CALDWELL, Idaho - There's no pretense, and it's not fancy. Yet in many ways, Sherri McCoy and Kris Thompson created a wine country restaurant unlike any other in the Northwest.
And they'll readily offer with endearing naïvete that it wasn't by design when they opened in 2008.
"It's a little bit embarrassing," Thompson said with a smirk, "but it has turned out to be such a wonderful surprise and a huge deal for us."
It starts with their location in the heart of the Snake River Valley, a 45-minute drive due west of Boise.
Diners look to the east across Sunnyslope Road and see Idaho's largest winery - Ste. Chapelle.
Step out the backdoor of the kitchen and there's Bitner Vineyards up the hill on Plum Road as well as blocks belonging to Williamson Vineyards.
On the other side of Apricot Lane and beyond the orchards just off Grape Lane is the home of Koenig Vineyards & Distillery.
"Winemakers are here for breakfast and lunch, and sometimes they'll bring in their families for dinner," McCoy said. "We see them a lot."
Support is a two-way street, judging by The Orchard House's wine list.
"It's a 100 percent Snake River AVA, and it's mostly the wineries right around here," Thompson points out.
More than 20 wineries are represented, which accounts for more than half of Idaho's vintners. Only two bottles on the list are sold for north of $30.
"We try to keep our prices by the bottle low so that if the winery isn't open, we have enough of a selection that wine tourists can still get some of that winery's wine," Thompson said.
If you ask for directions, wait staff will supply a wine touring map and pass along some information about the wineries.
"It's nice when one of our guests has a question about wine and we know the winemaker," McCoy said. "We can tell them where the winery is at and something about the wine. We couldn't do that if we were selling wine from Europe. I like that part of it."
Thompson added, "But it's the same thing for the orchards. If we need apples, we talk to one of the guys who come in for coffee in the morning and we buy a box of apples from him. When the pears are coming off, we're making pear pie or poached pears."
Once upon a time, their building was home to Weston Winery. It's also been a boat repair shop and served as migrant housing before the transformation into a 65-seat restaurant more than a decade ago.
Outside, there's also seating for 65 on the deck under shade trees and along the tiny creek.
Inside, there's still the feel of a country diner and you won't find white linen. That combination - and an anonymous tip - led Guy Fieri of The Food Network to the Orchard House for his Diners, Drive-ins and Dives program.
"We've been filmed, and I think we're on a schedule to be featured, but we're kind of nervous about it," McCoy said.
Fieri's tipster likely is among the Orchard House's nearly 800 Facebook friends who are drawn by the food and familial approach. The women post several times a week and back that up on Twitter, offering a sense of transparency with a homespun appeal that makes their "friends" feel a part of their family.
On May 17, for example, "Taking applications today one person put reason for leaving 'got fried.' LOL! Assuming it's a type-o :)"
Indeed, the two women go beyond ownership. They describe themselves as the "bookkeepers, marketers, landscapers, remodelers, dishwashers, repair/maintenance workers, servers, bakers, cooks, managers, janitor and team leaders."
Yet after two years, which included many 80-hour work weeks, there seems to be little tension at The Orchard House. McCoy and Thompson first used their friendship as a base to build a partnership in a drive-through coffee shop.
"We grew up in the area and met in high school 25 years ago in a restaurant, oddly enough," Thompson said. "Two years ago, we were looking for something different. I drove by and saw this restaurant was for sale. It wasn't necessarily what we were planning to do, but we saw the opportunity."
A satisfying breakfast menu created an almost instant following. Much of that credit is heaped on McCoy's son-in-law, Rubio Izaguirre Jr., who continues to whip up the omelets, beignets, Swedish pancakes and migas - a Tex-Mex approach to scrambled eggs.
It might be impossible to find a bigger cup of coffee elsewhere in Northwest wine country, and the Orchard House's midday rush requires a two-angle attack because of a growing appetite for lunch orders to go.
"We're building 100 boxes at a time for winery tour buses," McCoy said. "Catering is something that we hadn't really given much thought to until now. "
While offering a comfort food element, the dinner menu now features the growing influence of new chef Christopher Dawson, who has two winemaker dinners scheduled this year.
"Last year, we would hire a guest chef to cook the wine dinners and work with our staff, but we had such a high demand to extend our hours, we now are open seven days a week and at night for dinner," Thompson said.
Dawson, 30, recently arrived after attending Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland. His inspiration, however, began in St. George, Utah, at his grandmother's side.
"I remember sitting on the floor with a bowl when she was making pudding or cookies," Dawson said. "As soon as I was tall enough to reach the stove, I started making eggs."
