EAGLE, Idaho — Greg Cunningham made his nest egg as a marketing whiz, and he also seems to be a rather quick study when it comes to growing grapes in the Snake River Valley.
He'll be the first to admit, however, the smartest move he's made as owner of 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards in Eagle, Idaho, was hiring Greg Koenig.
"A good winemaker isn't defined by one good wine that might have come during a great vintage," Cunningham said. "Greg has made good wines in Idaho for close to 20 years."
That partnership shows in the bottles from the Idaho's largest organic vineyard for the state's third-largest winery. Those factors, combined with Cunningham's drive to elevate the perception of Gem State wines, led to
3 Horse Ranch Vineyard being named as Wine Press Northwest's 2011 Idaho Winery to Watch.
In less than five years, 3 Horse Ranch became the state's largest family-owned winery. Their first vintage, 2006, produced fewer than 1,000 cases. That allowed the Cunninghams to open in 2008. By 2010, despite a cool season, production jumped to 7,000 cases.
"Normally, we'd have a dozen days of 100-degree temperatures," Cunningham said. "One year, there were 23 days in a row. Last year, we had just one 100-degree day."
The target for 2011 is to produce 10,000 cases, and he'll continue to purchase Riesling and additional varieties from other Idaho vineyards. It explains why Cunningham plans to build a production facility on the ranch for Koenig, who lives 40 miles to the southwest and makes wine for three wineries - including his own Koenig Vineyards.
Cunningham said he's increasing production to meet demand and maintain shelf space year-round. One key is training his staff to work with distributors, but he's also hand-selling bottles throughout Idaho, pouring at places such as the Fred Meyer in Coeur d'Alene.
Curious shoppers leave as educated buyers because they enjoy the wine, embrace the organic concept and want to support Idaho industry, Cunningham said. He's also opened markets in Washington, Montana and Wyoming, and he'd like his colleagues to follow. But perhaps every Idaho winery should revisit its marketing approach to its own state.
"Between 70 and 80 percent of the wine sold in Idaho is made in California," Cunningham said. "We need to have the consumer in Idaho trust our products. And the growth of Idaho's wine industry depends on people planting great vineyards. When you have to go out of state to buy grapes, you rarely get the best fruit."
Idaho long has been known for Riesling and off-dry reds, yet the Snake River Valley's future may be best linked to Rhone varieties. It's no coincidence that Wine Press Northwest has awarded its top rating of "Outstanding!" to a pair of 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards wines - the 2008 Estate Viognier and the 2008 Reserve Syrah.
Just before that harvest, the vineyard that sits at 2,800 feet elevation was certified as organic.
There's room to grow, too. Of the 500 acres deemed suitable for wine grapes, fewer than 40 have been planted.
"When we moved to the ranch, there were three of us - our daughter, Gary and myself - and three horses," said wife, Martha. "That was in 1998. And we still have three horses."
Cunningham left Sacramento, Calif., after a successful career in the world of corporate business travel. He and Martha lived eight years in McCall before buying 1,600 acres in the Eagle Foothills on a dirt road that's not so lonely anymore. They began planting vines in 2003.
"I used to play golf five days a week and got down to 2-handicap, but you can't play that game and own a vineyard," he said. "I miss the game, but I love the vineyard more. I don't think I played more than six rounds in 2010."
This year, one of his top priorities is working with Koenig to extend their long-term relationship.
"My life is no longer about age. It's about vintages," said Cunningham, 61. "I want to live long enough to see where this goes."
3 Horse Ranch Vineyards
3 Horse Ranch Vineyards, 5900 Pearl Road, Eagle, ID, 83616, 208-863-6561, 3horseranchvineyards.com.