While it's true and a cliche that the Gem State is known for potatoes, Idaho's history of gold-medal wine stretches longer than anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest.
Accounts in the Idaho Statesman newspaper indicate grape vines were first planted in Lewiston during the Civil War. Two decades later, French immigrant Robert Schleicher began a 130-acre vineyard with Bordeaux varieties overlooking the Clearwater River.
Author/historian Ron Irvine notes in his book The Wine Project that such an operation could produce 40,000 cases per year -- more than most modern-day wineries. Schleicher bottled many Idaho wines that garnered acclaim and won gold medals at several international expositions in the early 1900s.
Between Schleicher and Jacob Schaefer, a German immigrant in nearby Clarkston, Wash., more than 40 grape varieties reportedly were grown near the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake rivers.
Alas, the darkness of Prohibition from 1919 to 1933 wiped out Idaho's wine industry from all but the history books. Vines for wines would not be planted again until 1970.
For decades, politicians and religious groups continued to stunt growth. Despite that, wine production continued in the Snake River Valley, and it was established as an American Viticultural Area by the federal government in 2007.
Soon after, a report by Boise State University showed the wine industry had a $73 million impact on the state's economy. In 2009, the state-funded Idaho Wine Commission hired a full-time executive director and Gov. Butch Otter declared June as Idaho Wine Month.
The Snake River Valley averages about 12 inches of precipitation, similar to Eastern Washington, and there are advantages to growing grapes at 3,000 feet elevation. Pests such as phylloxera don't thrive in the volcanic soils or cold temperatures and the wines -- particularly white varieties -- retain prized acidity.
Idaho wineries that rely on state-grown fruit still face obstacles. For example, California wines dominate Sun Valley restaurants and stores.
Thankfully, restaurateurs and chefs in Boise and throughout the state have begun to promote Idaho wines and embrace life in wine country.
At this point, grape production may be the biggest roadblock to Idaho's continued growth. In 2001, there were 1,200 acres and more 50 varieties planted. A decade later, there are still fewer than 2,000 acres devoted to wine grapes.
And while Riesling has been the best-known variety grown in Idaho, the Snake River Valley's long-term success -- both in terms of viticulture and economics -- seems to hang with Rhone varieties, particularly Syrah and Viognier.
A number of wineries, including Camas Prairie, do delicious bottlings that feature the official state fruit -- huckleberry. Syringa Winery is named for the state flower. 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards spotlights the appaloosa -- the state horse -- on its labels. And Indian Creek Winery bottles a blend called Star Garnet, a tribute to the state gem.
We've divided Idaho into five regions: the Panhandle, the Palouse, the Snake River Valley, the Boise area and the south. A growing number of the wineries charge tasting fees for a variety of reasons, but there remain a few holdouts.
Pend d'Oreille Winery in the Idaho Panhandle town of Sandpoint remains Idaho's northernmost wine destination, and Stephen Meyer has been excelling and expanding since he created it in 1995. However, Meyer and the other North Idaho wineries rely on Washington's Columbia Valley as their primary source of grapes. Logistics are a primary reason.
Coeur d'Alene Cellars, our 2010 Idaho Winery of the Year, pours remarkable Syrah and Viognier at two locations in the Lake City, including its wine bar that's virtually in the shadow of the world-famous resort.
TimberRock Winery is nearly in Washington and overlooks the border town of Post Falls. Kevin Rogers positioned his winery among pine trees and maintains his veterinary practice, so he is open by appointment only.
Pend d'Oreille Winery's well-appointed tasting room also serves small plates and stages winemaker dinners, while The Bistro at the Inn at Sand Creek offers a remarkable combination of cuisine and lodging in the art-influenced community of Sandpoint.
In Coeur d'Alene, Beverly's on the seventh floor of the Resort blends fine dining and its award-winning wine list with remarkable views of the lake. For Italian, seek out Angelo's. The Wine Cellar continues its legacy of pairing Northwest wines with food and live music. Scratch also highlights regional wines and winemaker dinners. Bistro on Spruce carries Idaho wines and also does breakfast on weekends. Syringa remains the talk of the Inland Empire for its sushi. French-themed Fleur de Sel in Post Falls is only open for dinner. The cash-only Hudson's Hamburger is a regionally famous -- albeit no-frills -- lunch stop, and Michael D's Eatery receives kudos for breakfast.
