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Wine barrels

Admit it: when you think of wine you don't think of Idaho. It's time to change that.

Each year new wines bring this state closer to a prominent spot on the wine trail map. In a state noted for its mountains and whitewater, its deserts and forests, you might not expect so many vineyards. But from Lewiston to the Hagerman Valley to the Snake River in Canyon County, they're part of our history and our present.

Vintage Idaho takes you among the vines and into the Idaho wine industry. This one-hour Outdoor Idaho special reveals the wonder and beauty of the unexpected wines of Idaho.

Steve Meyer of the Pend d'Oreille Winery in Sandpoint says there's a lot of oenological history in our state: "Great wines have been produced in Idaho since pre-prohibition. The original center in the Northwest was Lewiston, now the location of the Potlatch mill."

Wine vatsProhibition wiped out the premier wine-growing region of the Northwest. The families who had sunk their roots…abandoned their vines. Today's wine makers started from scratch.

Chuck Devlin is the winemaker at Ste. Chappelle: "Imagine coming to a place like this and pulling out sagebrush and planting grape vines . . . that was a real leap for people to do, and we're doing it." He says a lot of people still say, "What, Idaho wines? They must be made from potatoes!"

Like any farmer, winemakers like Devlin are at the mercy of nature. He says, "It's a real seasonal thing. You live by Mother Nature’s clock."

Steve Robertson, winemaker at Hells Canyon Winery, says it all starts out amongst the vines . . . it all starts with the grapes. "It’s an obligation and the statistic is, and many only pay this lip service, but this is LITERALLY where the wine is made. I mean 75-80% of that bottle happens right here," he says. "You’re never going to make great wine unless you have great grapes, and that’s our goal."

Neil Glancy is the winemaker at Carmela Vinyards. Great Idaho wines are his goal as well. "Over the next three years I’m out to prove that Idaho can make the best wine in the United States. I joke about how our wines are better than California wines, but we’ve consistently been winning medals and doing really well as far as quality. And I think a lot of that depends on the growers, growing the grapes right, and they’ve done a very good job for me."

Grapes"The whole trick of making wine is getting your fruit ripe. Ripeness isn’t everything, it’s the ONLY thing," says Chuck Devlin. "If we can get our grapes ripe here and if you’re able to do that and you have a good wine maker, you’re going to get good wine."

“Great wine” means different things to different people. People are always asking Neil Glancy for advice. “I make a wide variety of wines. I make about 15 different types of wines and people always ask me, ‘What’s your favorite wine?’ Depends on my mood. I make a sweet wine, I’m the only person in the state who makes a sweet red wine. And usually sweeter wines help get people introduced to wines, you have to have a starting point for them. And once they’re introduced to wine then they start to drink more and more, get drier and drier, as they drink, they’ll start craving those tannins, big bold cabernets.”

Perhaps the thing about growing grapes in Idaho is being able to grow so many different varieties. Out among the vines, you find everything from Reisling to the unexpected Cabernet Franc. It’s one of Steve Robertson’s favorites. “This isn’t a common grape in Idaho, we use it for blending,” he says. “The English call it claret, in France it’s called Bordeaux. This is the classic Bordeaux grape and this grape has made the two greatest wines of this century.”

Stuart Scott, winemaker at the Camas Prairie Winery in Moscow is proud of Idaho’s small but proud presence in the region. “Idaho is the step sister of the three Northwest wine producing states, we have 17 wineries compared to just over 150 in Oregon and 210 in Washington. So we’re just not well known. But the quality of the wines are very good.”

Bikes and flowersTourism is a huge part of the wine business. Hells Canyon Winery, like the others, relies on visitors. “Tourists tend to be receptive buyers,” says Robertson. “They want to take a little piece of Idaho home with them.” Wine can be the perfect gift to give upon returning home.

Neil Glancy from Carmela agrees. “People wanna brag about what’s here in Idaho, we have great skiing, we have great white water and we have great wine. So at Christmastime when they’re buying gifts for their friends saying, ‘Look we have really good wine, you have to taste this!’ You know they send it to their friends in CA and I’ve gotten letter back saying we were shocked and this is lovely and…send us another case!”

Perhaps no spot on the Idaho wine map depends on tourists as much as Pend d’Oreille Winery in Sandpoint. Steve Meyer is the winemaker. “Here in Sandpoint when we’re making wine in this tourist community, we bring the tradition of wine. It’s what really drives our passion, the tradition, whole cultural aspect of it. What we’ve tried to do is bring the things to the public that enhance that experience.” They have a comfortable shop where you can taste the various vintages. Increasingly, wine is bringing in tourists who are stopping, sipping and cracking open their wallets.

wine barrelsThere is a symbiotic relationship between wine maker and the land. Each row of vines is something to be nurtured, cared for. The land gives birth to succulent fruit and, here, the term “Mother Earth” is not taken for granted. This land is something to live up to, something to work with, something to honor with hands on attention. It’s something that helps wines from our state compete against the best of the rest.

“We have to be better here. And it is, we’re better,” claim Roberston. “And we’ve got that syndrome of, the old boy syndrome of, how can it be good it’s in Idaho, but you don’t only have to be good, you have to be better. And you have to really work at it.”

And it is hard work. Long hours, intense heat and brutal cold, bugs, animals. At times it seems like everything is in nature is actually trying to make sure these winemakers fail. But they’re not failing. They’re succeeding. They’re wining both medals and fans each year another vintage hits the market, each time one of their wines hit the palates of wine drinkers.

red grape leavesChuck Devlin knows what he’s up against. "You’re competing against everybody in the world. You go to a grocery store, even in Idaho, and you’ve got wines from Italy and from France and California and Washington and you compete with everybody. So it’s really short sided to think that I only compete with against my Idaho neighbors. There’s a world standard at this point, and you have to hit that standard. Can we hit that standard in Idaho? Yes. We can and we do every day."

If you’re making wine in Idaho you are part of a relatively small group. You work hand in hand with the Earth, the seasons and each other.

Devlin says, “Actually winemakers tend to be gregarious, they tend to like to drink wine and enjoy with other people. We get together a lot, talk about it.”

In Idaho the art and science of wine is young, still growing. It is hard to miss a very Western part of all of this. These wine makers are on an adventure, they’re mapping the territory and carving out new lives here amid the sagebrush. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

“Are we pioneers? Probably to a certain extent, yes,” says Steve Meyer.

“We’ve been pioneers, but the next generation will be different kinds of pioneers,” says Robertson. “They need marketing people, they need to learn to sell these wines in other places, so a different kind of pioneers in the next 10-15 years.”

For now it’s easy for you to head out and taste the bounty of vintage Idaho. No matter your taste in wine, there’s something for you. Even if you don’t drink wine, a visit to the vineyards is a lovely, interesting stop. You don’t need to pop a cork to enjoy what the Idaho wine country has to offer.

Cheers!

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