Colter’s Creek Winery revitalizes tiny Idaho town

Mike Pearson grows the grapes for his winemaking wife Melissa Sanborn at Colter’s Creek Vineyards and Winery in Juliaetta, Idaho. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

JULIAETTA, Idaho – On Jan. 1, 1916, the state of Idaho turned dry, four years before Prohibition began across the country.

The brick building that now serves as the tasting room for Colter’s Creek Vineyards and Winery goes back a decade beyond all of that darkness, yet Mike Pearson and Melissa Sanborn saw enough potential, history and agriculture surrounding that old pharmacy to take a chance on Juliaetta, population 579.

“People thought we were crazy, and a lot of time we thought we were crazy,” Pearson said. “How are we going to survive in a little tasting room in this tiny town where, frankly, most people drink Bud Light?”

It starts with the grapes Pearson grows and the wines created by Sanborn, his wife. Historical accounts and viticulture indicate that it makes sense for award-winning estate wines to be produced along the Potlatch and Clearwater rivers. This spring, the growing region was recognized by the federal government as the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area.

And earlier this year, the Colter’s Creek 2013 Arrow Rim Red – a Rhône-style blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre from estate grapes – earned a gold medal and was chosen as Best Idaho Wine at the Cascadia Wine Competition.

“We’re kind of traditionalists,” Sanborn said. “We’ve spent time in Europe and really value the growing aspect of a wine region. That’s always been our goal – to showcase grapes that are grown here.”

We caught up with Pearson and Sanborn earlier this spring, a few days before Sanborn gave birth to twins.

Here’s the interview:

Valentine’s Day drive leads to discovery

Cabernet Franc and other varieties thrive at Colter’s Creek Vineyards, which spans 35 acres across two sites – including this planting near the Potlatch River in Idaho. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

One of the Idaho wine industry’s pioneers in the 20th century – meteorologist/writer Bob Wing – planted vines in 1972 in the Lewiston Orchards as a test project for the University of Idaho. His modest vineyard was a short drive from the historic site of Robert Schleicher, whose commercial vineyard established in 1883 grew to 130 acres.

According to The Wine Project, the history of Washington state wine written by vintner Ron Irvine with the late Walter Clore, in 1906 – around the same time Juliaetta welcomed its pharmacy – Schleicher published a booklet titled Grape Culture in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. Published writings by both Schleicher and Wing helped make the case for the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA.

Wing also helped inspire his friend Larry Spencer to plant a few acres of Chardonnay and Riesling downstream from Juliaetta beginning in 1983. A decade later and under a different owner, Larry Kornze, the property would also be home to vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Rkatsiteli – a red variety with a history in the former Soviet Union.

In 2007, Sanborn was a chemist who’d gone back to school at Washington State University to study winemaking. She and Pearson already had begun to sketch out their dream of growing grapes and making wine from them.

“We’ve always been passionate about wine,” Pearson said. “It was in February – kind of a Valentine’s Day thing – and we headed to Lenore because we’d heard things about it, including a vineyard there that was supposedly planted by the Rothchilds.

“We happened to take this cutoff road to Highway 3 and came through Juliaetta, and thought, ‘Those really look like vines,’ ” he continued. “They were dormant and covered with weeds. We figured out how to get up here from the highway, looked at the vines and the place actually had a ‘for sale’ sign. The vines were alive, but they didn’t look like they’d been taken care of in 10 years.”

It turns out Chardonnay from those plantings had been made into commercial wine more than a decade before by Pend d’Oreille Winery in Sandpoint. Soon after taking over the property, Pearson and Sanborn began pruning.

“It took us a year or two to rejuvenate it,” he said. “It’s all own-rooted so that wasn’t an issue, and we re-trellised everything.”

They launched Colter’s Creek in 2008 with 300 cases of wine, about 50 of it Riesling. Their first estate wines came from the 2009 vintage as production shot up to 1,500 cases.

“We thank Larry Spencer every day, who passed away a few months ago,” Pearson said.

Colter’s Creek heat units similar to Walla Walla

Mike Pearson’s weather station at his vineyard in Juliaetta, Idaho, recorded 3,400 growing degree days during the 2015 vintage – a total similar to those recorded by Washington State University in the Rattlesnake Hills and Walla Walla Valley. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Those first estate grapes weathered the Oct. 10 “game over” freeze of 2009 much better than most in Washington’s Columbia Valley.