For years, he and his family would turn to grandmother for recipes. Now, he's the one gladly handing down ideas, and the blues guitarist appreciates sharing the kitchen with McCoy and Thompson.
"It's really nice to work for women; there's no one yelling and screaming," Dawson said with a chuckle. "It's pretty calm here."
McCoy and Thompson make sure Dawson and Izaguirre work with local ingredients as often as possible. Dawson brings some of his own herbs to the restaurant, but his bosses maintain both an herb and vegetable garden on the grounds.
Gaston's Bakery supplies their buns. Whatever else the Orchard House staff doesn't bake comes from Harvest Classic Bakery. Tri-City Meats down the road in Meridian provides protein for many of the valley's top chefs. Orchard crops come from Robison Fruit Ranch, Symms Fruit Ranch and Williamson's Fruit Ranch. Watson's Sunnyslope Farms and Webster Ranch Natural Farm supply much of their produce. Table grapes make their way from Dance'n Hill Vineyard. Honey is buzzed in from Frerichs Farms, which is just up the road.
And then there's Dr. Steven Ollie, a family practitioner who acts as a middleman of sorts.
"Really nothing beats a vine-ripened tomato, and his 80-year-old neighbor grows tomatoes," Thompson said. "They are awesome, so we buy them and it helps her because it's a little bit of income for her."
And while the salmon for one of Dawson's Match Maker dishes isn't local, the Alaskan commercial fisherman/guide who caught the sockeye spends most of the school year living in Nampa.
"What Kris has at her restaurant is actually what I eat on my table," said Pat Robbins, whose set gill-netting operation on the Alsek River runs June through August. "We're selling all that we can catch, so I don't really know that I need the promotion."
Dawson's Match Maker productions highlighted a staple on the menu - Honey Glazed Salmon with the Bitner 2007 Reserve Chardonnay, and his own pasta dish with the Fujishin Family Cellars 2008 Viognier.
"I love to make something plain turn into something beautiful," Dawson said. "And I have a passion for fresh herbs. I have a huge herb garden at my home - savory, thyme, sage, tarragon, lavender, marigolds, lemon thyme, marjoram, chives, oregano. I even grew the Thai peppers for this dish."
The fruit-forward aspect of the Fujishin Viognier led Dawson to both contrast and complement it with his Spicy Cioppino-Style Pasta.
"We didn't really have anything spicy on the menu, so I was looking to do something like this," he said. "I made it for my family first to make sure no one would die."
Zesty sauces also provide a creative outlet for Dawson, which allowed him to showcase Robbins' salmon and the Bitner Chardonnay with his own sweet and tangy sheen of pomegranate and honey, backed by minced garlic and cayenne.
Both wines are featured on Thompson's wine list. And Fujishin is such as regular at The Orchard House he's been known to have three meals a day at the neighborhood restaurant.
"I never would have imagined I would know as much about wine as I do," Thompson said. "And my 19-year-old son, who is working here, is so interested in winemaking. And Sherri's 13-year-old son is, too."
The Orchard House, 14949 Sunnyslope Rd., Caldwell, Idaho, 83607, 208-459-8200, www.theorchardhouse.us. e
Eric Degerman is Wine Press Northwest's managing editor. Have a suggestion for a future Match Maker? E-mail him at email@example.com.
Fujishin Family Cellars, 2008 Viognier, Snake River Valley, $15 (150 cases produced, 14.2% alcohol)
Martin Fujishin graduated from the College of Idaho with a business degree, then returned to the family's 400-acre farm near the Oregon/Idaho border.
But winemaking was boiling in his blood, perhaps the legacy of a great-grandfather who created sake inside a backyard shed in Japan.
These days, as the assistant winemaker for Greg Koenig, Fujishin plays a key role in the building of wines for several wineries in Idaho - including Koenig Vineyards, Bitner Vineyards, Williamson Vineyards and the emerging 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards.
Last year, Fujishin began to flash his skills with the first releases under his own label, which he debuted at the Savor Idaho festival. Each of those offerings - Merlot, Viognier and a dessert Chardonnay - received Excellent ratings from Wine Press Northwest.
That 2008 Viognier, off Bitner Vineyard, shows its versatility by complementing The Orchard House's Spicy Cioppino Style Pasta.
Fujishin allowed his Viognier to go nearly bone-dry (0.2% residual sugar), while the stainless-steel fermentation and aging - with just two weeks on the lees - offers huge amounts of tropical fruit and develops the mouth feel.
"It's meant to emulate the traditional style of the Rhone Valley Viognier," Fujishin said. "By picking at a later maturity, it provides slightly higher alcohol to carry the floral character of Viognier on the nose."
