The wineries won’t exactly merge, though. Precept purchased 40 acres for vineyard plantings, an amphitheater and a new tasting room for Sawtooth, which will keep its name. Sawtooth’s current winemaker, Meredith Smith, will take on winemaking duties for both wineries.
All in all, Ste. Chapelle produces 150,000 cases of wine per year, making it by far the largest producer in Idaho. Between 30 and 40 percent of this wine stays in the state but most is shipped out.
Our final winery stop will be 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards. The tasting room of this winery – actually the only winery producing wine so far as part of the brand-new Eagle Foothills AVA – opened this spring in the middle of a 1,600-acre horse ranch, and at the bottom of slope after slope of vineyards. The French cottage-style building offers wine tastings and paired hors d’oeuvres; owner Gary Cunningham and his wife Martha believe one shouldn’t go without the other.
The vineyard here boasts 400 plantable acres. Cunningham practices gobelet-style (“bush vine”) trellising, which he believes will make more intense and superior wines. “We don’t want to be an $8 bottle of wine place,” he explains.
Cunningham has a philosophy about his wine, and he tries to convey that message in every bottle: “To make the fruit the wine,” he says. “And that’s the whole point of having estate-grown wines – so you can really and truly taste the terroir.”
We found firsthand that with its clean air, volcanic soil, cool nights and sunny days, Idaho has a terroir worth tasting.