“We didn’t freeze-out here until the end of October,” Sanborn said.

Pearson said. “It’s interesting that most people tend to think that it’s cooler here.”

Their weather station in 2010 recorded about 2,800 growing degree days. Last year, Pearson said the total climbed to about 3,400 heat units – nearly identical to Washington State University’s AgWeatherNet stations installed in the Walla Walla Valley and the Yakima Valley’s Rattlesnake Hills.

“It’s hotter than we ever thought,” Pearson said. “We have some Zinfandel here that does really well. With an open canvas, we’ve planted a lot of different things and we can ripen about anything.

“Grenache does really well here, and our Cabs are great,” he added. “These narrow valleys really trap heat, and with the river canyons we get really good temperature swings about 35 to 40 degrees in the summertime.

“But I think the best attribute here is in the winter,” he continued. “Our winter low is considerably higher than even in the Tri-Cities (Wash.), where there’s a big, broad expansive valley. Our low temperature this past winter was 12 degrees, and in Southern Idaho it was minus-5.”

Their vines live at an altitude ranging from 850 feet to 1,150 feet.

“I think they are the lowest elevation vines in the state of Idaho,” Pearson said.

Pearson and his team continue to expand. Their plantings now span 35 acres, which include a 5-acre parcel on the other side of the ridge, a stone’s throw from the Clearwater. This year, they’ve added 3 acres of Grenache. They are bullish on Riesling, Syrah and Bordeaux varieties while Sanborn dabbles with other varieties such as Cinsault, Graciano and Tempranillo. The Rkatsiteli is out of the picture.

“I’m learning how to play with Tempranillo, but it’s been a challenge for me,” she said. “I drink more Rhônes, so I know where I want to go with those.”

But it doesn’t take much to get Pearson to sing the praises of Grenache, a grape that’s in growing demand in Idaho and Washington.

“It’s a terrific grape,” he said. “Maybe it’s the terroir, too, which is very alluvial, and it’s extremely windy here. Every year, we have a 60- to 70-mph wind through here. It does a lot of damage to trellises, but Grenache loves wind. It might be somewhat site-specific, but we are really excited about that grape here, and it’s already starting to show itself in our GSM blend.”

They named that award-winning wine Arrow Rim Red for the narrow, treacherous and private gravel road that leads to their production facility.

“We don’t really have to do much to the Grenache – and that’s the beauty to it. It makes my job a little too easy sometimes,” she said. “And I’m having fun with our Bordeauxs.

“We see the vintage difference in them, which Mike and I appreciate. We don’t necessarily want every year to be the same in our wines, and the tasting room gives us the opportunity to talk with people about the wines and explain why this wine or that blend is different from year to year.”

Her 2014 ice wine, made with Riesling, earned a double gold medal at the 2015 Idaho Wine Competition.

“Riesling has always been fun for me to work with,” Sanborn said. “It just a shiny Northwest varietal. I’ve always enjoyed German Rieslings and what’s been produced in the Northwest.”

The Colter’s Creek 2013 Syrah ranks among her most decorated, earning best of class at the 2016 Savor Northwest Wine Awards and a gold at the 2016 Cascadia Wine Competition.

Colter’s Creek production stands at 5,500 cases

Vines are planted above and below the production facility for Colter’s Creek Winery in Juliaetta, Idaho. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Sanborn has produced 5,500 cases in the past two years. If they doubled that, they would be in the same neighborhood as Cinder in near Boise and Pend d’Oreille in Sandpoint.

“There’s no way with this facility we could ever go over 10,000, and we don’t want to either,” Pearson said. “We planted to grapes to do that, though. Our goal is to do estate wines. We still buy some Syrah from Southern Idaho, but we planted 5 acres of Syrah last year to cover most of that next year.”

They didn’t plan to make increase production so substantially in 2014, but the vintage and growers in the Snake River Valley to the south and what is now the Lewis-Clark Valley made it possible.

“They would call us and say, ‘We have about twice as much, do you want to take it?’’ Sanborn said. “ ‘Yeah, sure, we’ll do it,’ which turned out to be a great idea because ’15 was devastating in Southern Idaho.”

