Among Idaho’s state slogans and motto (which have included Esto perpetua, “Great Potatoes,” “What America Was,” and “Tasty Destinations,”) was the phrase “Not California.”
There’s a slight air of desperation and defiance in defining your identity in the negative; though in the case of Idaho’s budding wine production scene, it’s not entirely inappropriate: despite 150+ years of winemaking history, this is a state whose first AVA (Snake River Valley) was recognized less than fifteen years ago (and is probably more famous for Evel Knievel than it is for wine). Idaho’s other two AVAs – Eagle Foothills and Lewis-Clark Valley – are less than five years old, and one of those is a sub-AVA. Despite its visually stunning expanses, the state has a mere 1300 acres of grapes planted, almost all of it in the Snake River Valley, and is home to just over 50 wineries (for some perspective: California has about 4400).
We can forgive Idaho for having a bit of a petulant-attention-seeking-middle-child chip on its wine producing shoulder, because there’s little reason that the state can’t make very, very good wines. Formed from ancient volcanic and flooding activity, Idaho’s soils are sandy, sedimentary and well-draining, and its climate is dry with cold winters; all of which are good conditions for reducing pest and disease pressure for grape vines (and in some cases, allow the vines to be own-rooted).
Actually, there is one very good reason why Idaho wine doesn’t get the media luv right now: there simply isn’t enough of it. As Idaho Wine Commission Executive Director Moya Shatz Dolsby told me when I visited the state last year, “our biggest problem is that we don’t have enough grapes.”
Following is a (very) brief overview of the wines that stood out the most to me during my Idaho travels. There are, I think, three basic themes that, like Idaho’s famous rafting rivers, run throughout the best of their vinous experimentation: a sense of purity (possibly helped by the lack of a need to graft on to American rootstocks), a pioneering spirit (sometimes to a fault), and a diversity that few American wine regions can legitimately claim to be able to match…
The (3rd) Joe Ginet, of Plaisance Ranch, demonstrating the art of vine propagation
The third Joe Ginet is a bit of a torch-bearer.
He and wife Suzi preside over Plaisance Ranch, a former dairy farm, now turned organic beef cattle ranch, which also happens to be a twenty-acre vine nursery (now with over twenty varieties), and (since 1999) a vineyard as well, in keeping with the tradition of his father Joe and grandfather Joe. It’s grandad Joe who lived a the-kids-are-gonna-be-talking-about-this-one-for-generations portion of this little tale or Rogue Valley viticulture.
One hundred years before the third Joe Ginet planted vines at Plaisance, his grandfather Joe Ginet made his way from France’s Savoie to the USA, after having been discharged from the French military, and established Plaisance Orchard near Jacksonville. About six years later, he made his way back to France to pick up his fiancee. Instead of a bride, however, a jilted Joe G. returned to Oregon alone. Well, alone apart from some vine cuttings from his family vineyards.
Not to be deterred, ol’ Joe eventually did get hitched in 1912 – to a French Canadian bride that “he mail-ordered” according to Plaisance Ranch’s Joe G., who now makes about 2,000 cases of wine annually from 21 different grape varieties, derived from “about 42 different selections, if you count all of the clones involved” (apparently, the third Joe G. is into complexity). One of those varieties (a Savoy specialty), in particular, is so geekily and entertainingly interesting, that I felt compelled to write about Plaisance after my visit based on that varietal wine alone…
One could be forgiven for expecting an overdose of “yes, I did in fact write those checks” bullsh*t when visiting Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, based solely on the facts that
a) it takes its name from the most infamous preparation (#500, which involves burying a cow’s horn full of manure) in wine’s most infamous set of farming practices (Biodynamics), and
b) founders Barbara and Bill Steele are former CFO/CFA financial types who, after leaving Wall Street and before establishing Cowhorn (despite not having a single lick of winegrowing experience) lived what they call a “homeopathic lifestyle in Marin County.”
Cowhorn co-fouder Barbara Steele
One’s skepticism about the Steele’s seriousness regarding their 25-or-so acres of vines and 4,000-or-so case production could be forgiven, but one’s skepticism would also be quite wrong. I mean, you’ll want to be skeptical about, for example, the earnestness of Bill Steele’s long hair, but then you’ll find out that he makes his own sulfites. And that the Steele’s spent two years researching the right place to plant vines before breaking ground on Cowhorn in 2002, planning on Biodynamics viticulture from the get-go (with Alan York consulting), and despite its under-the-radar status and various environmental challenges (ripening is actually the main challenge there, as they are farming Rhône varieties, and the cold air from the surrounding hills makes this a cooler spot by Applegate standards) chose Southern Oregon anyway.
And then there’s the farming mentality employed at Cowhorn, which feels downright legit when the Steele’s are waxing philosophic about it; as Barbara put it, “It’s the people behind it that makes this kind of viticulture possible for the Applegate Valley.” Even their yeast situation is kind of endearing; Bill mentioned that that six unique strains were identified there, primarily due to the 100+ acres of property having been left isolated so long before the Steele’s bought it.
And then… then you’ll taste their wines, which all have a consistent and defining element of being well-crafted and yet still characterful; not overly polished, showing their edginess and angularity while still retaining a sense of elegance. In other words, the only thing full of bullsh*t will be your own silly preconceived notions about their outfit…
You know that your brand is in trouble when, instead of talking about your forty-plus-year history in a nascent wine region, or your long hours of sun, 1300-foot vineyard elevation, diurnal temperature shifts of over fifty degrees Fahrenheit, or any of the other factors that make your terroir an ideal place for ripening interesting grape varieties, all anyone can mention is how your family business heir apparent allegedly got blowies during a commercial airplane flight.
When Napa-area veteran Camp came on board at Troon to help get the entity into more attractive sale shape, he told me that he was immediately impressed with the potential, given how good the wines already were. He focused first on ensuring that the operational and marketing basics were on solid footing – “block and tackle, man, block and tackle.” The additions of foot-treading and Biodynamics to the mix helped to put the finishing touches on the approach, and Troon was, in a very real sense, thus reborn as a brand.
What hasn’t changed is that Troon’s small vineyard location is capable of some excellent winegrowing magic when the right varieties are planted. Troon is more or less surrounded by the Siskiyou Mountains, near a wider section of the Applegate River, with river bench soils that consist of pieces of ancient seabed, granite, and sediment. “We have a mostly Northern California climate here,” Craig noted, “with a shorter growing season. So we can produce wines with European ‘weights.'”
Put another way, as winemaker Steve Hall noted when summarizing Troon’s current approach, “you do what can to make something… beautiful…”
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