In a sense, each bottle that winemakers produce represents a series of experiments. Their knowledge of chemistry is on trial. There’s an expression of artistry as well as an ability to take what the vine provides and the grower nurtures.
Coco Umiker, a microbiologist before she became a winemaker, has been tested throughout her life. It started in earnest at the tender age of 11 when her battle against ovarian cancer began after spending nine hours on a Boise operating table. And yet, it’s apparent she thrives on competition, now more than ever when it comes to Clearwater Canyon Cellars, the project she owns and operates in historic Lewiston, Idaho, with her viticulturist husband, Karl Umiker.
In the 20-year history of this magazine’s premier competition, no woman winemaker has won more Platinum awards from Wine Press Northwest. As a result, she’s been dubbed “Queen of the Platinum.”
Wines gain entry into the magazine’s year-end tasting by having won a gold medal at respected competitions anywhere around the world. The 2019 judging awarded five Platinums to Clearwater Canyon Cellars, bumping the career total won by the Umikers to 17. Their ongoing string of success in the face of long odds prompted Wine Press Northwest to name Clearwater Canyon Cellars the 2020 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.
“We’ve been looking at the list of winners over the years, so for us, this is huge!” Coco said. “We were such underdogs. We had no money. We lived in a trailer. We had $25 left in our checking account after we bought the barrels for that first vintage in 2004. We were in school. I had college debt, and here we were starting a winery in Lewiston, Idaho. We overcame humble beginnings and a lot of years of lean times.”
Moya Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission since 2008, applauded the news of the regional award, won for the first time by a Gem State producer.
“I am thrilled to hear Coco and Karl are the Northwest Winery of the Year,” Dolsby said. “They have been making amazing wine for years, and it is great to see them get recognized. Every time I visit them, you can see and feel their passion for the wine industry. We are lucky to have people like Coco and Karl in the Idaho wine industry.”
The Umikers helped spearhead the petition for the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area, so they are pleased whenever attention is shined on the region that was home to the Pacific Northwest’s largest commercial wine industry in the late 19th century. Clearwater Canyon’s flagship wine, called Renaissance Red, pays tribute to that revival. The 2016 vintage of that $23 bottle went Platinum.
“I think this is going to help not only Idaho, but also the Lewis-Clark Valley,” Karl said. “I hope people will take more notice of Idaho as a grape-growing area, and I can’t wait to see how it might affect the morale of the other wineries in our area.”
Southern Oregon producer Stephen Reustle knows first-hand about the pride the Umikers are feeling after having been the recipient of the 2017 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.
“I sincerely welcome them to our alumni,” Reustle said. “Karl and Coco have all the bases covered. Their consistency across so many varieties — vintage after vintage — proves they are the real deal, and they have helped put Idaho, and in particular the Lewis-Clark Valley, on the worldwide wine map.”
The Umikers are full-fledged nerds and proud of it, going so far as to create black Clearwater Canyon Cellars T-shirts that reference the periodic table and carry the phrase, “Where Science Meets Wine.”
Karl, who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Arkansas and a master’s in soil science from the University of Idaho, recently was named by the U of I to the dean’s advisory board for agriculture.
Coco’s résumé includes degrees in microbiology and molecular biology/biochemistry from Idaho. Her doctorate at Washington State University was in food science, with her dissertation on brettanomyces - the notorious yeast that can spoil wine. In 2018, Coco received the WSU Alumni Achievement Award. Past recipients include Rick Small of iconic Woodward Canyon Winery in Walla Walla and Ted Baseler, former CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
And yet, Karl and Coco didn’t meet over a glass of wine. Instead, their courtship began as members of the U of I cycling team. Their first romantic embrace came in downtown Walla Walla after a race, and they soon became inseparable outdoor enthusiasts with titles in Northwest triathlons.
When they could, the Umikers would make the 45-minute drive from Moscow to spend time with Coco’s grandfather, Ralph Nichols, a storied rancher in the Lewiston Orchards. Along the way, Karl and Coco came to know Bob Wing, a retired meteorologist in Lewiston who shared findings from his research vineyard with legendary WSU viticulturist Walter Clore. The Wine Project, a fascinating and historical look at the Washington wine industry authored by Puget Sound winemaker Ron Irvine with Clore, devotes a chapter to Wing.
