Match Makers: Mystic Café casts spotlight on Lewis-Clark Valley wine industry

September 5, 2017 

Were it not for Prohibition, the blended river community of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash., would be well beyond its folksy status as “an emerging wine region.”

However, the history of wine production in the Lewis-Clark Valley now is making its way back into the public eye. By the end of the 19th century, this area was home to the first large-scale wine industry in the Pacific Northwest when Robert Schleicher, a Frenchman, established a 130-acre vineyard. That equates to about 40,000 cases of wine, which today would make it the second-largest winery in Idaho and well beyond the size of the average Washington winery.

“People love learning about the history of the valley,” said Sara Wilson, the homegrown certified sommelier, executive chef and general manager at Mystic Cafe in downtown Lewiston.

These days, wineries in this valley enjoy growing support from restaurants on both sides of the Snake River. Leading the way is Happy Day Corp., the largest restaurant group in the region, and specifically Mystic Café, the new and eclectic gem in the portfolio of longtime restaurateurs Bruce and Joy Finch.

“I make sure that everyone is represented,” Wilson said. “Every winery has at least one wine on the list.”

The Lewis-Clark Valley Wine Alliance counts eight wineries and nine vineyards, and Wilson, who occasionally dons her sommelier lapel pin, has seen a change as result of the work done by Coco Umiker of Clearwater Canyon Cellars and Melissa Sanborn of Colter’s Creek Winery.

“With people like Coco and Melissa leading the way and getting more people to learn about this area, that will help a lot,” Wilson said. “And what has also helped us is that with there is better wine that is being grown and made here. I’ve seen the valley’s palate get more sophisticated.

“When I first moved back home, there were a lot of whites and sweet Riesling, which is fine, but now guests know more about grapes like Carménère and Malbec,” she added. “The Cabs are getting better, and the Chardonnay is not always buttery. That has been really great to see.”

Wilson, Lewiston High class of ’05, began working for Happy Day when she was 16.

“My brother and I were raised as athletes, so if we weren’t playing a sport, our parents told us we had to have a job,” Wilson said. “I played volleyball and softball, but I was not very good at basketball, so that’s when I started working in restaurants.”

Upon graduation, she got accepted into Boise State University’s culinary program. One of her neighbors ended up being a mentor — executive chef Frank Burns during his days at Flatbread Community Oven. Her ah-hah moment with wine came as an upperclassman when she tasted a Riesling by Snake River Valley producer Koenig Vineyards. It proved to be an important moment in her life.

“I was 21,” Wilson said. “It was at the end of culinary school, and there was a beverage management class, so I took it. It was the first time that I’d ever aced every test. Everything kind of clicked for me.”

That inspired her to move temporarily to the Bay Area and enroll in the International Culinary Center’s Intensive Sommelier Training.

“I asked a friend down there if I could stay on her couch for five months, and I commuted two hours every day,” Wilson said. “There were three to five Master Sommeliers who would come in and teach. I got certified Level 1 and Level 2 on back-to-back days. It was intense.”

But it was 2009, and the Great Recession was leaving its wake across the Boise restaurant scene, so she went home to Lewiston, returned to work for the Finches, and started tending bar at their lively Tomato Bros. restaurant. She quickly became bar manager and met her future husband in her bar. Joe has got her fishing every Sunday, and she occasionally drags him along on food and wine adventures.

“He’s a farm kid who drinks room-temperature Keystone Light, but my jaw dropped when we were at Maryhill Winery, he took a sniff of red wine and said he smelled fig,” she said. “He’s got an excellent palate and a great taste for fine wine.”

A stone’s throw from the railroad tracks, the Clearwater River and the urban segment of Highway 12, the layers of reddish-brown brick that provide a charming greeting at Mystic Café could tell some history, too.

Morgan Brothers Coffee Roasters began at 1303 Main St. in 1926, expanding a decade later. Today, ownership of the building remains in the Morgan family, and many of the features from nearly a century ago include the original hardwood floors and a coffee roaster dating to 1910. A cleverly modified steampunk piping fixture now is used for Wilson’s beer tap system.