And Fujishin kept close tabs on these grapes because Koenig's winemaking facility is only a few hundred yards down the slope.
"Bitner Vineyards holds acidity late in the season and provides strong stone fruit character as the wine matures, combining with tropical notes early on," Fujishin said.
Weather and harvest conditions of 2008 also worked in his favor.
"It was a slightly warmer year, and the vintage of Viognier came off before the fall rains that diluted some of the later-picked varietals," he said. "That timing provided for accentuation of the delicate character of the Viognier into a slightly more robust wine with a bit of Chardonnay character."
Fujishin's wines are on the list at The Orchard House. He also sells them on weekends at Coyotes Fine Wines on the Creek tasting room in downtown Caldwell.
Fujishin Family Cellars, 217 S. Kimball Ave., Caldwell, ID, 83605, fujishinfamilycellars.com.
Bitner Vineyards 2007 Reserve Chardonnay, Snake River Valley, $16 (211 cases produced, 13.2% alcohol)
It's ironic that the president of the Winegrape Growers Association of America knew next to nothing about wine grapes when he started in 1981.
Ron Bitner chuckles while sharing the story that he honestly never heard of Chardonnay until he first planted some on the hillside below his home along the Sunnyslope region of Caldwell, Idaho.
During the next three decades, the world-renowned entomologist developed relationships with many of the state's top winemakers who tap into his 15 acres in Canyon County. However, his partnership with Greg Koenig runs deepest.
While Koenig grows his list of clients, he continues to craft award-winning wines for his friend and neighbor since 1997. That's when Bitner began to hold back some fruit to start his own winery, which Wine Press Northwest named as its 2009 Idaho Winery of the Year.
While done in a reserve style, Koenig's handling of some of the state's oldest Chardonnay blocks is neither over the top in barrel treatment nor sur lie aging.
"In the case of the Chardonnay, the Bitner version sees slightly less time in French oak barrels after fermentation than (the Koenig) wines, and the lees aren't stirred," Koenig said. "This results in a less creamy texture, but the fruit is brighter and the citrusy/mineral components are more pronounced. That being said, our version of this wine is very similar, and I really try to let the vineyard shine through without too much intervention outside of the new oak."
Those factors showcase the acidity, and the alcohol also is kept in check. Both features are critical to pairing with food and for cellaring, and this 3-year-old Chardon-nay is showing no signs of age.
Historically, there's a double significance to the 2007 vintage. It marked the first under the designation of the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area as well as the 10th anniversary of Koenig making wine for Bitner Vineyards.
"That was a ripe year, which in this vineyard means more balanced wine," Koenig said. "In cooler vintages, the wine is very tightly wound with lots of acid and lemon-like flavors. In 2007, the vineyard produced wines with more tropical aromas and bigger Chardonnay flavors without losing its hallmark citrus/mineral. It's a lot like 1998 and 2000 - two of my favorite Bitner Chardonnays."
Bitner Vineyards, 16645 Plum Rd., Caldwell, ID, 83605, 208-899-7648, www.bitnervineyards.com.
Spicy Cioppino Style Pasta
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium shallot, minced
3 Thai red peppers, sliced
1 Spanish chorizo, diced
1 1⁄2 cups clam juice
1 1⁄2 cups vermouth
1 14-ounce can tomato paste
2 14 1⁄2-ounce cans, diced, or fresh tomatoes, diced
1⁄4 cup fresh basil, chopped
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1⁄2 cup sugar
15 peeled, deveined shrimp
2 cups large dice halibut
1⁄2 cup clams out of shell or in shell (choice of presentation)
1 16-oz. box dried penne pasta
In a large saute pan, combine olive oil, shallots, peppers and chorizo at medium-heat heat. Cook until shallots begin to sweat and peppers are aromatic.
Add clam juice and vermouth, and cook until reduced by half.
Add tomato paste. When paste is blended in, add tomatoes, basil, oregano, sugar, shrimp, halibut and simmer over low-medium heat for 30 minutes.
In the final 10 minutes, add the clams to prevent them from overcooking.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve over penne pasta cooked al dente.
Garnish with a dollop of sour cream, Parmesan cheese and basil leaf.
Pomegranate Honey-Glazed Salmon
4 cups pomegranate juice
1⁄2 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup all-natural honey
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
2 eight-ounce sockeye salmon fillets
In a two-quart saucepan, add pomegranate juice and sugar.
Bring to a boil, then reduce and simmer for 50 minutes.
After reduced, let cool for 20 minutes.
In a separate bowl, add honey, garlic, cayenne pepper and 1⁄2 cup of your cooled pomegranate glaze.
Mix together and serve over salmon.