“In 2002, there was a master gardener symposium on grape growing and winemaking. We went, and Bob was a speaker there,” Coco remembers. “That’s how we first fell in love with this. Karl and I were both at U of I, and we would occasionally bring Bob dinner. He would open bottles of wine, and we’d have these fantastic evenings talking with him. We actually made two vintages with him in his tiny little cellar.”
The next year, Coco, by now a senior in college, and Karl planted their first vines at the farm Coco spent her childhood summers on. In 2004, the Umikers teamed up with three couples to form Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston. They started with four barrels — 100 cases worth of wine — made the same year Coco was working in Walla Walla at Whitman Cellars and paying $100 a month to sleep on a stairwell in a shared home.
By 2007, the Umikers began working on the AVA petition, and Clearwater Canyon Cellars moved from a garage into a gritty industrial park near the Clearwater River. Production would hold steady at 500 cases for another five vintages.
The Umikers bought out their partners in 2010, but the next year was their most tumultuous. Wing and Grandpa Ralph would pass away, and Coco defended her dissertation proposal.
“Karl was still working full-time, and so was I. It was crazy,” she admits.
But by 2012, they felt just confident enough to quit those day jobs, Karl as a U of I researcher and Coco as an instructor at Lewis-Clark State College.
“I wouldn’t say that we had succeeded yet, but that was our first sign of potential success,” Coco said.
Perhaps it was ironic, but starting in 2013, Clearwater Canyon started its string of earning at least one Platinum every year. Six times they’ve received a Platinum for their work with Carménère, a rare red variety native to Bordeaux, which Coco has proven thrives at Phinny Hill Vineyard in Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills. It can be argued that Clearwater Canyon Cellars is the Northwest’s leading producer of the herbaceous yet suave red. Their production of it has now reached 600 cases.
“We first bought it in 2006 and had no idea what we were getting into,” Karl said. “Few knew anything about it, and some customers couldn’t pronounce it.”
Coco said, “They’d pronounce it ‘Cam-mer-MAY,’ but it was so expressive. There’s nothing subtle about it, and it was very scary to work with because it’s so different. By 2009, we had decided to make it each year. Now, it’s a pretty huge part of our production, and the success we’ve had with it in competitions has helped us break through the fog and allow people to take notice.”
In 2015, Wine Press Northwest chose Clearwater Canyon Cellars as its Idaho Winery of the Year, and the selection continued to earn more validation.
One of their proudest moments came with the 2013 Selway Red Wine. This reserve blend involving 30 months of barrel aging isn’t produced every year, but the 2013 Selway won a double gold and received 97 points at the 2016 San Francisco International Wine Competition. It was the Umikers’s first wine to carry “Lewis-Clark Valley’’ on the label.
“We sat there at our kitchen table and wondered what those judges thought when they rolled the bottle over and read ‘Lewis-Clark Valley,’ ” Coco said. “They probably said, ‘I wonder where the heck that is?’ ”
The 2013 Selway went on to receive a 2016 Platinum.
That same year, the 2014 Umiker Vineyard Estate Syrah also earned a Platinum. It was the first Platinum awarded to fruit from the vines on their family’s century farm, a certification they received from the state of Idaho in June 2016.
“When either the estate Merlot or estate Syrah shows well in a competition, we get to pat ourselves on the back twice,” Karl said. “Once as growers, and the other as winemakers.”
While they view Wing as their first mentor, there have been many others, including the late Stan Clarke, who took the Walla Walla Community College winemaking program to new heights and helped inspire Coco to pursue a doctorate at WSU in wine science.
“At the top of the list would have to be Dick Beightol,” Karl said of the Phinney Hill owner. “We first struck up a conversation with Dick at a bike race in 2003, and we’ve been buying grapes from the Beightols over the years. They’ve been a huge sounding board for us all this time.”
There’s also Dave Verhey, who has been selling Malbec from his Yakima Valley vineyard to Clearwater Canyon since 2005. Coco crafted the 2016 crop of Malbec into a 2019 Platinum. Verhey’s younger Roosevelt Ridge Vineyard at the eastern end of the Columbia Gorge has been a sweet source for Petite Sirah, a Platinum winner in 2018.
Back in the Lewis-Clark Valley, the Umikers pull from Arnett Vineyard in Clarkston, Wash., and Rock ’n J Vineyard, a site along Grande Ronde River that’s the easternmost vineyard in Washington, upstream from Asotin.