Of course, there's The Resort at Coeur d'Alene and several motel chains. Some of the more intimate options include the 15-room Roosevelt Inn B&B, a historic, 4-story former schoolhouse operated by an ex-student. Katie's Wild Rose Inn B&B overlooks the lake and is adjacent to the North Idaho Centennial Trail. Options in Post Falls, less than 20 minutes from Spokane, include the mountain-lodge feel of Ida-Home B&B.
Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint feature monthly art walks that go through both wineries, and the wineries regularly book live music. Between the cities is Silverwood, the Northwest's largest theme park. There are a number of championship golf courses, and the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre is critically acclaimed. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe operates a resort/casino/golf course in nearby Worley.
And recreation options can easily be found in and around two of the nation's most highly regarded lakes, including the Trail of the Coeur d'Alenes and the North Idaho Centennial Trail, which connects Coeur d'Alene and Spokane.
As one would expect from one of the nation's top four-season playgrounds, the Coeur d'Alene Visitors Bureau site is quite encompassing at coeurd alene.org. The Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce is at sandpointchamber.org.
The Palouse (Idaho/Washington)
Stuart Scott pioneered modern winemaking in the Palouse, having founded eclectic and acclaimed Camas Prairie Winery in downtown Moscow on Main Street in 1983. He also developed the wine bar and beer shop, but Scott now is in a consulting role after selling to Jeremy Ritter.
Boundaries shouldn't exist in wine country, so trips across the border from Moscow to Pullman and across the Snake River from Lewiston to Clarkston will be rewarded.
A drive of 30 miles south on Highway 95 -- which comes with a drop of 1,800 feet in elevation -- takes you to Lewiston. At 750 feet above sea level, it's viewed as "the banana belt" of Idaho because its average low temperature in January is 27.6. And there are two young wineries working with estate fruit for much of their portfolio. Coco Umiker and Clearwater Canyon Cellars in downtown Lewiston are committed to producing wines from this historic region and source grapes from nearby vines.
Colter's Creek Winery is in nearby Juliaetta, 15 minutes northwest of Lewiston, just off Highway 12 along the banks of the Potlach River. The original 13 acres were planted in the 1970s then neglected until very recently, and at 850 feet it represents the lowest elevation site in Idaho's wine industry. A University of Idaho grad grows the grapes, while a Washington State University alum crafts the wine. While beautiful, it is somewhat remote, so call ahead.
In Pullman, Merry Cellars left the Old Post Office in 2010 for a facility north of town near Highway 27. Few wineries in the Northwest offer more convenient road access than Wawawai (WAH-wah-wee) Canyon Winery, which is alongside the Pullman-Moscow Highway.
On some historic maps, the town Clarkston is listed as "Vineland" and Basalt Cellars was the first winery to bring wine production back to this region in 2004. Rick Wasem planted his vineyard in 1997, but most of his bottlings are with Columbia Valley grapes.
The Woodlands, which opened Nectar five years ago in Moscow, is opening a second restaurant, Bloom, that will focus on breakfast and lunch seven days a week. Nikki Woodland's Mac and Cheese, which incorporates Cougar Gold, is remarkable. Just down the block from Camas Prairie is Gnosh, formerly the Red Door but still known for local ingredients and late-night dining.
In Pullman, Swilly's is a longtime favorite of Coug moms and dads. Greek-themed Black Cypress, run by a former Nectar chef, also features regional wines. Paradise Creek Brewery moved into the Old Post Office as one of the state's youngest brewpubs, yet it stages winemaker dinners.
Lewiston celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2011, and winemakers sing the praises of Macullen's. The Sage Bakery is lauded for its fresh-baked items, lunches and coffee.
In Clarkston, choices include Bogey's at the Quality Inn and white linen at Sycamore Street Grill. The casual Tomato Bros. boasts of the largest wine list in the valley. Across from the hospital, a variety of desires can be satisfied at Rouge Wine Bar above StoneHouse Coffee Co.
Football season makes it difficult to find a bed even in a chain motel near WSU or the University of Idaho. Call ahead to see about the Hazelton House B&B in Pullman or rustic glamping at Mary Janes Farm B&B in Moscow, which is open May 1 to Sept. 30. In Lewiston, the Italianna Inn & Gaslight Village is styled after Tuscany, but chain motels dominate the Lewis Clark Valley.
