Shifting Perspectives on Idaho Wine

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The view down toward the Snake River from Bitner Vineyards

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We spent a weekend in the Idaho wine country last month and I’m still trying to make sense of the experience. It seems like every time I think I know what Idaho wine is I shift my ground a little bit and see something new and usually something different.

So the view keeps changing. Rather than trying to ignore this problem, I thought I’d make it the theme of this column.

Snake River Valley Views

Let’s start with the natural elements. The main vineyard area in Idaho winds along the Snake River and some of the views are spectacular — the photo above taken from Bitner Vineyards shows one of the best.

The vineyards reach down towards the river and the slope is key both because these  hillsides provide a natural solar-collector effect (the area is called Sunnyslope), but also because cold air drainage is an important factor in preventing frost damage to the crop and freeze damage to the vines.

The view shifts when you move along a few miles. This region is a high desert plateau. A lot of the land is pancake flat, ideal for many crops but not necessarily wine grapes, especially given the cold issues. Rainfall is surprisingly sparse here so access to irrigation water is key.

Although Idaho shares borders with both Washington and Oregon, there’s no question that its wine industry is more Columbia Valley than Willamette Valley. This might seem obvious since the Snake River joins the Columbia River on its way to the Pacific Ocean, but it’s mainly because they share that dry plateau feature.

No sense looking for a “signature variety” in Idaho as they do (in Pinot Noir) in Oregon. No, Idaho is more like Washington — lots of grapes can thrive here (in the right spots) and lots of interesting wines are possible. A blessing from a winemaker standpoint and a bit of a curse from a marketing point of view. Riesling to Tempranillo and lots of options in between.

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Looking down to the plateau from Sawtooth Vineyard

Big Dog Ste Chapelle

From an economic point of view, on the other hand, Idaho is a world of big and small without too much in between. This is also a bit like Washington state wine, where Ste Michelle Wine Estates (including Chateau Ste Michelle, Columbia Crest, 14 Hands and other wineries) dominates making more than half of all the state’s wine. Ste Chapelle is the big dog in Idaho to an even greater extent producing a total of about 300,000 cases of wine under the Ste Chapelle label plus other brands.

Ste Chapelle is part of the Precept Wine group these days, having been bought and sold several times since it was founded in the 1970s as the U.S. wine business went through consolidation and then financial crisis. I think there is a sense that the stability that Precept can provide is welcome after some years of drama. The largest privately held wine company in the Pacific Northwest, Precept controls half of Idaho’s vineyard acreage (variously estimated at 1200-1500 acres) in addition to its assets in Washington and Oregon.

Ste Chapelle makes several lines of wine. Their “soft” (read sweetish) wines are technically well made and perfectly in line with current sweet red and moscato-style market trends. The soft red and a soft pink wine with a subtle huckleberry flavor are the top selling wine SKUs in the state, crowding out the California “usual suspects.”

Ste Chapelle also makes smaller (but still substantial) quantities of dry wines, including 40,000 cases a year of an off-dry Riesling that nearly stole the show at Riesling Rendezvous this year. And they produce Precept’s wildly popular Chocolate Shop and Almond Roca wines at their facility.

Limits to Growth

If Idaho is the land of the big it is also a world of small. From 300,000 case Ste Chapelle we drop sharply down to 12,000 – 15,000 case Sawtooth (also a Precept Wine brand) and Greg Koenig’s operation of about the same capacity, where he makes his own products as well as those of four other wineries including Bitner. That’s a big gap between #1 and the rest in terms of size and market penetration. Not too many of the remaining 40+ wineries in the state have total production as high as 5000 cases.

What limits growth? Well, you have to sell what you make, so market demand is an obvious factor. But I got the strong sense from several winemakers that they could sell more if they could make more. Vineyard capacity is a real roadblock.

While they were glad to be able to purchase fruit from the Precept group’s 400 acre Skyline vineyard, they needed even more. Land surveys indicate that there are many good sites that could contribute to the industry’s growth if only new investors would enter the region.

Made In (But Not of) Idaho

If Idaho has not attracted as many wine growers as it needs, it certainly has attracted wine makers who see this area as a good place to live and to work. A number of small urban wineries have sprung up as wine enthusiasts from other regions are attracted here and others who have left to establish careers elsewhere return home.

Many of their wines are clearly Idaho products, but we tasted a number of them that were made from grapes imported from Washington, Oregon and even California. The practice of using out-of-state or region grapes or juice is not that uncommon in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon’s largest winery, King Estate, brings in fruit from the Columbia Valley for its NxNW wines, allowing them to produce a more complete portfolio of wine varieties and styles. And the  Pamplin Family Winery in the Willamette Valley is one of several that make high quality Bordeaux blend wines using Columbia Valley fruit. And of course most of the grapes used in Seattle-area wineries are trucked over the mountains from Eastern Washington.

Necessity (and limited local grape supply) dictated the use of non-Idaho grapes in some cases, but we met several winemakers who cited passion for a particular style of wine as a driving force. I did a University of Puget Sound alumni program at the Mouvance Winery tasting room while we were in Boise and enjoyed their Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris wines made from the fruit of the family’s own vineyard in Oregon. Pinot passion drives this project and so Idaho grapes just won’t work.

What should we think about Idaho’s cross-border wineries? Well, just like everything else in Idaho wine it depends on your point of view. They certainly do contribute to the critical mass of winemaking that the industry needs to move ahead and clearly help foster what I see as a vibrant emerging wine culture (more about this next week). But I also picked up understandable concern that their efforts didn’t contribute as much as some would like to building the local industry from the ground (the vineyards) up.

Where is Idaho wine headed? My thoughts next week.

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Thanks to everyone who met with us during our Idaho visit. Special thanks to Jim and Melissa Thomssen, Ron Bitner, Greg Koenig, Gregg Alger, Maurine Johnson, Moya Shatz Dolsby, and the Idaho Wine Commission. Thanks to Sue Veseth for the photos.

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2 responses

  1. As an Idaho guy, I’m thrilled to see anything about Idaho wines, which I love. Never underestimate the damage done to Idaho wines by Steve Martin in the Muppet Movie, as as asks Kermit the Frog if Kermit would like to smell the cap from the bottle of Idaho wines. A lot of those Idaho wine makers seem to be law school classmates of mine from California, and I think they are a force to be reckoned with.

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