Nothing seems to come easy for Idaho winemakers, but the gain often is worth their pain.
Mike Pearson and his wife, Melissa Sanborn, have proved to be prescient and successful almost every step of their way with Colter’s Creek Vineyards and Winery since starting out in 2008.
The proof is in the bottle, exemplified by the three Platinums awarded last fall to their work with red varieties native to the Rhône Valley in France, with Syrah shining the brightest. Their Arrow Rim Red, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, also earned best of class at the 2019 Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition.
Those accolades prompted Wine Press Northwest to name Colter’s Creek as the 2020 Idaho Winery of the Year. And the common thread among those wines listed is that they came from estate fruit in the Lewis-Clark Valley, another source of pride for Sanborn, Pearson and the region that was home to Pacific Northwest’s first large-scale commercial wine industry in the late 1800s.
“Now, we can be an L-C Valley winery,” said Sanborn, who studied wine chemistry and sensory science at Washington State University in Pullman. “Our goal was always to use only Idaho fruit when we started, and a lot of that came from Southern Idaho. Now, just a small percentage of our grapes come from outside our valley, and sometimes we have enough grapes to sell to some of the smaller young wineries.”
They believed in the history of grape growing in the Lewis-Clark Valley, and Pearson, Sanborn and their friends Karl and Coco Umiker of Clearwater Canyon Cellars, waited seven years for the federal government to establish the American Viticultural Area surrounding the cities of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash.
Ironically, it also took seven years until the Snake River Valley AVA, Idaho’s first sub-AVA, was approved.
And what began with a winter’s drive looking for vineyard property has turned into one of the Northwest’s most fascinating projects.
From Highway 3, they spotted Larry Kornze’s overgrown yet trailblazing vineyard, an 8-acre foothold planted in the 1980s above the Potlatch River. Pearson, the vineyard manager, has transformed it into 35 acres among eight distinct blocks, which, when combined with the new Arrow Junction Vineyard, supply about 90 percent of Sanborn’s 6,000-case production.
The Lewis-Clark Valley’s reputation as a banana belt is reflected in the growing degree days, which average around 3,200 heat units — similar to the Yakima Valley’s Rattlesnake Hills and the Walla Walla Valley.
“We’re in a very narrow canyon, and one of the fallouts from that is our winter low temperatures remain higher than even in the Tri-Cities,” Pearson said. “We don't get those damaging events they do in Walla Walla and in southern Idaho. We’ve never fallen below zero since we’ve been here, and that’s the critical temperature where you start getting really nervous.”
The 2015 and 2017 vintages serve as examples. While the Snake River Valley got hammered by winter damage, it was not the case in the L-C Valley, evidenced by Sanborn’s gold medals for the 2017 Estate Syrah (Platinum), 2017 Skookumchuck Reserve Syrah (Platinum), Graciano-based 2017 Rocinante (Great Northwest Invitational) and 2017 Estate Cabernet Franc (Dan Berger International in Sonoma County).
“2017 is one of the best years we’ve ever had — a fantastic year to grow grapes,” Pearson said.
The success of their overall program prompted Colter’s Creek to move beyond the original tasting room and restaurant in downtown Juliaetta (pop. 582.) They purchased the 130-year-old Hattabaugh Building in downtown Moscow and turned it into a showpiece satellite tasting room with original fir flooring across its 3,000 square feet. It opened in 2018 a few blocks east of the University of Idaho campus, Pearson’s alma mater.
“It’s given us a really good tie-in with WSU, the U of I and the restaurant scene in Moscow,” Sanborn said. “It’s become a kind of a hangout for the locals.”
Soon, there will be a boutique hotel upstairs that Colter’s Creek will own and operate. “It’s been a big investment, but a lot of fun,” Pearson said.
So now, Pearson and Sanborn operate almost as many tasting rooms as they have young daughters (three). “Our house is really loud,” she said.
It means they lean on their trusted staff more than ever, including assistant winemaker Jon Harding, who also serves as the Colter’s Creek sales manager. In the meantime, Pearson’s highly successful Anatek Labs Inc., with offices in Moscow and Sanborn’s hometown of Spokane, continues to thrive.
“Fortunately, I have very good people who have picked up the slack, but I’d rather be here in Juliaetta than anywhere else,” Pearson said.
Soon, there will be another tasting room right around the bend as the Hewett family is launching Rivaura Estate Vineyard and Winery between the Clearwater and Potlatch rivers. Their consulting winemaker is Billo Naravane, an acclaimed Master of Wine from Walla Walla.
“I think Rivaura will be a big boost for us,” Pearson said. “Highway 12, which connects Walla Walla to Missoula, runs right through here. Having that tourist traffic with two wineries to stop at — the more the merrier!”
There’s some concern underfoot because the vine louse phylloxera has been discovered within two small sections at Colter’s Creek. However, Pearson — a fourth-generation farmer who grew up near Chicken Dinner Road in the Snake River Valley — is taking a pragmatic approach. He’s also the first in Washington or Idaho to go on the record about his discovery.
“I’d rather have phylloxera than leaf roll,” he said. “Phylloxera will slowly kill the plant, but it doesn’t change the fruit and it doesn’t change the ripening.”
Strangely, the damage has been focused primarily on young plantings of own-rooted Mourvèdre.
“I’m looking at it as more of a slow tweak to the vineyard over time,” he said. “We will need to replant slowly, and I think that with climate change — or whatever is causing this — everyone is going to be moving to rootstock rather than own-rooted vines.
“There are definitely a lot of people who have it, but we all can keep it at bay for years,” Pearson continued. “And I want to be an open book so we can help other people do something about their vineyards.”
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
Colter’s Creek Vineyards & Winery
308 Main St., Juliaetta, ID 83535
The Historic Hattabaugh Building
215 S. Main St., Moscow, ID 83843