Dunne on Wine

Potato wine? Not in Idaho, where they’re making great chardonnay and other California favorites

Martin Fujishin, with a bottle of his chardonnay in a vineyard he farms. Mike Dunne
Martin Fujishin, with a bottle of his chardonnay in a vineyard he farms. Mike Dunne

Over the past couple of years, Martin Fujishin has witnessed a small but significant change in the attitude of Californians who pause at his eponymous winery’s tasting room along Highway 55 about 30 miles west of Boise in southwest Idaho.

Before, they usually were idling tourists simply looking for a wine to savor. Nowadays, however, a rising number remark that they are scouting the territory for property in expecting to permanently relocate from California.

“It’s gone crazy,” says Fujishin of the surge in Californians looking to move to the Gem State. He and several of his neighboring vintners in the Sunnyslope district just outside Caldwell and Nampa, home to about 20 wineries, are prepared to assure Californians that they need not move their wine cellars if they want to continue to drink styles of wines they have come to appreciate in California.

I was roaming around Sunnyslope soon after the 2018 Idaho Wine Competition, where judges just had awarded Fujishin two of the competition’s top five honors – best sweet wine for his honeyed Fujishin Family Cellars Winery 2017 Snake River Valley Late Harvest Riesling ($20) and best-of-show for his characteristically peachy Lost West Winery 2017 Snake River Valley Riesling ($15). (“Lost West” is a Fujishin brand that pays tribute to the family that established the fruit-packing shed now occupied by his tasting room.)

While riesling might not be the varietal wine that Californians stock most eagerly in their cellars, Fujishin and other nearby winemakers are tackling with study and gumption several more familiar varieties, including cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, tempranillo, merlot and syrah.

Just west of the Fujishin tasting room, for one, is Koenig Vineyards, where Martin Fujishin got his introduction to winemaking under the tutelage of winemaker Greg Koenig, who also fared well at the competition. He won seven gold medals for the five brands for which he makes wines, including the highly perfumed and meaty Williamson Vineyards 2014 Snake River Valley Reserve Petite Sirah ($35), the lithe and supple Bitner Vineyards 2015 Snake River Valley Erletxe Tempranillo ($33) and his own stony and spicy Koenig Vineyards 2017 Snake River Valley Riesling ($12).

The competition, which drew 143 entries from 39 of Idaho’s 52 wineries, not a single one of which was a potato wine, provided a panoramic snapshot of the state’s evolving wine trade, which remains young and small, though wine grapes have been cultivated in the state since 1864.

Despite Idaho’s agricultural bounty, just 1,300 acres are planted to wine grapes, but that’s double what it was 20 years ago. Of that total, 1,125 acres are cultivated in the Snake River Valley in the state’s southwest corner. Still to be determined is what grape variety or varieties eventually will be most closely identified with Idaho.

The state’s vintners have done well by riesling, but it is far from the country’s most popular varietal wine, failing to sell at prices that justify development of more vineyards. That, coupled with neighboring Washington state’s success with the variety, is prompting some Idaho growers to abandon riesling.

Several Idaho vintners have high hopes for chardonnay, though none of the 10 in the competition won a gold medal. Nevertheless, it is prompting a wave of reexamination and experimentation among Idaho winemakers. At Sawtooth Winery, also in the Sunnyslope district, winemaker Meredith Smith is tempering her use of new French oak barrels and malolactic fermentation in hopes of achieving a brighter, leaner, more Burgundian style of chardonnay.

As a consequence, Sawtooth’s “Classic Fly” chardonnays ($25) are becoming more fruity, sharp, balanced and persistent. The competition also affirmed that winemakers who see potential in tempranillo, malbec and such Rhone Valley grape varieties as viognier, marsanne, mourvedre and syrah could be on the right track in raising Idaho’s wine profile.

The competition’s best red wine, for one, was the composed and elegant Telaya Wine Co. 2016 Snake River Valley Turas ($32), a syrah-based blend. Telaya, incidentally, is the first winery that westbound walkers along the Boise River encounter as they enter neighboring Garden City from downtown Boise. Garden City also includes five other wineries, six breweries and a cider house in addition to the Idaho State Fair grounds and Memorial Stadium, home field for the Boise Hawks of major-league baseball’s Class A Northwest League.

As well as a recreation and culinary draw, Garden City is a fulcrum of experimental winemaking and innovative wine marketing. Jed Glavin and Laura Hefner-Glavin of Split Rail Winery, for one, were early proponents of wines in cans and kegs, and currently exploit unconventional vats for fermenting and aging wines (concrete eggs, clay amphora, wood foudres). At nearby Coiled Wines, winemaker Leslie Preston has been pioneering the use of riesling for a richly fruity sparkling wine she calls Rizza, the 2016 version of which got top sparkling-wine honors at the competition ($28).

No Idaho winemaker may be more daring and detailed in challenging standard winemaking assumptions than Melanie Krause of Cinder Wines, also in Garden City. During the past four vintages, for example, she has set up a series of trials that questioned such orthodox ways to make chardonnay as fermenting the juice in new oak barrels to stirring of the wine on its lees.

After any given harvest, she may have as many as 20 iterations of the same varietal wine, gradually tasting them and selecting the techniques that she feels best highlight the freshness and clarity of the fruit. The upshot has been a radical rewriting of her protocols for making chardonnay. She’s relying less on new oak barrels, eschewing lees stirring and adding black-locust barrels to her program.

“Our goal is to maximize fruit but still have the lovely full texture of chardonnay,” Krause says. Cinder’s smoky and now sold-out 2016 Snake River Valley chardonnay won a silver medal at the Idaho competition, and her 2017 Snake River Valley chardonnay ($23) won a double-gold at the recent San Francisco International Wine Competition. (A double-gold medal is awarded when all members of a judging panel concur that a wine deserves gold.)

Aside from Ste. Chapelle Winery, the state’s largest and oldest, founded in 1975, Idaho’s wine trade runs to growers with small vineyards and younger winemaking families who produce just a few thousand cases of wine a year. They are a flexible and determined bunch, but dogged by the perception that Idaho traditionally hasn’t been seen as a wine region, by winters that can be fierce (a freeze in 2017 reduced yields substantially) and by the slow development of expansive vineyards.

More than one winemaker mused about the positive impact Idaho’s wine trade would see if a corporate wine company like Constellation, Trinchero or Gallo moved assertively into the state. In the meantime, however, they are encouraged by what they have learned about growing grapes and making wine in Idaho over the past couple of decades.

Older vineyards in places not well suited for grapes are being replaced with other crops, new vineyards are being cultivated on sites more promising for grapes, and smarter irrigation and cultivation practices are being adopted, notes Greg Koenig of Koenig Vineyards. He looks forward to the first commercial harvest this year from a new 32-acre vineyard he helped develop, planted to such varieties as cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese and malbec.

“The new areas are stellar,” Koenig says of places where grapes have been going in. “Wines that won gold medals came from these vineyards.”

Idaho vintners have little trouble selling their wines locally, thanks in part to a long-standing farm-to-table consciousness and to a year-round influx of tourists drawn to the state’s numerous recreational opportunities. Their marketing of their releases only will become easier if just some of those wine-savvy Californians stopping by Martin Fujishin’s tasting room decide to resettle in Idaho.

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 dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.