Idaho wine industry states its case for Riesling

Members of the Idaho wine industry team up to sponsor the Riesling Rendezvous lunch Monday, July 18, 2016, at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle. The group included, left to right, Hailey Alexander of Cinder Wines, Mike Williamson of Williamson Vineyards, Moya Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission, Leslie Preston of Coiled Wines and Meredith Smith, winemaker for Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth wineries. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

SEATTLE – It cost $5,000 to sponsor Monday’s lunch at the international Riesling Rendezvous convention in Seattle – money well spent in the eyes of the Idaho wine industry.

The Idaho Wine Commission paid half of the $5,000 sponsorship, then divided the rest of the fee among the wineries that chose to participate in the conference co-hosted by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Dr. Loosen of Germany.

“We may not always try to sponsor this, but we need to prove ourselves to people and tell them, ‘Look at us!’ ” said Moya Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission.

“We started participating in the Riesling Rendezvous in 2013, and when we saw the opportunity to sponsor a lunch for the 2016 event, I was all over this,” Dolsby added. “I knew about the power of this from my days with the Washington Wine Commission and with all the Riesling in Idaho made by Ste. Chapelle, it makes sense for us.”

Ste. Chapelle winemaker Meredith Smith said, “For us to have six wines in front of this influential group of people is a great opportunity that doesn’t come around every day.”

Mike Williamson, vineyard manager for Williamson Vineyards in Caldwell and one of five commissioners on the Idaho Wine Commission, said, “This has been pretty exciting to have our wines in the same building, but it’s a little intimidating.”

Melanie Krause, winemaker/co-owner of Cinder Wines in Garden City near Boise, made a short presentation to the Riesling Rendezvous attendees during the lunch.

“Riesling is really important for Idaho, and it does well there,” Krause said. “I tell my customers that it’s a diverse wine, that it’s a super fun wine for winemakers to make and so good for pairing with food. I like to give consumers that perspective of ‘Why you should drink Riesling.’ ”

Ste. Chapelle is the oldest and largest winery – by far – in the Idaho wine industry at 125,000 cases. Combined with its sister winery, Sawtooth, the two Precept Wine brands produce nearly 28,000 cases of Riesling.

Idaho had its own tent in Woodinville for Sunday afternoon’s Grand Tasting, a public event at Chateau Ste. Michelle that kicked off the Riesling Rendezvous.

“I go to talk to the people,” Dolsby said. “Yes, I want you to taste the wine, but I also want to have a conversation with you. That’s pretty powerful, and this all has been well worth the $5,000.”

Educating the world about Idaho wine

Melanie Krause, winemaker/co-owner of Cinder Wines in Garden City, Idaho, addresses Riesling Rendezvous attendees Monday, July 18, 2016, during the lunch sponsored by the Idaho Wine Commission. The conference was staged at the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

In the early 1900s, the area of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash., was led by three wineries that combined to produce about 60,000 cases of wine from local grapes. It was the most important and promising wine region in the Pacific Northwest until Prohibition struck.

One example of the importance of Monday’s sponsored lunch came from a member of the wine trade in New York, who was sitting at a table with two Idaho winemakers. He didn’t know Idaho produced Riesling.

“We’ve been making Riesling in Idaho since the ’70s,” Williamson said.

Perhaps the primary purpose of the Riesling Rendezvous is to promote the diversity of the noble white grape. For example, many consumers in the United States associate Riesling only with sweet wines.

However, the focus of Monday’s opening session was bone-dry Riesling from around the world. There’s little of that style produced in Idaho, which is dominated by Ste. Chapelle. And while Williamson Vineyards produces a wine it labels as Dry Riesling, Williamson said he’s gained a greater appreciation of that definition this week.

“We were able to taste our own Riesling right after that, it was pretty eye-opening and intimidating coming off these world-class wines,” Williamson said. “I wondered how when the levels of the sugar are so high and the wine is still dry? It’s because the acid is way up there.”

Greg Koenig of Koenig Vineyards makes the wines for the Williamson family, and the target for their Riesling is about 6 tons per acre with a sugar level ranging from 24 to 26 Brix.

“Maybe we need to come through the vineyard and pick a little earlier to get that acid,” Williamson said. “But there’s this (dry) style of Riesling and then there’s what sells (off-dry). When experts talk about ‘racing’ acid and ‘electric’ acid, I’m not sure that all of our consumers are really wanting to buy that type.”

The luncheon lineup began with Coiled Wines 2015 Rizza, a dry sparkling Riesling, the Willamson Vineyards 2013 Dry Riesling, Cinder Wines 2015 Off-Dry Riesling, Colter’s Creek Winery 2014 Riesling and Sawtooth Winery 2014 Classic Fly Series Riesling.

The final wine was the Ste. Chapelle 2014 Special Harvest Riesling, a large lot at 6,500 cases that carries 7 percent residual sugar. That sweet Riesling paired nicely with the Flash-Fried Sweet Chili Green Beans alongside the Garlic and Rosemary Loin of Pork with Madeira jus.

Cinder begins Riesling production

Cinder Wines enologist Hailey Alexander, left, and Cinder winemaker/co-owner Melanie Krause pour wines from Idaho’s Snake River Valley at the grand tasting of Riesling Rendezvous on Sunday, July 17, 2016 in Woodinville, Wash. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Cinder, now in its second decade, has focused much of its white wine production on Viognier, which included a version labeled as “off-dry.” Krause said she will steer all of her Viognier to the dry style and offer Riesling as her off-dry white wine. She poured her 2015 Off-Dry Riesling during the Grand Tasting, a 450-case production that retails for $18 and checks in at 1.7 percent residual sugar.

“I’ve never produced a Riesling for Cinder until last year, but it wasn’t because I don’t love Riesling,” Krause said. “It just hadn’t been the right time for Cinder. We will start to produce more Riesling gradually as the winery can handle it. Our Viognier has been our main focus on white program, but as the winery grows and we’re able to purchase more tanks and do cooler fermentations, we’ll start to slowly grow the Riesling program.”

Riesling Rendezvous converts

British author Stuart Pigott, one of the world’s foremost Riesling experts, compiles notes while tasting examples of Riesling from Idaho on Monday, July 18, 2016, at the Idaho Wine Commission table during the Riesling Rendezvous Showcase Walk-Around Tasting at the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Pigott wrote The Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story in 2014. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Next year, the Riesling conference returns to Germany, continuing the traditional rotation with the United States and Australia. Its cast of characters, which features iconic German producer Ernst Loosen and acclaimed British wine writer Stuart Pigott, won’t return to Seattle and Chateau Ste. Michelle until 2019.

“I had always wanted to come to this, but there hasn’t been quite the justification when I haven’t been making Riesling,” Krause said with a chuckle. “Now that I have a good reason, I’ll be here every time.”

Smith, who makes Sawtooth wines and recently was promoted to head winemaker at Ste. Chapelle, said, “I don’t want to miss this again. I want to attend it every year, and it has heightened my interest in Riesling.”

And after Monday’s lunch, Dolsby said she will come away from Riesling Rendezvous with more optimism than ever.

“I judge our success on who we are talking to,” Dolsby said. “I just got done talking to Stuart Pigott, and he wants to come to Idaho!”