There’s far more to Happy Day than Mystic, and the beginning was humble. Bruce Finch started off as a teacher in Oregon but quickly became disillusioned. He soon found an opportunity to open a Taco Time restaurant in Lewiston and never looked back. The Finches have grown Happy Day Corp., to 13 restaurants, five of which are independents. Last year, the company was inducted into the Idaho Hall of Fame, and it employs more than 400.

In 2012, Happy Day restaurants began to honor veterans by offering them a free lunch on the second Tuesday of each month. They have served about 70,000 lunches to veterans since 2012, and the program now reaches more than 1,000 veterans each month.

And after a slow start, business is booming for Mystic Cafe, where locals now embrace Wilson’s rosemary French fries and her Wicked Grilled Cheese Sandwich with bacon and jalapeños.

The need to expand prompted the Finches to buy the adjacent brick building. Happy Day has begun to cater events at wineries, and Wilson looks forward to launching winemaker dinners in the new space and judging more regional wine competitions.

“Happy Day has been a great supporter of all of us,” said Jon Harding, assistant winemaker at Colter’s Creek Winery. “And Mystic has always been supportive Colter’s Creek and Lewis-Clark Valley wines.”

For this Match Maker project, Wilson and lead cook Scott Moore worked with the Colter’s Creek 2014 Arrow Rim GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mouvedre blend) and Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2016 Lochsa Chardonnay. The Umikers’ Chardonnay is made only with grapes from the Lewis-Clark Valley, and it’s on tap at Mystic. The crisp and lemony approach with the Chardonnay complemented the halibut, cut through the Lemon Buerre Blanc sauce and even worked with the wine-finicky asparagus.

“I drink the Lochsa a lot, and this one is different because Coco did a lot more Chardonnay than usual,” Wilson said. “This is more of a people-friendly wine, and the crusted halibut seemed like a great fit.”

Colter’s Creek has earned its placement on Wilson’s list with its acclaimed work in blending Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre.

“I know the GSM is more of a gamier blend, so I went with the rack of lamb to go with that,” Wilson said.

Aromas of blackberry, black currant and plum include some gaminess and spice from the French oak. Those carry through to the smooth tannins and vibrant pomegranate acidity on palate, which shows off a dash of black pepper.

Harding said, “At Mystic, hands-down I’d have the Lamb Burger with the Arrow Rim.”

One is casual while the other is more classic, but with Wilson’s classic training and hometown sensibilities, you can’t go wrong.

Mystic Café, 1303 Main St, Lewiston, ID 83501, themysticcafe.com, (208) 743-1811.

Wine:

Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2016 Lochsa Chardonnay, Lewis-Clark Valley - $15
310 cases, 12.5% alcohol

Myriad factors led Karl and Coco Umiker to last year move their winery from the Port of Lewiston near the Clearwater River up to their certified Idaho Century Farm in the Lewiston Orchards.

And while it’s no easy task to improve on her award-winning work with Carménère, Merlot, Petite Sirah and decorated Selway Red Blend, Coco is especially excited about the results she’s achieving with white wines made in her new vinifcation facility.

The 2016 Lochsa Chardonnay reflects that renewed passion, and it’s because she now can make that wine closer to the style that she and her viticulturist husband long have wanted.

“We didn’t have a temperature control system before, so I had to make the wine in a barrel-fermented style and in smaller lots to keep the fermentation temperatures down,” she said. “In my heart, I was always wanting to make this bright, aromatic stainless-steel Chardonnay, but I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the system in place to do it. It was frustrating, and it’s our third-highest production wine.”

Their new winery features a glycol system that ensures the temperature of fermenting white wines is dialed in, allowing Coco to develop her precise and aromatic blend of Chardonnay (77%) with Riesling (9%), Viognier (7%), Pinot Gris (3%) Gewürztraminer (3%) and three varieties of charming Muscat. It’s a significantly better wine than the first barrel-aged white she made in 2006. A decade later, she’s safeguarding her Lochsa in jacketed tanks for five months before bottling.