However, there are now 7 acres planted at Umiker Vineyard, which contribute up to 40 percent of the Clearwater Canyon Cellars production. There are 2 acres of Syrah, single acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay, and lesser amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Viognier and several varieties of perfumy Muscat. Twice in a three-year stretch Coco has won a Platinum for Cabernet Sauvignon from the L-C Valley.
“The farm is 60 acres, but we’re not looking to expand,” Coco said.
When watching them work, it’s easy to see why Karl and Coco have been so successful, both in the production of wine and in selling it. Their tasting room is open only on Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 5 p.m., but the Umikers’ honest charm and modesty — they still take Grandpa Ralph’s white Toyota Avalon on road trips — have helped Clearwater Canyon Cellars sell 80 percent of its production directly to its wine club.
“And half of them don’t live within 40 miles of the winery, which means they live beyond Pullman,” Coco pointed out.
So what about their original partners in the winery?
“One couple is in our wine club. Another actually likes to periodically volunteer to help pour wine at our events, and the other couple trickles into the winery once in a while to say hi,” Coco said. “We’re all still friends. It’s pretty cool.”
Capacity of the pristinely maintained vinification facility they built in the Lewiston Orchards in 2016 is 5,000 cases, so there’s not much room to grow beyond their 2019 production of 4,500. However, the move from the Port of Lewiston to the family farm has Karl, 45, and Coco, 38, sensing more Platinums are in their cellar.
“We’ve had more fun making wine in the past two years than ever, and I’ve done more experiments in the last two vintages than all of the other vintages combined,” Coco said. “We’re able to expend our time, money and focus on getting really creative. We’ve made it easier on our bodies. We’re learning how we can create a better experience for our customers and how we can make more interesting wine.”
In the meantime, among their motivations is to earn a Platinum for a white wine. There have been strong contenders, including the 2017 Umiker Vineyard Lochsa that was voted Best Chardonnay at the 2018 Cascadia International.
“What do you think about a white Carménère?” Karl said with a chuckle.
That’s an experiment this winemaking Ph.D., won’t run.
“The style of white that I’m into is acid-driven, and Carménère is notorious for losing its acid as it gets ripe,” Coco said. “It’s not uncommon to harvest Carmenere with a pH of 4. It loses its acidity sooner than Syrah!”
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
Clearwater Canyon Cellars
3143 10th St., Lewiston, ID, 83501
Hours: noon to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday, and by appointment
How the Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year is chosen
The Winery of the Year is selected based on longevity, quality, reputation, industry involvement, facilities and other considerations. A winery may wine the award once.
Past Pacific Northwest Wineries of the Year
2019: Palencia Wine Co., Kennewick
2018: Long Shadows Vintners, Walla Walla
2017: Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards, Roseburg, Ore.
2016: Walla Walla Vintners, Walla Walla, Wash.
2015: Maryhill Winery, Goldendale, Wash.
2014: Stoller Family Estate, Dayton, Ore.
2013: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville, Wash.
2012: Thurston Wolfe Winery, Prosser, Wash.
2011: Zerba Cellars, Milton-Freewater, Ore.
2010: Vin du Lac, Chelan, Wash.
2009: Wild Goose Vineyards, Okanagan Falls, British Columbia
2008: Dunham Cellars, Walla Walla, Wash.
2007: Elk Cove Vineyards, Gaston, Ore.
2006: Barnard Griffin, Richland, Wash.
2005: Ken Wright Cellars, Carlton, Ore.
2004: L’Ecole No. 41, Lowden, Wash.
2003: Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, Summerland, British Columbia
2002: Columbia Crest, Paterson, Wash.
How the regional wineries of the year are chosen
Regional wineries of the year are selected by Wine Press Northwest based on blind tastings, visits, accolades and other considerations. Wineries of the Year must have completed five vintages, while Wineries to Watch must have been in the business no more than five years.
Washington Winery of the Year
Tsillan Cellars (Chelan)
Washington Winery to Watch
Orenda Winery (Carnation)
Oregon Winery of the Year
Left Coast Cellars (Rickreall)
Oregon Winery to Watch
Trella Vineyards (Roseburg)
Idaho Winery of the Year
Colter’s Creek Winery (Juliaetta)
Idaho Winery to Watch
Kerry Hill Winery (Wilder)
This story was originally published March 26, 2020 6:07 PM.