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…
2016 Par Terre Merlot (Snake River Valley, $24)
Now, here’s an example of Idaho’s pioneering ways: in March of 2018, former ballet dancers Travis and Mallory Walker opened up Par Terre (“on the ground”) in Garden City, across the parking lot from a Big Smokes cigarette shop. Travis put it this way: “When we retired [from dancing], we knew that we couldn’t just sit behind a desk. I thought that I could make the most change here.” In terms of passion for wine, they lack little of it, to the point that they grow Gewürztraminer in their backyard as “practice” for when they can plant their own fruit. Their Merlot shows great promise – it’s lithe, silky, and full of black and blue plum action, without shying away from the grape’s penchant for pungent black olive notes.
2016 Cinder Syrah (Snake River Valley, $30)
Also in an urban setting in Garden City, Cinder Wines is the brainchild of Chateau Ste Michelle alumnus Melanie Krause and husband Joe Schnerr (a former chemist). Cinder has seen early success with their chic tasting room and even more chic, clean wines (now up to about 8,000 cases, though some fruit is from nearby WA state). Their Syrah is leathery, toasty, and jam packed with smoked meat aromas, a sense of minerality, and deep, dark fruit flavors.
2016 Telaya Mourvedre (Snake River Valley, $32)
Kentucky native and Telaya founder Earl Sullivan is a former Pharma COO, his wife Carrie was a veterinarian surgeon, and they run their second careers in wine with all of the gnat’s-ass precision that you’d expect from their backgrounds. That’s a good thing for their 5000 case wine production, which is determined and quality-driven. Earl is a font of information with respect to Idaho’s winemaking issues, from its nascent quality focus (“we used to deal with grape growers,” he told me, “now we deal with wine growers”) to its unique climatic challenges (“we lose a bottle per barrel per month due to the dryness of the climate”). Bright, light, and textural, their Mourvedre is delicious – pepper, red currants, violets, citrus peel, and a sense of tasty delight.
NV 3100 Cellars Whitewater Sparkling (Snake River Valley, $35)
Telaya winemaker Hailey Minder’s side project is named after the number of miles of rivers in Idaho, and given her experience in crafting spumante in Italy, she decided to go with sparkling (though in this case, it’s methode traditionale). Made from Bitner Vineyards Chardonnay, this bubbly is floral, with green and yellow apple notes, and a nice undercurrent (ha ha!) of toastiness. A bit pricey, but also more than a bit tasty, and an open bottle won’t last long.
2016 Koenig Vineyards ‘Sunny Slope Cuvee’ Riesling (Snake River Valley, $13)
Situated near the town of Caldwell, Koenig has been in the business of Idaho wine for two decades (and in farming for almost 100 years), which qualifies it as a bit of an institution in these parts. Owner Greg Koenig is tall and mild-mannered, which might explain why some of his wines, among the best in the state, are under-priced. Case in point: this pithy, bright, and citrus-tinged Riesling, which offers aromas of bruised apple, white flowers, toast, and wet slate. The fact that it’s available for under $20 is head-shaking.
2014 Koenig Vineyards ‘Cuvee Amelia’ Reserve Syrah (Snake River Valley, $55)
Simply put, this is probably the best red that Idaho currently has to offer. Silky, savory, structured, and gritty, there’s power here and a purity of fruit that provides a solid, unflinching backbone for its herb, pepper, and smoked meat aromas. I’m starting to believe in the future of Syrah in Idaho, though I suspect that, like Syrah just about everywhere else, it will continue to be a hand-sell.
2014 Williamson Orchards & Vineyard Sangiovese (Snake River Valley, $NA)
First homesteaded in 1909, this family farm now produces almost twenty different labels of wine. Whenever I don’t loathe a domestic US Sangiovese, I consider it a success; even more so when I actually like it. You know immediately what you’re getting with this one, as it has Sangio’s telltale dried orange peel notes and textural combination of vibrancy and chewiness.
2015 Fujishin Reserve Petite Sirah (Snake River Valley, $26)
Martin Fujishin (former Vineyard Manager for Bitner) and Teresa Moy began the Fujishin brand in 2009, and seem to be really coming into their own at the decade mark. Or maybe they came into their own ten years ago and I’m just catching up… Anyway… Violets and vivacity mark the entrance of this big boy red, which lacks shyness but not power, meatiness, or deep, dark fruitiness.
2017 Lost West Winery Riesling (Snake River Valley, $17)
Fujishin’s “second label” is an experimental playground of sorts, and it’s produced this crisp, clean, mineral-and-lime-driven delight. Long and fresh, with exotic fruit and toast notes, it’s yet another under-priced white from the state, who seem to think that the word “Riesling” is German for “offered at a 35% discount.
2015 Trout Trilogy by Sawtooth Grenache (Snake River Valley, $40)
Named after the Rocky Mountain range that runs through the state, Sawtooth is Idaho’s largest vineyard owner, with 500 acres of vines, and thirty years of experience. In my experience, it’s their higher-end offerings that are worth the attention, in particular this peppery, floral, meaty, and juicy Grenache. Lovely on the nose, things get sultry on the palate, where raspberry, bing cherry, and red plum flavors dominate, along with a sense of both power and energy.
2016 Scoria Vineyards Malbec (Snake River Valley, $NA)
Scoria is one of the more curious success stories of Idaho wine. With a tiny production (expanding now to 2000 cases), the brand is getting press on the media-friendly story of Sydney Nederend, who seems impossibly young for the task of expanding on her family’s long-standing farming business (father Joe Weitz produces mint) by planting mostly Malbec and launching a wine brand. In fact, Nederend was too young to (legally) drink when she began researching the scoria rock and basalt channels that would become the brand’s sandy vineyard soils, and clearing the sage brush in order to plant about 800 vines. What defines this young vine Malbec is its savory texture and black and red cherry fruit flavor combo. It’s spicy, a tad oaky, but definitely promising.