“Every year, It has had at least some oak,” she said. “Last year, it was entirely stainless-steel fermented.”

That control also allowed her to bring in the fruit exactly when she wanted, starting Aug. 29 and ending Sept. 9 at an average of 21 Brix.

“I love the bright fruit aromatics in the wine, and harvesting earlier made it zippy and bright and lower in sugar,” she said. “There’s still some weight to it, but there’s that fruit dancing around.”

And now it allows the Umikers to make a clear distinction between the Lochsa and the Coco’s Reserve Estate Chardonnay, a club wine with a significant amount of new oak and rich mouth feel to match.

“It’s been the best-received Lochsa we’ve ever done,” she said.

The story of where the fruit comes from also is easier to tell, which makes the Lochsa a brisk seller. Prior to May 20, 2016, the federal government required the Umikers to list the American Viticultural Area on the Lochsa label as “Idaho/Washington.” Now, Clearwater Canyon can use “Lewis-Clark Valley” on the label because Umiker Vineyard in Lewiston and Arnett Vineyard in Clarkston are both within the AVA they helped establish.

“Oh my god, what a mess on the label that was,” she said. “I wasted so much breath and energy explaining to people that the Lochsa was really a Lewis-Clark Valley wine.”

Clearwater Canyon Cellars, 3143 10th St., Lewiston, ID 83501, clearwatercanyoncellars.com, (208) 816-4679.

Recipe:

Parmesan Crusted Halibut with Parmesan Risotto, Asparagus and Lemon Beurre Blanc

Serves 2

Ingredients

12 ounces of halibut
6 ounces Parmesan risotto
8 spears of sauteed asparagus

Parmesan Risotto

Ingredients

1 cup Arborio rice (or short-grained white rice)
2 cup chicken stock (heated)
1/2 medium white onion, diced
1/4 pound butter
2/3 cup dry white wine
1 ounce shredded Parmesan
1/2 bunch fresh parsley
2 ounces heavy cream

Directions

1. Saute onion in butter. Add dry rice and stir to coat

2. Briefly cook, but do not brown.

3. Add wine and stir until fully absorbed.

4. Ladle some hot chicken stock into the rice, stirring until fully absorbed.

5. When appearance is nearly dry, add more stock. Continue stirring and add until stock is gone, about 20-30 minutes.

6. Finish by adding Parmesan, parsley and heavy cream.

Lemon Beurre Blanc

Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter
2 medium shallots, minced
2 lemons, juiced and zested
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter, save for later

Directions

1. Saute shallots, lemon juice, zest and black pepper into the butter until caramelized.

2. Add white wine and vinegar on medium, and heat until reduced by half.

3. Add cream, reduce by half.

4. Stir in the remaining butter just before serving.

Parmesan Crusted Halibut

Ingredients

Two six-ounce boneless, skinless halibut
1 cup seasoned flour (salt and pepper)
2 eggs, whipped
1 cup panko
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan
1/4 cup clarified butter or canola oil

Directions

1. Add Parmesan to panko. Blend in a food processor to create a fine crust.

2. Bread the halibut by dusting in the flour, then dip in the egg wash, then coat in the Parmesan/panko mix.

3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

4. Heat a saute pan to medium high. Add clarified butter.

5. Pan-sear both sides of the halibut until golden brown.

6. Place onto a baking sheet and into the oven to finish cooking, approximately 5 minutes.

Plating

1. Create a six-ounce bed of Parmesan risotto.

2. Position a six-ounce halibut on the risotto.

3. Position six to eight spears of sautéed asparagus, tossed with oil, salt and pepper

4. Drizzle the Lemon Beurre Blanc around the edge of the each plate.

Wine:

Colter’s Creek Winery 2014 Arrow Rim GSM Red Wine, Idaho - $30
274 cases, 14.6% alcohol

The red wine grapes native to France’s Rhône Valley rank among the hottest categories on the West Coast and beyond, yet their potential in Idaho is particularly fascinating. They can shine in the high-elevation vineyards of southern Idaho, but they thrive nearer to the Panhandle in the historic Lewis-Clark Valley.