Any college campus offers exhibits, museums and prime people-watching, but few provide an experience as delectable as Ferdinand's Ice Cream Shop at the WSU Creamery. The school's new championship golf course, Palouse Ridge, continues to receive national acclaim. In the Clarkston-Lewiston area, there are jet boat tours of Hells Canyon and Hells Gate State Park.
Lewis Clark Valley's Chamber of Commerce site is lcvalleychamber.org. The Hells Canyon Visitor Bureau is hellscanyonvisitor.com.
Snake River Valley
A dozen wineries -- the highest concentration of wineries in the state -- are from Caldwell to Marsing as more farmers transition from orchards to vineyards.
Consider starting this day by heading west on Interstate 84 and going north on Highway 95 to the town of Weiser (pronounced WEE-zer) for an appointment at St. Regulus Wines. Cross the interstate and continue south on Highway 95 to Parma and taste at Parma Ridge Vineyards.
Head east, return to I-84 and take Exit 28 into downtown Caldwell. Begin by swinging on Chicago Street and into Vale Wine Co. (which has vineyards in the Oregon portion of the AVA) and the nearby Coyotes Fine Wines on the Creek wine bar. Work south along 10th Ave., then head west on Highway 55, also known at Karcher Road, to the Sunnyslope area.
Just past storied Chicken Dinner Road, you will see signs for new Huston Vineyard and Bitner Vineyard. Veer south on Sunnyslope Road and more wineries come into view: Fujishin Family Cellars, Williamson Vineyards, Koenig Vineyards and the state's most recognizable winery -- Ste. Chapelle. It is the oldest -- founded in 1976 -- and as the largest at more than 150,000 cases, its reach also has put Idaho wines in front of consumers like no other in the state.
Just south are two of the region's most established plantings and wineries -- Snake River Winery and Hells Canyon, which also features the Zhoo Zhoo label. Across the Snake River in Marsing is where winemaker Gina Davis and her parents pour the wines of Davis Creek Winery. Farther south in Givens Hot Springs is Miceli Vineyards and Winery (by appointment). Beyond Hells Canyon and south of Nampa just off Missouri Avenue is Sawtooth Winery. It was founded by Brad Pintler and is surrounded by the state's largest and most diverse vineyards. Continue west toward Kuna to visit Indian Creek, where Bill Stowe has turned one the Northwest's most bucolic and friendliest operations over to his daughter and winemaker son-in-law.
The Orchard House is ideally situated on Sunnyslope Road for tourists and winemakers alike, offering casual breakfast, lunch and dinner. In nearby Marsing, the Sand Bar Restaurant serves frog legs and pours Idaho wines at near retail prices. In Nampa, chef/owner Dustan Bristol turned Brick 29 Bistro into a winemaker hangout and draws diners from throughout the Treasure Valley. The nearby Flying M Coffee Garage is a great way to end or begin your day of touring with its live music and bakery.
Bitner Vineyard offers a true wine country B&B experience as you wake up to the morning sun and are surrounded by grape vines and views of the Snake River Valley. Wild Rose Manor, close to downtown Caldwell and I-84, features a long list of creature comforts. There is also an array of motel chains to choose from.
Those traveling with children may consider leaving them at Roaring Springs Water Park one day and Wahooz Family Fun Zone the next. They are next door to each other in Meridian, just off I-84, between Boise and Nampa. Eagle Island State Park west of Boise features a waterslide, a beach, walking trails and a disc golf course.
Start north of the town of Eagle on Highway 16 and experience the state's largest organic vineyard at 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards, Wine Press Northwest's 2011 Idaho Winery to Watch. Head south to Woodriver Cellars (formerly the Winery at Eagle Knoll) and continue migrating to Meridian and the budding Terra Nativa Vineyards just off Highway 20.
Pick up Highway 20 again and head to Boise suburb of Garden City where two female winemakers share facilities - Melanie Krause of Cinder and Angie Riff of Periple (by appointment). Syringa Winery, named for the state flower, also is nearby in. Continue into downtown Boise to find Snake River Winery's tasting room near the state Capitol. Fraser Vineyard -- our 2011 Idaho Winery of the Year -- is just a few hundred yards from Boise State's football stadium.
