Extreme Wines: Idaho?


When the writers of “The Muppet Movie” tried to think of the most extreme, the most ridiculous source for wine to use in this scene with Kermit, Miss Piggy and an obnoxious waiter played by Steve Martin, their minds somehow turned to Idaho. Idaho wine — what could be funnier (and indeed it is a funny scene)? So I guess Idaho wine is a suitable entry in the Wine Economist Extreme Wine files.

The Undeserving

But I don’t think Idaho deserves its problematic place in the cinematic history of wine. Why not? Well, first of all, there are funnier places for wine to come from. Wine is produced in all 50 U.S. states, so in choosing Idaho the Muppet writers missed the opportunity to make fun of other states like North Dakota and Nebraska or Arkansas and Mississippi. (I would suggest Minnesota and Wisconsin, but I’ve had perfectly good wine from both states.)

That’s the second reason why the Idaho line is confusing. Not only does Idaho make wine, it actually produces really good wines, including some quite outstanding ice wines. To someone who knows the wines of the region, there is nothing funny at all about the idea of an Idaho wine. (There is something funny, on the other hand, about Steve Martin’s skimpy waiter costume).

This meditation on the topic of Idaho wine is provoked by the receipt of a new book about that state’s wine industry, Idaho Wine Country by Alan Minskoff with photographs by Paul Hosefros (Caxton Press, 2010). It’s a beautiful book and a very interesting read. I’ve been following Idaho wines for some times, but I was still a bit surprised at how much has changed in recent years.

Surprising Terroir

I appreciate that wine grapes don’t automatically spring to mind when you think of Idaho. Idaho, isn’t that where all the spuds come from? Yes, it’s true: the license plates still say “famous potatoes.” You’d think they’d make vodka in Idaho instead of wine. And they do.

But Idaho isn’t all potato fields or Rocky Mountain slopes. While there are several regions that produce wine, the main area is the Snake River AVA in the southern part of the state, which has everything you might look for in wine growing region. It has a moderate climate where tree fruit and grapevines both thrive. And the Snake River, too. Grapevines famously love to overlook water. This region has a great deal in common with the Columbia Valley AVA in Washington, but at an altitude of 2900 feet it is a little like  Mendoza, too.

Early grape plantings were the usual cold climate suspects like Riesling  and these varietals still do fine, but global climate change has benefited the area immensely and warm climate varietals are now commonly planted including Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah.

Idaho Spuds?

To a certain extent the modern history of Idaho wine is the story of Ste Chapelle Winery, which is by far the largest winery in the state and the fifth largest producer in the Washington-Oregon-Idaho region. Ste. Chapelle is to Idaho as Chateau Ste. Michelle has been to Washington: the early trailblazer, the dominant producer by volume, a leading advocate of quality and a key factor in the expansion of the entire industry. It is hard to imagine that we would be talking about Idaho wine today (or even joking about it) without Ste. Chapelle.

Ste. Chapelle was basically a collaboration  between winegrower and winery owner Dick Symms and legendary winemaker Bill Brioch beginning in the 1970s. Symms and Broich  lasted only a few years as a team, but made a reputation for high quality despite surprisingly high volume (more than 100,000 cases). Their legacy stands tall today, both the winery (now owned by Ascentia Wine Estates, which also owns Columbia Winery and Covey Run, Buena Vista Carneros, Atlas Peak and  Geyser Peak) and the growing Idaho wine industry.

Idah0. No joking, it’s not just spuds any more.

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Thanks to my old friend Jim Thomssen of Home Federal Bank for reminding me about Idaho’s interesting wines.

Where are they now: Bill Broich has retired from full time wine making duties, but he still has the wine bug. He and his wife, Phyllis McGavick, own McGavick Winery and donate 100% of their proceeds to charity! You can find them on Facebook.

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7 responses

  1. That Steve Martin bit was burned in my memory when I first saw it years ago. Priceless. I have enjoyed a Snake River wine that I think is a huge step up from the solid offerings from Ste Chappelle: Coiled. http://www.coiledwines.com

    Beautiful Syrah that is well worth checking out if you can find it.

  2. Ste Chappelle made some really nice sparkling wine, and then a few years later seriously downgraded the product. I remember friends and I being disappointed after we opened a bottle, this may have been in the 90s or earlier.

  3. Hey Professor Veseth, glad to see that Idaho wines are something worth talking about. Let me know if you’re ever in the Boise area.

    Ryan

  4. Glad you noticed Mike. Great pic too 7:00 am taken from outside in the dark. This guy is a good photographer! Just finished a nice Syrah from Idaho with a toast to you!

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