Wine in America: Surprising Idaho and its Diverse Wine Scene

strangefolkThere is a big world of American wine out there, full of surprises. Wine is made in all 50 states, so “Support your local wine industry” is practical advice. Sometimes this requires you to head off the the vineyards, but sometimes they can come to you. Case in point … the booming Boise, Idaho wine scene.

There is an urban winery trail of sorts developing in Boise and our friend Jim Thomssen spirited us away for a quick survey of the scene between sessions of the Idaho Wine Commission meetings in February. His goal, it developed, was to show the diversity that is driving Idaho wine and, I think it is fair to say, American wine today, too.

One Size Does Not Fit All

One size does not fit all in Idaho wine. Idaho is dominated by Chateau Ste Chapelle and Sawtooth winery, which are part of the Precept wines portfolio that also includes Waterbrook, Canoe Ridge, Sagelands, House Wine, and Gruet among others. Precept owns Idaho’s two largest wineries and a huge proportion of its vineyards, whence many smaller wineries source their grapes. Ste Chapelle makes excellent wines (we tasted a vertical of their Tempranillo with dinner one night) as well as a series of “soft” blends that are Idaho best-sellers.sawtooth

In our previous visits we have focused on wineries in the Sunnyslope region of the Snake River Valley, where grapes are grown and wine is made. Some of our favorites include Bitner Vineyards, Huston Vineyards, Koenig Vineyards, and Fujishin Family Wine Cellars. They set a high standard for quality and their wines are delicious.

Given our tight schedule, Jim scheduled appointments at two wineries just outside the downtown core, Telaya Wine Co. and  Split Rail Winery.  The wineries are about the same size in terms of annual production and source grapes from both Idaho and Washington, but that is where the similarities end.

Precision Winemaking

Earl Sullivan is a scientist by training and a former international pharmaceutical industry executive and Telaya winery reflects the precision and systems thinking that comes with that background, both in terms of the wines, which are balanced and structured, and the winery itself, which was strategically located next door to a destination hotel along Boise’s popular river walk.telaya

Production and hospitality spaces in the two-year old winery were custom designed to facilitate efficient wine-making and to provide visitors a warm welcome. The patio by the river is a popular spot in warm weather.

We especially liked the Turas blend of Syrah, Malbec and Petit Verdot from the Snake River Valley and the elegant single-variety  Petit Verdot, too. Precision wine-making can yield delicious results and Earl Sullivan’s well planned and executed wine business is very successful.

Relentless Experimentation

A short drive away, Split Rail Winery is a very different experience. The brightly-painted winery and tasting room live in a former auto repair shop out on the highway. Jed Glavin’s philosophy is to explore his favorite Rhone varieties (including a tasty SGM  field blend that we sampled) and to provide wine in all imaginable delivery systems including bottle, keg (for the on-trade), cans, and take-out growlers. I have included an image io the Strange Folks line of canned wines. Pull tabs, not corks. Pretty crazy, huh?

sgm

Jed’s intention is to experiment relentlessly and he’s OK with it if he never makes the same wine twice, letting vintage variation and other factors rule. It says something about Jed that he’s willing to take so many risks to see what develops.

And it says something about Idaho in general and the Boise area in particular that he has an enthusiast following that is excited to see what he will come up with next.

A Happening Place

In fact Boise is quite a happening place, with crowded restaurants featuring local ingredients, a bustling craft beer scene, and some interesting cider makers, too. In fact, cider was one of the features of this visit. A Basque friend introduced us to Basque cider during a visit to Spain last year and, knowing that Boise has a large Basque population, we sought out (and found!) several of these very dry ciders, including one on draft at the Basque Market restaurant, just across the street from the iconic Bar Gernika.cider

Jim took us to Meriwether Cider Co. out on the highway near Split Rail where a variety of tasty ciders (very different from the Basque products) are made and a loyal local following has developed. Cider has many advantages over wine — you can make it year around from stored apples, not just once a year when the grapes are ripe. And cider making has a tradition of flavorings and infusions that encourages experimentation. We know some winemakers in Oregon who also make cider and are very successful in both markets.

The Leadbetter family that owns Meriwether Cider will soon open a cider house in downtown Boise to feature both their products and those of other local cider makers. I was pleased to meet Gig Leadbetter at the wine meetings, which included cider industry people in Idaho because of the many synergies and, I suppose, the obvious need for producers in smaller markets to work together when they can.

The Idaho wine industry is anything but cookie-cutter in terms of size, scope, and style — and that’s part of what makes it so interesting. The fact that broad local support has developed for this rainbow of wine is inspiring, both for Idaho and for American wine.

 

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