Spring 2020

Idaho wine country is a true gem

Idaho: A wide-open place with lots of potential for great wines. Wines that are based on acidity rather than tannins, that are graceful and ageable, and that inspire conversation at parties.

I lived in Idaho for a year after college, working as an editor at the newspaper in Twin Falls (30 minutes from fabulous Jackpot, Nev. — home to Cactus Pete’s Casino, open all night).

But my first experience with wine was in Idaho, when I was assigned to bring a bottle to Thanksgiving dinner with friends in Boise. I was living in Kennewick by then, and asked Tri-City Herald wine writer Bob Woehler for a recommendation. He promptly suggested a Merlot from a Yakima Valley winery — I didn’t even know if that was a red or white wine. The couple hosting dinner were California wine snobs, so the pressure was on. The wine was delicious, both bottles were consumed, and a great time was had by all. And my future as a wine writer was inadvertently set.

When we started Wine Press Northwest in 1998, we included Idaho because it was part of the Pacific Northwest. And it was easy to include, with about a dozen wineries in Idaho at the time. Now, Idaho’s 60 wineries are a force worth considering by all wine lovers and collectors.

Fast forward to 2001, when the crew of the young Wine Press Northwest magazine drove five hours southeast to Caldwell and conducted what proved to be the precursor to the Idaho Wine Competition, a judging we repeat each year in a collaborative effort with the Idaho Wine Commission.

We’ve noticed that Idaho wines keep improving, reflecting the growing skill of winemakers, improvements in fruit quality and overall maturation of the wine industry. With its pioneering spirit, commitment to quality and good ol’ grit, Idaho is on its way to becoming the nation’s next hot wine region.

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Vineyards with elevations of up to 3,000 feet and an extended growing season are keys to Idaho’s future — similar to Argentina's Uco Valley, home to some of the world's best Malbecs. Two of my favorite grape varieties are Riesling and Malbec, both of which are perfectly suited for southern Idaho’s hilly terrain. Rhône varieties such as Syrah, Viognier, Petite Sirah and Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre blends also are wines to watch, as well as Petit Verdot and Tempranillo.

I took a walk down memory lane and reviewed the fall 2001 edition of Wine Press Northwest, where the cover story was on Idaho. Besides being shocked at the photo on my column (my younger self had brown hair!), I was surprised to see 16 wineries listed.

While the number of wineries has grown, now grouped in four distinct regions, the confidence and fierce independence remain. The micro-climates also persist and keep things interesting. Some vineyards experience hard winters and often produce ice wine, while others are protected from cold. The silt loam and volcanic soils are fertile, but the climate is dry, so irrigation is needed for controlled watering of the vines. Warm summer days at this latitude provide more hours of sunshine than California, and the temperature swing on cool summer nights allows the sugars and acidity to settle.

All of this combines to give Idaho wine a natural advantage. The vineyards produce grapes with higher acidity, which means the wines will go better with food and will age into even more interesting flavors. To me, this indicates Idaho has a special quality simply built into the region. Plus the Snake River Valley's background in agriculture (think "famous potatoes'') gives growers a head start in producing the right raw materials.

One of the nation’s largest wine companies, Seattle-based Precept Wine, owns a pair of labels and vineyards, including Skyline, the state’s largest vineyard at 400 acres of the total 1,300 acres planted in Idaho.

We hope to see more investments in this emerging region as its fame rises. The industry contributes about $210 million annually to the Idaho economy, according to a recent report prepared for the Idaho Wine Commission. Wine tourism is picking up, too, with well-established restaurants in Boise and Sandpoint attracting wine patrons.

While my travel has been limited since surviving a big stroke in fall 2016, I have fond memories of a 2015 visit to Clearwater Canyon Cellars in historic Lewiston, where the perpetually energetic winemaker Coco Umiker and her viticulturist husband Karl Umiker are true examples of the Gem State’s pioneering spirit. I am especially enthralled with Clearwater Canyon’s Malbec, and as proven by the growing collection of medals, Coco is adept at making some of the Northwest’s best reds.

This issue marks the first time that we’ve featured an Idaho winery as our Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year, which says a lot about Clearwater Canyon Cellars and the Umikers’ evolution, and even more about the Idaho wine industry’s maturation.

But the rewards for hard work don’t stop there. Colter’s Creek Vineyards & Winery in the Lewis-Clark Valley is the Idaho Winery of the Year. Colter’s Creek winemaker Melissa Sanborn and her husband, Mike Pearson, make a GSM that repeatedly hits the bullseye.

Kerry Hill Winery is the Idaho Winery To Watch. I am as inspired by the resilience of owner Mindy Mayer as I am intrigued by the results of her winemaker, Tim Harless of nearby Hat Ranch Winery.

And my wife made sure that I point out, two female winemakers and one female winery owner earned top honors from Wine Press Northwest. Here’s to the frontier spirit!

I expect Idaho wines to continue their rise to national prominence, something that is starting to happen with astute West Coast wine lovers. The current price of Idaho wine does not reflect their quality. Put me on the bandwagon to Idaho.

ANDY PERDUE is Wine Press Northwest's founding editor and is co-founder of Great Northwest Wine.

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