Spring 2018

2018 Idaho Winery of the Year: Fujishin Family Cellars

A year ago, Fujishin Family Cellars was basking in the warm glow that came with being one of the U.S. wine industry’s top 10 Hot Brands.

“It was beneficial to us and got our name out to a lot more people on a national level,” said winemaker/co-owner Martin Fujishin. “It really does open doors for you as a winery.”

And 2018 will see Fujishin Family Cellars remain in the headlines as Wine Press Northwest magazine’s Idaho Winery of the Year.

Fujishin continues to be a key player and innovator not only in the Sunnyslope Wine District but also the Idaho wine industry, and that influence goes beyond the acclaim his brand earned from Wine Business Monthly magazine for its Amatino, the proprietary name for its Rhône-inspired blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah and Viognier.

He and his wife, Teresa, were featured as part of WBM’s Bottle Bash at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium, the gargantuan trade show in Sacramento, Calif.

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“It was really interesting to be pouring for folks from all over the industry — media, winemakers, finance,” he said. “They were asking great questions about what’s going on in our industry. People would come up and say, ‘We keep hearing about Idaho’.”

Few know the Idaho wine industry as a winemaker as well as Fujishin, 38, who was raised on his family’s 250-acre farm in Adrian, Ore., a tiny town in the Snake River Valley. And it seems as though some of the most important parts of his life were just meant to be, including attending the College of Idaho, where his father, Barry, is the major gifts officer. In fact, Martin’s parents met at the Caldwell school.

Soon after graduating, Fujishin took a job working in the tasting room at Koenig Vineyards. In many ways, that part-time job in 2003 for Greg Koenig marked a watershed in Fujishin’s life.

“I’m his regular wife, and Greg is his winery wife,” Teresa said with a chuckle.

The approachable and well-spoken Fujishin was a natural and grew into the role of tasting room manager at Koenig Vineyards. He stepped away for a year to serve as a counselor at Idaho Youth Ranch and work as a barista while overseeing the sale of the family farm.

“Neither were that great of a fit, and around that time I met Teresa. That’s when pieces fell into place,” he said. “I really missed the wine industry, and I missed the people.”

Kismet proved to be a remarkable headhunter, finding him two jobs — vineyard manager for Ron Bitner and cellarmaster for Koenig Vineyards.

“This will be my 15th year of working with Greg, and he’s shaped my entire career path,” Fujishin said. “My working with Greg has given us credibility in the eyes of some people who might not have taken our program seriously, and if I did not work with Greg, we would have struggled a lot.

“I’ve had awesome mentors between him and Ron, and they are in many ways the root of our success,” Martin added.

Together, Koenig and Fujishin work on 20,000 cases of wine per year, operating the largest custom-crush facility in the state.

“Gosh, I guess that’s about 10 percent of the entire industry,” Fujishin said. “Wine from seven of the 52 wineries in the state comes through Greg’s winery.”

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Fujishin working in that cellar, and Martin makes 15 wines for Teresa to sell at their fun Highway 55 tasting room in the historic The Old Shed, an erstwhile packing shed for the Robison Fruit Ranch.

Under their Fujishin Family Cellars brand, they offer standalone bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Viognier. There’s also Lost West, which was only the state’s second sister label at the time it launched.

Weather-permitting, production of FFC’s popular Amatino blend will be going up to 600 cases, a delicious slice of the projected 4,600 cases they hope to produce from the upcoming 2018 vintage.

“We need to try to make up a little bit of ground,” he said.

The biggest obstacles facing Idaho wineries are available vineyards and productive vintages. In 2016, the Fujishins produced 3,000 cases and were poised for growth, but the killing winter freeze of January and a freak hailstorm in May have left them with just 1,200 cases of wine to sell from the 2017 vintage. It was particularly disheartening to see what happened at Emerald Slope Vineyard near Adrian, a key spot for his Tempranillo and Petite Sirah projects.

“I went by that vineyard site every day on the school bus, so for me to get grapes from it is pretty exciting, but that hailstorm was utterly devastating,” Fujishin said.

Selling wine does not seem to have been an obstacle for the Fujishins, and their offer of seated tastings is an effective approach that resonates with new customers and those on escorted wine tours.

“This is anecdotal, but I would say our sales are 35 percent higher with a seating tasting,” he said.

Another innovation at Fujishin Family Cellars is their Flagon program of refillable growlers, which makes up about 10 percent of sales.

Indeed, they’ve come quite a way from their 75-case release of 2007 Merlot. And they recently purchased 13 acres and a home not far from the Sunnyslope.

“Basically, it’s just been us,” Fujishin said. “We went to the bank when we first started with a business credit card with a credit line of $3,000. That was our launching capital, and we’ve never even taken out a bank loan.

“We probably could have grown it bigger and faster, but I like the growth curve we’re on,” he said.

And one of the little-known details about Fujishin is that he’s an ordained minister.

“So far I’ve only officiated one wedding, so if you know anyone who wants to get married by a winemaker ,” he said with a chuckle.

This story was originally published March 19, 2018 12:00 AM.

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