Everyone we met in Idaho was keen on the potential of this sometimes overlooked wine region but at the same time aware that greater success — in terms of sales, recognition, and premium prices — is far from guaranteed.
Idaho, as I discussed in last week’s column, is unique in many respects, but it is typical of emerging American wine regions in that it is searching for the key that will unlock the latent potential of the people and the land.
Idaho Wine Surprises
One thing that surprised me was the vitality of the local wine market. Although Idaho has wine roots going back to the 1860s, the industry and the local wine culture was destroyed by Prohibition and was slow to recover afterward even by American standards.
Boise — the state capital and largest city — has changed enormously since I first visited over 30 years ago. The downtown now boasts both a Whole Foods Market and a Trader Joe’s — a sure sign that there is a critical mass of resident upscale consumers — and the wine department of the Boise Co-op supermarket grew so large that it took over a nearby building (it was crowded with interesting wines from Idaho and the world and buzzing with activity when we visited).
Pluses and Minuses
Boise impressed me as quite cosmopolitan. We had lunch on the Basque Block, for example, a cluster of Basque restaurants, social clubs and community center. Boise celebrates the cultural diversity that its Basque community brings and is working to strengthen ties (including wine connections) with the Old World. A group of local winemakers recently traveled to Spain to exchange ideas with wine people there, which seems like a great idea given the success some wineries are having with Tempranillo. A lot of pluses here.
And some minuses, too. Idaho wine is not well known outside the region and this is a disadvantage for those with national ambitions for their wines although obviously less of a factor if you define your market territory carefully to include the mountain states and parts of the Pacific Northwest.
Focused effort seems to be what is needed. Greg Koenig looks to be on the verge of success in China, for example, where buyers may not know where Idaho is but they understand what he has to offer — delicious Snake River Valley Riesling Ice Wine!
Building Brand Idaho
The economic structure of the Idaho industry is not ideal with big dog Ste Chapelle dwarfing the rest of the industry. It would be great if Ste Chapelle were to play a hegemonic role, working to grow markets and develop the supply chain for all of Idaho wine the way that Chateau Ste Michelle did for Washington wine in that industry’s early days. Or at least that’s what I was thinking before my visit.
But these are different times and Idaho is a different place. Ste Chapelle is part of the dynamic Precept Wine group which has important wine assets in Washington, Oregon and Idaho and competes in a market environment where important new players (Gallo in Washington and Kendall Jackson in Oregon) have recently entered. Ste Chapelle must necessarily act as part of an ensemble, not as a solo performer, and while I think that great success is possible for the winery itself, it might not necessarily be able to pull the rest of Idaho wine along with it. The smaller wineries need to make their own paths and they seem to realize this fact.
I noticed that some of the new Ste Chapelle “soft” releases were designated “American Wine” even though they are for now at least made using only Idaho grapes. This will help the Ste Chapelle brand if and when they scale up production using fruit from other areas, but it doesn’t promote Brand Idaho. Not a criticism, because I understand the business logic, but true nonetheless. On the other hand, however, it must be said that the Idaho wine industry would be much less vital without Precept’s key vineyard investments, which provide grapes for many smaller producers.
What will it take to bring Idaho wine to the next level? Well, I’m tempted to say that a big critical success would do it and high scores certainly help. The quality of the best wines makes strong ratings more than a dream (and in the case of a few wines, already a reality). But the market is very crowded right now and my winemaker friends tell me that even 90+ scores don’t always have the impact on prices and sales that they would like.
Wine tourism is another strategy that holds promise. The Sunnyslope area is a short drive from Boise and a wine trail is in place although it is hampered a bit by state restrictions on signage that limit the ability of individual wineries to direct buyers to their tasting rooms. Visitors from adjacent states represent an obvious marketing opportunity that effective wine tourism promotion could enhance.
New investment in vineyard assets would be welcomed hereabouts, as I wrote last week. But what will it take to get major vineyard investments that would fill the barrels and bottles that Idaho winemakers long to produce? Well, it’s complicated of course. From a strictly economic point of view the situation is that land must be worth more as a vineyard than at its next best alternative use — orchard, pasture or residential development — and this isn’t always the case.
Idaho wines are often a bargain given their quality and tend to sell for much less than the Walla Walla wines that some makers compare them to. This helps sell the wines, but it also limits vineyard growth. Low wine prices dictate low grape prices, which means low vineyard land valuation.
An economic impact statement prepared in 2008 projected that the number of Idaho wineries would continue to grow from 11 in 2002 to 38 in 2008 to 78 in 2015. The current number is around 50, much less than that estimate, and the number of vineyard acres has probably declined a bit from the 2008 level. Is this just an understandable (given the Great Recession) pause in the upward trend or has the industry plateaued?
Too soon to tell, really, but I am cautiously optimistic. The land is there and the people, too, both thoughtful consumers and smart, hand-working producers. I sense a new energy in America’s regional wine industries (this energy was captured in the book American Wine by Jancis Robinson and Linda Murphy). Idaho’s time will come.
Here’s a list of some wineries from our visit. Sorry that we didn’t have time to visit others!
Fujishin Family Wine Cellars
Hat Ranch Winery
Ste Chapelle Winery
Telaya Wine Co.