After I judged at the Idaho Wine Competition earlier this fall, then wandered through wineries and vineyards around Boise for a couple of days, Shelly Bennett, community relations manager for the Idaho Wine Commission, asked what most surprised me about the state’s wine scene.
I didn’t say I had just discovered that Idaho grows something other than potatoes. I had been there before and had seen orchards and fields cultivated to all sorts of things, though on this trek I was startled to learn that the state grows 184 crops other than potatoes.
I gave her an answer, which I will get to eventually, but on the drive back to Sacramento, through a landscape that invites daydreaming, I pondered what I had experienced and came up with nine other surprises:
▪ 10. High on a slope at the far reaches of the Idaho Botanical Garden next to the old state penitentiary at Boise sprawled a tall grape vine, its foliage flaming, its grapes small and black. At the base was a sign that called it purpurea, a member of the vitis-vinifera family of grapes, responsible for most of the world’s fine wines. I’d never heard of the grape, and several vintners who I asked about it also didn’t understand it or what it was doing in the garden. No one had a clue about whether it ever played a role in Idaho’s winemaking culture. A couple of them, however, sounded eager to look into the matter, maybe even plant some and see what kind of wine it would yield.
▪ 9. Idaho grape growers and winemakers take their craft seriously, but not themselves. They recognize that they are trying to establish a wine culture in a setting more familiar with beer, given all the barley and hops grown in the state. Thus, to introduce potential consumers to wine in a light and friendly way, several are capitalizing on novelty wines. Much to my surprise, however, beyond the cute names and the offbeat packaging could be remarkably polished wine. Idaho’s oldest and largest winery, Ste. Chapelle, sells 22,000 cases a year of its sweet-yet-spirited Soft Huckleberry riesling with huckleberry juice added to enhance the wine’s color and flavor. The Chicken Dinner White of Huston Vineyards is a racy blend of riesling, muscat and viognier. And Strange Folk Wines puts its product in cans labeled La Boheme White Wine, an exceptionally focused and refreshing off-dry riesling.
▪ 8. Though I have no statistics to back this up, more winemakers in Idaho than in California look to be women, proportionally speaking. That could be in large part because most wineries are family based, with couples sharing chores. “Most of us grew up here, and we have been willing to come back and to take this risk in our hometown,” says Melanie Krause, winemaker for Cinder Wines, which she owns with her husband, Joe Schnerr, in Garden City, next to Boise. “We have an amazing lifestyle here for rearing kids and getting outdoors. We just had to be convinced we could make world-class wines here.”
▪ 7. I was surprised that few sparkling wines are made in Idaho. We had only one in the competition, and it won just a bronze medal. That’s about to change, however. Hailey Minder, who became intrigued with the Italian sparkling wine spumante while working at a winery in Italy, recently founded the winery 3100 Cellars in Garden City and is preparing to release her first wines. The 3100, incidentally, is taken from Idaho’s 3,100 miles of whitewater, rafting being another of her family’s passions.
▪ 6. I’m surprised that so many Idaho vintners remain devoted to cabernet sauvignon, which but for few exceptions hasn’t been all that impressive. As one vintner said, however, consumers generally expect wineries to have it in their portfolio, so what are you going to do? At the competition, our panel judged 14 cabernet sauvignons. Only one got a gold medal, and it was made with grapes from Washington state, not Idaho. Merlot, another Bordeaux variety about which Idaho vintners remain enthusiastic, didn’t show much better. We judged 11, and again only one got a gold medal. On the other hand, merlot at least looks to have potential when it is blended with other grape varieties. Of the six merlot-based blends we judged, three won gold.
▪ 5. When Idaho vintners were asked what style of wine would be most closely identified with the state in another decade, their responses ranged all over the board, and not without reason. Idaho is a young wine state, with development of vineyards starting earnestly only in 1970 and the founding of Ste. Chapelle in 1976. Other than cabernet sauvignon, grapes mentioned most often as looking good for Idaho were tempranillo, malbec and the Rhone Valley varieties viognier, mourvedre, grenache and syrah. Surprisingly, just one winemaker, Leslie Preston of Coiled Wines, who was drawn to the trade as she taught French at UC Davis between 1994 and 2000, enthusiastically put at the top of the list the variety most closely associated with Idaho so far, riesling. “It’s going to be riesling, I’m sticking by that,” Preston said. For the record, of 14 rieslings in the competition, four won gold medals, and all were made with grapes grown in Snake River Valley, Idaho’s first and largest American Viticultural Area.
▪ 4. This is downright weird: The number of wineries in Idaho has grown from 11 in 2002 to some 50 today, but the development of vineyards hasn’t kept pace. Idaho has only about 1,500 acres planted to wine grapes, despite its variety of soils, plentiful water and largely accommodating climate. Given that shortfall, given that weather occasionally deals grape growers a poor hand, and given that some varieties struggle to thrive in Idaho, the state’s vintners turn to Washington and Oregon for fruit, hampering Idaho’s identity as wine country. In contrast to my visit to Idaho a year ago, on the other hand, growers this time did point to a scattering of new vineyards.
▪ 3. Also weird: The Snake River Valley does exceptionally well with a wide range of grape varieties traditionally identified with defined regions elsewhere, but in Idaho are apt to be cultivated close to each other. That is, tempranillo and riesling, muscat and grenache, malbec and viognier, each commonly associated most strongly with specific and widely separated regions, are turning out acclaimed wines despite their proximity in Idaho. This has to do with the Snake River Valley’s assorted soils, fluctuations in elevations and exposures, and the local wine trade’s dedication to experimentation, vintners say. Whatever, it seems to be working in Idaho’s favor.
▪ 2. Treefort: What a great name for a wine, but it isn’t a wine. It’s a March music festival in downtown Boise. Locals say it emulates the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. Indeed, Treefort follows South by Southwest by a week each spring and lures some of the same bands. Aside from music, Treefort includes several specialty venues, such as “alefort,” “foodfort” and “skatefort,” but, surprisingly, no “winefort.” If the Idaho wine scene continues to grow, however, expect that to change.
▪ 1. What most surprised me about southwest Idaho’s wine scene, as I told Shelley Bennett of the wine commission, was the cohesion between the state’s wine community and the Boise restaurant scene. In their cooking and on their wine lists, restaurateurs and chefs exploit Idaho wines with an enthusiasm and appropriateness I haven’t customarily seen in other aspiring farm-to-fork settlements. Wine is simply another extension of the area’s agricultural bounty, I kept hearing. Heck, the produce department of the celebrated Boise Co-op in the heart of the city had 14 varieties of potatoes, but it carries so many wines, including Idaho wines, that it runs a totally separate wine shop across the parking lot.
We’re approaching the winter sports season, and if snowboarders, skiers and the like don’t get enough snow for their liking in Northern California, they well could detour to one of the resorts of Idaho, in which case the wine enthusiasts among them are in for pleasant surprises of their own.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.