Great wine produced in Idaho? If you’ve not sampled wines made in the Gem State recently, you may be surprised to learn the answer is an emphatic yes. To prove it, the “emerging” industry is racking up major wine awards and gaining national press. And it only took a mere 152 years.
Some background is necessary to understand how a century-plus-old industry is just now considered emerging. Grapes were first planted near Lewiston in 1864, and the first Pacific Northwest wineries were in Idaho, not Washington. If it weren’t for the buzz-killing Prohibition era—which in effect decimated the industry—the agriculture in Idaho might look a lot different today. A long lull between the 1930s and the early 1970s saw no action on the grape front, and it wasn’t until the mid-1980s that a few forward-thinking Idahoans decided to get serious about wine making, establishing the Idaho Wine Commission (IWC), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to champion the industry.
Moya Shatz Dolsby, the executive director of the IWC, said there are 51 licensed wineries. By comparison, Washington clocks in with 860 wineries, and Oregon with 600. Most Idaho wineries are located in the southwestern part of the state, in the Snake River AVA (American Viticultural Area), Idaho’s only designated AVA. A sub-AVA of the Snake River AVA, Eagle Foothills, was named in late 2015, the first AVA entirely within Idaho (Snake River AVA spills into eastern Oregon).
Even though the industry is infinitesimal compared to its neighbors, a study commissioned by the IWC in 2013 revealed the Idaho wine industry had a $169.3 million impact on the economy, and created nearly 1,250 jobs. Still, the industry is on the cusp of exploding, according to Dolsby. While a smattering of Idaho wineries were established before the 1990s, most were established in the early to mid-aughts. A handful of boutique wineries making national news are clustered in Garden City, four miles northwest of downtown Boise, referred to as “urban wineries” because of their location. These wineries do not own vineyards, but instead contract with grape growers. Dolsby said approximately half of Idaho wineries own their own vineyards and the other half partner with farmers for grapes.
Ste. Chapelle, established in 1975, is the largest winery in the state, producing 125,000 cases a year. Production among the rest of the wineries reflects the youthful nature of the industry. “There’s a big jump down to the next level at 15,000 cases, and then most wineries are in the 3,000 to 7,000 case range,” Dolsby said. “The learning curve in winemaking is huge,” Dolsby said. “We’re now in the second generation of winemakers who get that you have to know the terroir to know the right grape to plant.”
Melanie Krause, who started Cinder in Garden City with her husband, Joe Schnerr, in 2006, agrees. “Like every state, we tried the most popular grapes first,” she said, which didn’t always work in the high-desert climate of Idaho. “In the last 15 years, when I wanted to start making my own wine, I homed in on three: Syrah, Viognier and Tempranillo.” She said there are close to 13 or 14 grape varieties that can thrive in Idaho with correct vineyard management, but for her, concentrating on just a few main varieties was important. “I’d love to make all 13 or 14 varieties, but I have to focus.”
Viognier was the grape that brought Krause back to her home state. “I’d been spying on Idaho and what was going on. Viognier is just brilliant, with a gorgeous aroma. Some people make a sweet, clumsy wine out of it, but we make it with grace.” Krause began her winemaking career as a professional vineyard technician at Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle in 2001. By 2003, she was named assistant winemaker. Wine Enthusiast magazine named her in its “40 under 40: America’s Tastemakers” article in 2014. The 2012 Cinder Tempranillo snatched 92 points and the 2013 Syrah (made with a touch of Viognier in the style of French Côte-Rôtie) was awarded 90 points from the same magazine.
One of the biggest challenges for the budding industry is the need for more Idaho-grown grapes. “We need more grapes in the ground,” Dolsby said. “We’re meeting that challenge by planting more vines, but in the next couple of years, the wineries are going to have to continue to buy grapes from Washington to meet production demands.” It takes three to five years for vines to produce enough fruit to harvest for wine.”
“The grapes that exist are what we have to work with,” said Earl Sullivan, a former biochemist who started Telaya Wine Company with his wife, Carrie, in 2008, renting space from Cinder. “Idaho has 1,200 acres of grapes compared to 50,000 in Washington. We have caught flack from some (for buying Washington grapes), but our stance is we make the best quality, so we source the best grapes.”
Telaya moved into its own, brand new 12,000-square-foot facility just a few blocks from Cinder earlier this year. “It’s gorgeous,” said Krause. “We are all drooling a bit.” Wine Press Northwest recently named Telaya the 2016 Winery of the Year, and it bestowed a double platinum award on the 2012 Telaya Cabernet Sauvignon. Seattle Wine Awards awarded gold medals to Telaya’s 2013 Viognier, and a double gold to the 2012 Syrah.
No one expects the Idaho wine industry to grow to the size of Washington, or even Oregon, but Dolsby, who previously worked for the Washington State Wine Commission, said there’s no reason Idaho wines can’t compete—bottle to bottle—with its neighbors and beyond. Sullivan credits Dolsby for getting the Idaho wine industry on track. “Moya is tireless,” he said, “and the quality of Idaho wines has gone up since she took over the commission eight years ago.” One thing is for sure: some Idaho wineries, including Cinder and Telaya, are producing wines worth toasting.
Cinder 2015 Dry Viognier
Pale, silvery gold in color, an elegant wine full of floral and honey aromas, soft mouth feel with hints of citrus and peach, and clean, crisp finish. cinderwines.com
Telaya 2014 Viognier
Straw-colored wine with a medium body mouth feel. Rich nose of honeysuckle and pear, with a creamy, crisp peach finish. telayawine.com
Cinder 2013 Syrah
The winery suggests laying it down for a few years, but if you drink it now, expect ripe, almost jam-like berry flavors, a full-bodied mouth feel and a hint of floral on the nose, from a touch of Viognier in the mix. cinderwines.com
Telaya 2013 Mourvédre
Dark berries on the nose and palate offset by a touch of pepper and plenty of complex earthiness. telayawine.com