Work with Grenache, Syrah and Mourvédre has helped make stars of the wife-husband team of Melissa Sanborn and Mike Pearson at Colter’s Creek Winery. And they’ve sparked life in the tiny town of Juliaetta, population 579.

“People thought we were crazy, and a lot of time we thought we were crazy,” Pearson said. “How are we going to survive in a little tasting room in this tiny town where, frankly, most people drink Bud Light?”

It began in 2007 when Sanborn, a chemist out of Washington State University who studied winemaking, and Pearson, an engineer from the University of Idaho, spotted a derelict vineyard overlooking the Potlatch River. They bought the property downstream from Juliaetta and named their winery as a tribute to John Colter, a member of Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery.

Their GSM blend takes its name from Arrow Rim Road, the narrow, treacherous and private gravel road that tops out at around 1,200 feet elevation and leads to their riverside production facility.

The Arrow Rim Red carries a pedigree, too. Sanborn’s work with her 2013 GSM earned her Best Idaho Wine at the 2015 Cascadia International Wine Competition. The 2014 vintage is blend of estate Grenache (30%) and estate Mourvédre (30%), with Syrah from Snake River Valley sites Sawtooth, Skyline and Williamson.

Soon, Arrow Rim GSM can become an estate wine and read “Lewis-Clark Valley” on the label as Pearson’s Syrah comes online. He planted Grenache in 2009 and Mourvédre two years later. In 2015, he created along the Clearwater River his Arrow Junction Vineyard, a five-acre parcel devoted to Syrah.

“It’s hotter than we ever thought,” he said, pointing to the 3,400 growing degree days for the 2015 vintage, which essentially matches those of the Walla Walla Valley.

His plantings appear almost bullet-proof, unlike their traditional sources for Syrah. Those sites suffered enough winter kill in January that a number of Southern Idaho winemakers have turned to Washington growers for fruit in 2017.

Meanwhile, Colter’s Creek is researching Negroamaro, a Southern Italian red variety.

As for the Arrow Rim GSM, suggested pairings include wild game on the mild side, tomato-based pasta dishes and mushroom risotto. Pearson would know. In 2012, he transformed the century-old former pharmacy building in Juliaette into a modern tasting room with a vibrant restaurant. He’s the executive chef, and his cuisine lures folks down from Moscow, where Colter’s Creek plans to open a satellite tasting room by Thanksgiving.

Colter’s Creek Winery tasting room, 308 Main St., Juliaetta, ID 83535, colterscreek.com, (208) 276-3342.

Recipe:

Rack of Lamb with Brussels Sprouts and Roasted Herb Potatoes

Serves 2

Ingredients

1 rack of lamb, cut in half or individual pieces if preferred
1 pound of potatoes
1 tablespoon thyme
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 ounces Brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved
2 tablespoons sun-dried tomatoes

Marinade

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 lemons, zested and juiced
6 tablespoons diced garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons dried tarragon
1 tablespoon smoked sea salt
1 tablespoon black pepper

Directions for potatoes

1. Slice potatoes into fingerling size

2. Combine the thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper to taste

3. Rub 1/2 cup of EVOO over the potatoes and then mix in the dry ingredients.

4. Roast for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown.

Directions for Brussels sprouts

1. Sauté the Brussels sprouts in brown butter.

2. Season with salt and pepper and sun-dried tomatoes.

Directions for lamb

1. Combine the marinade ingredients, rub over the lamb and place in a bag to marinate overnight

2. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

3. Pat lamb dry and put into oven on sheet pan.

4. Cook for 15-17 minutes or until the internal temperature reaches 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

5. Let rest for 5-10 minutes for medium rare before slicing and serving.

Eric Degerman is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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