The success of their own vineyards and sales in the Juliaetta tasting room prompted Colter’s Creek to bring on Jon Harding, who shared the winemaking duties at Small House Wines in Sandpoint for its first few vintages.

Sanborn can use the additional help after recently giving birth to twins. Their growing family and the success of Colter’s Creek give them much less time to travel to Europe – trips that helped inspire them to enter the wine industry.

“You can understand why viticulture started here back a 100 years ago,” Pearson said. “The people who settled here probably thought it looked like home and looked like grape country. And it has the added benefit, we think, of a bit milder winters. That’s probably the chief hazard to viticulture in the Northwest, really.”

Historic region recognized as AVA

Colter’s Creek Winery in Juliaetta, Idaho, will be able to label future vintages of its Arrow Rim Red GSM-style blend with the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area instead of using “Idaho” as the AVA. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

The process proved to be source of odgena, but the historic Lewis-Clark Valley was approved as an American Viticultural Area by the federal government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau on April 20 – the morning of the Clearwater Economic Development Association’s annual meeting in Lewiston.

There were 401 attendees that night, and the 80 folks on the waiting list were disappointed to miss the CEDA’s celebration of the AVA, which is expected to bring increased wine tourism and recognition to the area explored by Lewis & Clark. Karl and Coco Umiker of Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston teamed up with Pearson and Sanborn to bring on geologist Alan Buscacca, who spearheaded the petition.

‘“We’ve been working on this for seven years,” Sanborn said. “When we first got together with Karl and Coco and decided we were going to do this I remember that the Snake River Valley AVA had taken about seven years to get approved. We thought, ‘We’re not going to have this take seven years. It’s going to take two or three years.’ ”

It helped to have the backing and support of CEDA and a number of other agencies.

“They’ve been very active since the get-go with the AVA petition and the formation of the Lewis-Clark Valley Wine Alliance,” Sanborn said. “That’s the marketing tool for the AVA here in the valley.”

It also should help market Colter’s Creek wines.

“For us, the estate part is huge – to be able to put that AVA on our labels,” Sanborn said. “That’s been our goal before we even came across this vineyard. We wanted to grow our own grapes, make wine from them and do it in Idaho.”

In the long term, Sanborn said the new AVA has quickly inspired more discussion about planting new vineyards.

“We’re already seeing all the grower enthusiasm that’s taking place,” she said. “We’re getting a lot of inquiries and calls about putting in a vineyard. Before, we could go consult with these people, and now, it’s ‘Here is the name of someone (else) to call’ because we’re just getting so many.’

“There’s going to be a growing boom in this part of the state, which is great because we could use more grapes in this area ourselves,” she continued. “And there are a lot of people who are excited about growing but don’t want to produce wine.”

Sanborn also is in a position of leadership within her adopted state’s wine industry, serving her second three-year term as a commissioner on the Idaho Wine Commission.

“It can be hard when the bulk of what’s going on is down south (in the Snake River Valley), which is the same thing that Eastern Washington runs into, but it’s been really good, and the rest of the state is really responsive to what’s going on up here,” Sanborn said. “It will be fun to see what happens in five years in terms of the recognition we get up here.”

A marriage of food, wine and science

Colter’s Creek Winery operates a tasting room and commercial kitchen in the brick building that served as the pharmacy more than a century ago in Juliaetta, Idaho. Mike Pearson recently added on to the tasting room. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Sanborn grew up a couple hours’ drive from wine country, on Spokane’s South Hill, but her parents raised her in a home that appreciated agriculture. Both parents came from Midwest farming families and attended Eastern Washington University in Cheney. After some friends moved to the Tri-Cities, Sanborn and her folks almost beat a path to the Columbia Valley on weekends and vacations.

“They became impressed with everything Northwest – fresh fish, wine, beer. It was in their face,” she said. “We would go pick cherries and go out to the wineries.

“Washington wine became a part of our life, and it was always on our table,” she continued. “It became a natural thing for me to want to do, I guess. When I was 19 and in college, I decided that somehow wine is going to become a part of my life in terms of growing or production.”

