There’s never been a better time to be drinking Idaho wine, and the Gem State spends the entire month of June toasting a young industry that’s viewed by the wine trade as one of the country’s most fascinating.
Idaho Wine Month became official in 2009 by declaration of then-Gov. Butch Otter. Last year, Brad Little continued the tradition of Idaho’s governor autographing bottles of Idaho wine at a grocery store during the first week of the campaign.
Wine production is now a $210 million industry for Idaho, and the state’s 60 wineries pull from 1,300 acres of vineyards. A similar amount of acreage is planted across the entire Walla Walla Valley. There’s a growing level of support among Idahoans for their own wine, as now 10% of all wine produced in Idaho is consumed within the state. That’s about double what it was a few years ago.
Idaho’s quality of life has made it one of the fastest growing economies in the country, and it continues to attract and nurture winemaking talent. A recent example is Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston, named the 2020 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest magazine. Coco Umiker, who grew up in Boise, continues to help the entire Lewis-Clark Valley earn headlines with her winemaking at Clearwater Canyon.
To see such regionwide acclaim for an Idaho winery did not surprise Katelyn Peil, a wine buyer for the Heavy Restaurant Group in Seattle and a judge at last year’s Idaho Wine Competition.
“With a lot of variety in grapes and styles, the freshness and liveliness of not only the whites, but also the reds impressed me,” she said. “The wines have great food-pairing ability in addition to being able to stand on their own and would be a great supplement to any Northwest or worldly wine list.”
Tim McNally, a New Orleans journalist and broadcaster and a panelist at wine competitions across the country, also enjoyed his time judging wine in the Snake River Valley.
“It’s beautiful country,” McNally said. “Across the board we had some really nice wines, and they are nice people. It seems to me that the wine commission here is trying to make it a destination by showing people the tourism, the dining, the recreational opportunities. And that’s where it all starts coming together.”
Overall, Idaho has weathered the pandemic better than many states, so Gov. Little allowed tasting rooms to open May 16 under social distancing guidelines. However, Savor Idaho, the signature consumer festival for Idaho Wine Month, has been canceled for 2020.
Below are several wines that received a gold medal in recent months. Some can be found at regional grocers and bottle shops or they can be ordered from the winery. And now, you have the option to visit many of the wineries, too.
■ Williamson Vineyards 2018 Syrah, Snake River Valley, $30: One of the youngest examples of Northwest syrah also ranks among the best as winemakers Martin Fujishin and Greg Koenig provide a glimpse into the future with this debutant for the Williamson family. Vineyard managers Mike and Patrick Williamson continue to place award-winning fruit on the Koenig crush pad just a few hundred yards away. Aromas and flavors of sweet black cherries and plum pick up touches of sweet herbs and leather as raspberry acidity and smooth tannins make for a nice texture.
■ Sawtooth Winery 2018 Classic Fly Series Dry Riesling, Snake River Valley, $18: Idaho excels with many varieties and styles of wine, but riesling has been the constant. When she took over at Ste. Chapelle in 2016, Meredith Smith became the state’s leading producer of riesling, and she still shows the flair with it now that she’s in charge of both Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth. Skyline Vineyard, the breadbasket for many Gem State producers, is the birthplace of this riesling, which captured best-of-class honors at the 2020 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Lovely peach, pear and tangerine aromas include a scrape of chalk and light honey. As for the flavors, think of a fruit salad minus the sweetness, led by Asian pear and tangerine with nice tension from lime zest. Idaho has long been known for sweet rieslings, but that is changing.
■ Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2017 Louis Delsol Cabernet Sauvignon, Lewis-Clark Valley, $32: Last year, Karl and Coco Umiker pulled down five Platinum Awards from Wine Press Northwest via their red program, including this stellar example of cab. Here, they worked with two young vineyards in the Lewis-Clark Valley — Arnett and Rock n’J — to pay tribute to the region’s first winemaker, who moved to the valley after the Civil War. The purity of fruit shines at first whiff and continues to impress through the palate. Blackcurrant, dark-skinned plums, savory olive paste, dusty earthiness and crushed tobacco leaves march harmoniously, and the bright finish sings.
■ Koenig Vineyards 2016 The Devil’s Bedstead Zinfandel, Snake River Valley, $30: Greg Koenig has won best of show at the Idaho Wine Competition twice in the past four years, both times by skillfully crafting riesling into a beautiful ice wine. However, his bold reds also earn him regional acclaim. This zinfandel, a grape rarely found in Idaho, opens with lush red fruit and dried rosemary. The palate is unexpectedly fresh given its hedonism, full of raspberries, herbs, wet earth and dark chocolate, allowing the finishing tannins to linger. He named this project for a peak near Sun Valley where he grew up.
■ Camas Prairie Winery 2018 Huckleberry Mead, Idaho, $15: A decade ago, Jeremy Ritter purchased this historic brand, and he continues the tradition of award-winning honey wine. Made from huckleberries and honey and nothing else, this mead pours into the glass a pink-hued-amber. The nose is exactly as expected — enticing honeyed huckleberries — and is further elevated by mountain air and herbaceous garrigue. The palate is sweet at 4.5% residual sugar, with a creamy texture that’s full of wild florals. Suggested pairings include dark chocolate, a slice of cheesecake or a wedge of sharp cheese.
■ Colter’s Creek Winery 2017 Estate Rocinante Red Wine, Lewis-Clark Valley, $35: Mike Pearson’s plantings not far from the Clearwater River are hitting their stride. His winemaking wife, Melissa Sanborn, used graciano, the perfumy grape native to Rioja, to share the spotlight with mourvèdre (46%) and malbec (8%) in this Spanish-themed red. Cherry candy, raspberries and other red fruits rule in this smooth and pleasing wine. The flavors are complemented by hints of spice, earthy minerals and dried herbs. Rocinante was Don Quixote’s old work horse, but this ride is far from that. Prior to its release to club members, this earned a gold medal at last fall’s Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition. It was one of many gold medals won last year by this Lewis-Clark Valley producer that prompted Wine Press Northwest magazine to name Colter’s Creek as the 2020 Idaho Winery of the Year.
• Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthWestwine.com.