Sadly, the Great Recession shuttered a number of restaurants that supported the Idaho wine industry. A few remain, and restaurateur Dave Krick operates two of them. One is the hip Red Feather Lounge with its signature two-story, clear-glass wine display that incorporates stairs leading to a swanky dining area that requires reservation. Next door is Krick's Bittercreek Ale House, which also promotes regional wines. Among the well-established fine dining spots are Berryhill & Co., and Cottonwood Grille. Twig's Cellar is a cozy 10-table night spot with small plates, a few winemaker dinners, live music and a wine club. A pair of brothers operate two places separately -- Flatbread and Fork. One of the top breakfast spots in the Northwest is Goldy's, just a few hundred yards from the Capitol.
Hotel 43 in downtown Boise is upscale and within walking distance of the state Capitol, Qwest Arena and Bronco Stadium. It's also less than a minute from I-184, making it a great base for wine touring. Around the corner is the luxury Grove Hotel, which is connected to Qwest Arena. The 100-suite Owyhee Plaza Hotel, first built in 1910, was recently renovated.
For a more personal touch, The Idaho Heritge Inn B&B is on the National Registry of Historic Places and serves Idaho wine in front of a roaring fireplace. It was built in 1904, owned by Gov. Chase Clark and later was home to Sen. Frank Church. The Modern Hotel is a favorite of industry folks.
Rent a bike or walk along the Boise River Greenbelt, which takes you near the Boise Art Museum. The Boise Co-op, established in 1973, operates a well-regarded wine shop and frequently feeds a blog of recently tasted Idaho wines. The Capital City Public Market rivals any Saturday farmers market in the Northwest and nearly a dozen area wineries pour regularly. Each month, there's First Thursday, an evening of shopping and live entertainment, much of it centered on the plaza area that locals call simply "The Grove."
Within a short walk of the Capitol building is the Basque Block, a kaleidoscopic view into one of the nation's largest Basque communities. One of biggest characters in the industry is Pug Ostling, director of "whine removal" as owner of The Grape Escape Wine Bar, created in 1994.
Continue south of Boise on Interstate 84 and you face a decision upon reaching Mountain Home.
Head east on Highway 20 -- the Sun Valley Highway -- to reach Frenchman's Gulch Winery in Ketchum or continue southeast on I-84 for a handful of opportunities.
Cold Springs Winery is in Hammett. Winemaker Jamie Martin and his family planted grapes in this region back in 1980. Carmela Vineyards, just east in Glenns Ferry, is one of the state's oldest wineries. It's also unique in that guests may dine, play golf on their nine-hole course, rent a cabin or bring their RV. Just south on Highway 30, in Hagerman is Thousand Springs Winery. Continue south to tour the organic Holesinsky Winery and Snyder Winery in Buhl. Keep driving to Twin Falls for Hegy's South Hills Winery, which is open by appointment. At this point, you can nearly see Nevada.
River Roads B&B in Glenns Ferry offers two options -- the River Side Room or the Barn Room. The Fillmore Inn B&B in downtown Twin Falls was built during the Depression and has three suites to choose from. There's also the new Hilton Gardens Inn.
Chef Kirt Martin, who hosted Cooking on the Wild Side on The Outdoor Channel for three seasons, owns the Snake River Grill in Hagerman. And in Twin Falls, Snake River Valley winemakers recommend Canyon Crest, Elevation 486, the Italian-themed Cucina Gemelli and Rock Creek.
Anyone within a two-hour drive of Twin Falls should take the time to see Shoshone Falls, the most spectacular of the three Snake River waterfalls upstream from Twin Falls. And nearby Perrine Bridge is home to an annual BASE-jumping festival. It is only bridge in the United States where the daredevil activity is legal. And nearby is the site of Evel Knievel's failed attempt to "jump" the canyon in a rocket-powered motorcycle. Buhl, a stop on the old Oregon Trail, touts itself as "The Trout Capital of the World."
The Idaho Wine Commission's revamped website serves as a model for others to follow. It provides extensive information about wine touring, accommodations, dining and activities for the area. For information, go to idahowines.org.
The Idaho Department of Commerce also maintains a site that is quite valuable for touring at visitidaho.org.
A good start for lodging possibilities throughout the state is IdahoHotels.org.
This story was originally published June 15, 2011 12:00 AM.