She earned a degree in chemistry from Washington State University and went to work for Anatek Labs in Moscow, Idaho, operated by Pearson. It was a purely professional relationship for five years until after her final day on the job.

“I left the lab to go back to WSU to go to grad school in wine science and viticulture. He thought that sounded pretty cool, too,” she chuckled. “I had known he was a home brewer and made wine at home and dabbled in everything. Our bond formed partly because of that and partly because of our love for culture and food.”

They married, became friends with the Umikers, then stumbled upon Larry Spencer’s vineyard during her final semester of graduate school. Until then, Sanborn planned on working harvests at wineries in both hemispheres.

“Once we came upon this property, our path was created for us,” she said. “I was in grad school with Coco. It just kind of seemed like it was the place to be. Mike has more energy than any person I’ve ever known. He just keeps going and going and going. I just try to keep up with him.”

Their tasting room in Juliaetta is a short drive from their production facility and two vineyards. It’s about 30 minutes to Lewiston and 45 minutes to Moscow.

“We drive a lot now, which is part of running a business in the country,” Sanborn said. “Mike has this amazingly coordinated schedule for picking up all of his food goods for the tasting room.”

A culture of food, wine for Juliaetta

The tasting room for Colter’s Creek Winery in Juliaetta, Idaho, is surrounded by century-old brick walls and features estate wines on tap and for sale in refillable bottles. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

The history behind the hometown of Colter’s Creek Winery is easy to explain. Charles Snyder, the city’s first postmaster, named it for his two daughters – Julia and Etta.

“It’s one of the only words in the English language that has three vowels in a row,” Pearson said.

Juliaetta’s legacy once was tied to the success of its cherry orchards and watermelon patches.

“Apparently 50 or 60 years ago, their watermelon rivaled that of Hermiston (Ore.), but their watermelons here ripened a few days later after Hermiston’s, and the industry kind of fell apart,” he said. “There used to be a train through here, too, but that also disappeared.

“But there’s a vibrant community here that’s been great to us, and it’s been fun getting to meet some of these extended families that have been here forever,” he said.

The old pharmacy building was one of the few remaining worth saving.

“And it was about ready to fall over,” Pearson said. “The roof was in disrepair. The good thing about it was that we didn’t pay much for it. You had to look hard, but you could see the beauty in it.”

Tapping into an emerging region

The refillable bottle program has been a successful feature for Colter’s Creek Winery in Juliaetta, Idaho, and some of Melissa Sanborn’s wines are only available through by tap. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Pearson and Sanbon spent nearly two years on remodeling and transitioning the century-old building into a tasting room, which includes a commercial kitchen and culinary program that Pearson heads up. That’s helped drive wine sales, and the tasting room accounts for 65 percent of their sales.

“We’ve done really well with our tap wine, and we sell so much of it there,” Sanborn said. “A lot of the blends we create are on tap, and that’s the only place you can get them. Our consumers like that they can buy a refill bottle and fill up with something you can only get there.

“It’s driven us to expand our business into Moscow, and that’s the next project we’re working on,” she added.

There’s not only the financial success in it for Colter’s Creek, but Sanborn and Pearson also are serving as ambassadors for an industry that’s traditionally not been looked upon kindly in the politically and socially conservative state of Idaho.

“Now it’s pretty much standing-room only every Friday and Saturday,” Pearson said. “We sell a lot of wine out of there, including wine on tap. I think we’ve created a few wine drinkers. It’s just a fun, uplifting place to go on a Friday or Saturday night that didn’t exist in this valley community, and people come from Moscow-Pullman, Lewiston-Clarkston to this quaint little town.”

Some members of their tasting room team walk a few blocks to work jobs that didn’t exist when Pearson and Sanborn took that Valentine’s Day weekend scouting trip. In nearby Kendrick, a town half the size of Juliaetta folks along Highway 3, folks are ready to welcome a new brewery.

“People start to see they really can do something here,” Pearson said. “Now there’s some interest in opening a little coffee shop and – we hope – a bakery, little art galleries and that kind of thing. It’s a little bit of a destination because people love to drive out here, and it’s really a pretty canyon.”

It’s an emerging culture and economy created thanks to an industry Idaho’s state government outlawed exactly 100 years ago – and formally recognized by the federal government just a few weeks ago.