Sacramento wine enthusiasts preparing for a summer road trip to Idaho need not pack a few bottles for fear they won’t find anything to savor with their tater tots.
Idaho really does have a sprouting wine trade, and its epicenter is the state’s Snake River Valley, a mere 10-hour drive from Sacramento, several Idaho vintners assure me.
To convince me – not of the ease of the trek, but that Idaho grows something other than spuds – they sent me a mixed case of wine.
And not a single one was a potato wine. I’ve heard of such a thing, but none of the vintners would fess up to making or even seeing one.
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What they do make will be familiar to Sacramentans – tempranillo, riesling, malbec, merlot, even cabernet sauvignon.
By and large, the wines were finely structured, fruity and dry, typical of grape varieties from which they were made if not particularly dramatic in saying so.
Before getting to the specifics about several that I especially liked, let’s brief ourselves on Idaho’s wine history.
It’s short, though the first wine grapes to be introduced to Idaho were planted in the Lewiston area – in the northern part of the state – sometime in the 1860s. Idaho, however, bred a wing of the temperance movement more powerful than elsewhere in the country, and in 1916 a state ban on alcohol took effect, four years before the rest of the nation adopted Prohibition.
With repeal of Prohibition in 1933, winemaking resumed promptly in other parts of the country, but not Idaho, where the first modern grapes weren’t planted until 1970 and the first winery wasn’t established until 1976, reports the Idaho Wine Commission.
Growth since then has been slow, though it’s accelerated in recent years. Idaho now has 52 wineries, up from 11 a little more than a decade ago, and about 1,300 acres in wine grapes. (By comparison, upward of 320,000 acres of potatoes are cultivated annually.)
Wineries are scattered about the state, but most of them, with most of the grape acreage, concentrated in the Snake River Valley in the state’s southwest corner.
Snake River Valley, sanctioned as an American Viticultural Area only in 2007, is massive, about 8,000 square miles, its boundary more or less coinciding with ancient Lake Idaho.
Vintners are enthusiastic about the Snake River Valley’s prospects as a fine-wine region in large part for the lake bed’s easily drained sedimentary and volcanic soils, the elevations in which vines are planted (600 feet to 3,000 feet) and the area’s combination of hot days and cool nights during the summer.
The area isn’t without its agricultural challenges, however, including a concise growing season that makes the use of later-ripening grape varieties dicey. Winters also can be tough on vines; last year a severe freeze killed many.
Idaho still has a way to go to establish its wine identity. As in other wine regions, market considerations drove its first plantings, and the country’s most popular varietal wines – cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay – still account for a large share of the state’s grape acreage, though vintners don’t see either variety being ultimately responsible for establishing Idaho’s wine reputation.
Increasingly, they’ve come to see such Iberian varieties as tempranillo and Rhone Valley varieties like viognier and syrah as more suitable for the Snake River Valley’s climate and soils.
“It isn’t hot enough for zinfandel and it’s too hot for pinot noir,” says Ron Bitner, a bee biologist who grew up in Idaho and planted his first vines there in 1981. Today, he and his wife, Mary, produce around 1,200 cases a year at their winery and bed-and-breakfast inn, Bitner Vineyards of Caldwell. They sell virtually all their wine directly off their deck.
Bitner grows seven varieties of grape spread over 15 acres in the Sunny Slope region of Snake River Valley. Early on, the Bitners saw opportunity in the area for riesling, and they haven’t wavered from that conviction. They customarily turn out three versions each harvest, from dry to a honeyed late-harvest.
His winemaker is Greg Koenig, an architect who in 1994 joined his brother Andy to found Koenig Distillery & Winery, also at Caldwell. To hone their distilling and winemaking knowledge, the brothers lived for three years in their father’s hometown, Lustenau, Austria. When they returned to Idaho they were primed to practice a traditional European approach to the crafts.
Today, they are turning out fruit brandies, whiskey and, yes, a potato vodka, as well as a wide variety of varietal wines, including cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, riesling and syrah.
Greg Koenig, who heads up winemaking while his brother tends the stills, says that broadly speaking the wines of Idaho tend to show ripe fruit flavors and high acidity. In a blind tasting with wines from California, Washington and Oregon, the Idaho wines would be most difficult to separate stylistically from the Washington wines.
He sees the most potential in Idaho for Rhone Valley varieties like viognier and syrah and the Spanish grape tempranillo. “Viognier and syrah like the soil and climate situation here, and tempranillo is coming on, with several wineries doing well with it,” Koenig says.
He doesn’t anticipate, however, a strong trend toward one or two varieties any time soon. The allure of Idaho, he says, is its variety in wines, its range of small producers, and its sense of adventure and experimentation.
“Consumers like the diversity they see here,” Koenig says. “There are lots of little wineries popping up. It’s a great time to be a consumer, for the wide landscape out here.”
What Idaho has going for it right now, he adds, is growing interest among local wine merchants and restaurateurs in the state’s wines. “Twenty years ago it was all about foreign wine and California wine, for good reason. Getting restaurants to taste our wines was hard. The faraway places were what they wanted on their wine lists. Now it’s the opposite. People want to know where the fruit is from, and who brewed the beer or made the wine,” Koenig says.
If I were to head into Idaho on a road trip this summer, his honeysuckled, peachy and robust Koenig Vineyards 2012 Snake River Valley Williamson Vineyard Viognier ($15) would be one wine I’d seek.
Others would be the Colter’s Creek 2012 Idaho Koos-Koos-Kia Red ($22), a bright and supple blend of traditional Bordeaux grape varieties, the most complex and longest wine in the sample case; the Cinder Wines 2012 Snake River Valley Tempranillo ($29), an exceptionally sleek and floral take on the variety; the Sawtooth 2012 Snake River Valley Classic Fly Series Tempranillo ($25), which while saturated with oak also was packed with more than enough cherries and plums to balance the wood; and the exquisitely structured, cleanly fruity Bitner Vineyards Snake River Valley 2012 Reserve Riesling ($17).
Not many Idaho wines get down Sacramento way, so a trek there is virtually necessary to get the pulse of the state’s wine culture. Vintners agree that not much infrastructure yet exists to encourage a surge in wine tourism, though they do note that there’s plenty of opportunity to alternate wine tasting with fishing, rafting, skiing, cycling and other recreation.
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In planning a trip, the Idaho Wine Commission has a website with helpful information: www.idahowines.org