Food & Drink July 9, 2023

Idaho’s Best Kept Secret

With nearly 200,000 cases produced annually, the gem state’s wine country gains popularity


The unusually long, wet spring has produced a restlessness for Idaho wine growers who—like their clientele—are more than ready for patio season to begin.

While most wineries have lovely indoor tasting rooms open year-round, the outdoor experience brings the magic to Idaho’s thriving wine industry, especially in the southwest part of the state. From the proper perch, you take in verdant vistas with row crops, orchards and vineyards gently curving down Canyon County’s Sunnyslope to the meandering Snake River. In the distance, the brush-dotted foothills of the Owyhee Mountains draw a rugged line across the horizon’s haze.

The “granddaddy” of Idaho wineries, Ste. Chappelle, is here, bottling since 1975, as the first post-Prohibition winery to open in Idaho. One of its recent standouts is the 2020 Panoramic Chardonnay, which received a Platinum rating with 91 points (Great Northwest Wines). Ste. Chappelle grows the most grapes and produces the most wine of any winery in the state.

There are about 20 neighboring wineries within 10 minutes of Ste. Chappelle that comprise the Sunnyslope Wine Trail. Drive a gravelly road deeper into the hillside, and you come across Hells Canyon Winery, which has given rise to the second generation of the family business under the label Zhoo Zhoo.

“The Zhoo Zhoo sisters—Bijou, Jocelyn and I—wanted to diversify our family wine business and make a product geared toward women,” explains Hadley Robertson. The popularity of Idaho wine country has walked right up to their country lane. “It used to be that people rarely came by, and if they did wander in, my dad would just come up from the field to help them. Now we are open year-round.”

Robertson suggests Sunny Hunny, a Riesling, with Pad Thai or shrimp salad. For heartier fare like Korean-style short ribs, she’d serve Hells Canyon LAVA/100 Atomic (Syrah).

Photo Courtesy of Idaho Wine Commission

Just six minutes west as you travel along Apricot, Pear and Plum lanes is Hat Ranch Winery, which also bottles as Vale Wine Co. The most recent accolade for founder and winemaker Tim Harless is the 2019 Syrah, which earned double gold at the 2022 Cascadia Wine Competition. The Hat Ranch Winery name nods to Harless’ cattle ranching forbearers; the brand-style logo is from stationery found at the original homestead.

Harless is on-site most days and happily breaks from chores to converse with patrons. He weaves a fascinating tale of how he soared as a military and commercial pilot to settle into the earthy science of viticulture. Wines to try under the Hat Ranch label include the 2020 Semillon, which earned a double gold, and its 2018 Rivaura Vineyard Cabernet Franc, made with grapes from Idaho’s more northerly Lewis-Clark Valley AVA. Under the Vale label, you’ll find fantastic Viogniers and Syrahs.

Newer to Idaho’s wine scene is the arrival of urban wineries and tasting rooms. Don’t let the term urban scare you away, though. A string of at least 10 venues is located along the scenic Boise River and its popular Greenbelt—a tree-lined path where strollers, bikers and joggers wind their way past pocket parks, bistros and even a surf park. It’s where you’ll find the popular Telaya Winery, established by Earl and Carrie Sullivan, who left careers in pharmaceutical and vet medicine, respectively, to pour their love of nature into a family business.

“Making something with your own hands, being able to have a product that you created, teaching our kids the value of hard work—it just kind of all worked together and has grown quickly,” says Earl Sullivan. Telaya is an amalgam of the Sullivans’ favorite places—the Teton Mountains along Idaho’s eastern border and the beach (“playa” in Spanish). The modern, glass-front building offers spectacular river views and a welcoming outdoor patio. As busy as the winery is, the winemaking operation provides a backdrop for wine club tastings and tours, with nearly 90% of its product shipped to members in 28 states.

The Sullivans recently acquired another rural production facility
in the Sunnyslope area. “We’re calling it Telaya West. It won’t be a regular tasting room, but we’ll be doing a series of events starting with four concerts.”

The ‘local by local’ movement keeps Sullivan enthusiastic about Idaho’s wine industry. “We don’t have the huge acreages of other wine areas—but our quality is just so good. In a smaller area, growers and producers work really well together to raise the bar, and that helps everyone.”

Sullivan says he has a close relationship with his growers in Idaho and Washington, with dedicated rows so he can track quality and conditions year after year. He can visit all the grapes before they’re harvested and even has a say about what day and time they’ll be cut from the vine. That care and attention have earned awards and a big following for Telaya wines.

Photo Courtesy of Ste Chapelle

The Sullivans are rapidly increasing production to prevent sell-outs, increasing from 4,350 cases in 2021 to more than 10,850 in 2022. Accolades include their 2018 Syrah, which won Best of Show at the Cascadia International Wine Competition.

Neighbors to Telaya in the Garden City urban tasting corridor are Rolling Hills, Cinder, Coiled, Par Terre and Potter Wines, to name a few. Whether it’s a tasting room experience or an estate vineyard you’re after, it’s time to explore the vast variety of southwest Idaho wine country and its creative winemakers.

This article appears in the Summer 2023 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.