Savor Idaho serves as delicious barometer for Idaho wine industry

By on June 13, 2018

The 10th annual Savor Idaho attracted a record attendance of 1,000 wine lovers to the Idaho Botanical Gardens in Boise. At left is the Old Idaho Penitentiary, which closed in 1973. (Photo by Greg Smith/Courtesy of Idaho Wine Commission)

BOISE, Idaho — Considering consumer thirst for the sold-out 10th annual Savor Idaho, Moya Dolsby and the Idaho Wine Commission should start printing tickets for 2019.

After all, before she’d even wrapped up another successful Savor Idaho, she’d already announced that sales for next year’s food and wine festival at the Idaho Botanical Garden will open soon after Valentine’s Day.

“Oh, yeah, March 1,” said Dolsby, longtime executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission. “People ask for them in advance, and our VIP passes sell out in hours, so it’s nuts and crazy and fun all at the same time.”

The commission added 100 tickets this year because Dolsby liked the sound of 1,000 guests for the 10th anniversary. And yet, the string of sellouts grew to nine years and counting.

Nation’s fastest-growing city home to Savor Idaho

Patrons file into the 10th annual Savor Idaho on Sunday, June 10, 2018, in Boise. (Photo by Deborah Christison/Courtesy of Idaho Wine Commission)

Savor Idaho is the centerpiece event for Idaho Wine Month, an official proclamation by Gov. Butch Otter back in 2009 that was rather remarkable considering how religious and politically conservative the Gem State was — and still is. (In 1916, Idaho was among the first states in country to go dry, four years prior to Prohibition.)

But there’s a growing year-round buzz swirling around the Idaho wine industry. And the timing is ideal. Forbes magazine recently ranked Boise and its suburbs as the fastest growing metropolitan area in the U.S. At No. 2 is Amazon-driven Seattle. And there’s Dallas at No. 3.

“Shush,” joked Earl Sullivan, co-owner/winemaker of Telaya Wine Co., in nearby Garden City. “Yeah, the state of Idaho is getting a lot of good press, and there are a lot of people working really hard for that. And there are lot of people working hard for it for the Idaho wine industry.

“We’re seeing a lot of quality wine writers come through, and a lot of good writers coming through who are interested in travel, food, beverages, the buy local movement – those kinds of aspects,” Sullivan continued. “And these are people from the East Coast, the Midwest and the West. People soon will start to see what the craft beverage tourism industry can do for the entire state.”

A number of wine lovers from outside the region attend Savor Idaho. Sullivan met folks from California, Michigan and the East Coast at his booth, but there’s plenty of work to be recruiting and advocacy to be done in-state.

Gregg Alger, owner of Huston Vineyards and sister label Chicken Dinner Wines in Caldwell, said, “This is really a great event, maybe not for an individual winery, per se — we poured three or four cases of wine knowing that we’d get no direct sales out of it — but this is a platform for us to talk about the industry as a whole. The consumer leaves thinking, ‘Wow, we have an Idaho wine country.’

“It’s exposure for us to all of these newcomers to our area,” Alger added. “In our tasting room, it seems almost everyday that I’ll get one or two people who have just moved here in the last week. In the last week! A lot of them are Californians and they understand wine, which is great.”

Taste Washington serves as template for Savor Idaho

There were 30 wineries represented under the tents that were spread out across the Idaho Botanical Gardens for the 10th annual Savor Idaho. (Photo by Deborah Christison/Courtesy of Idaho Wine Commission)

Critical acclaim and awards at national and international wine competitions serve as examples of the strides made by the Idaho wine industry in the past decade.

“The first time we poured at Savor Idaho it seemed that the attendees were skeptical of Idaho wine but excited to give it a try,” said Coco Umiker, winemaker/co-owner of Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston, 270 miles north of Boise. “Now, it seems that people arrive expecting to be delighted.”

Dolsby brought the template for Savor Idaho with her when she got the post in 2008. The proud University of Washington grad served as events manager for the Washington State Wine Commission, which launched Taste Washington in 1998. That has grown into the largest single-region wine and food festival in the country.

“She deserves 100 percent of the credit for putting this together, and part of what got Moya hired were the great ideas and great examples that she brought over from her experience in Washington,” said Martin Fujishin, co-owner/winemaker of Fujishin Family Cellars in Caldwell. “To bring an event like this to Idaho has been instrumental in the growth of our industry.”

2 new Snake River Valley vineyards spark excitement

Greg Koenig, owner/winemaker for Koenig Vineyards, helps manage J Victor Vineyards, a promising 32-acre site overlooking the Sunnyslope Wine District and the Snake River near Caldwell, Idaho. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

A number of talented winemakers grew up in the Treasure Valley, including Melanie Krause of Cinder Wines and Leslie Preston of Coiled Wines, and returned home to start wineries and raise families. Customers are driving the market, and these savvy winemakers are working with vineyard managers to help determine the grape varieties best suited for the Snake River Valley, the breadbasket for the state’s wine industry.

However, more Idaho wineries are turning to Washington state for grapes to help meet the demand for regional wines. There’s been scant investment in planting vineyards to keep pace. Meanwhile, winter damage to vines and other weather events handcuffed production growth during the 2015 and 2017 vintages. As a result, the 1,300 acres of vineyards in Idaho has been relatively flat in the past decade. And the influx of new residents fuels the fear among winemakers that prime vineyard land will be lost — turned into housing developments.

Investments by individuals outside of the wine industry have been rare in Idaho, but there are two significant new plantings in the Snake River Valley. Mint farmer Joe Weitz and his family have established Scoria Vineyards, a site that comes with plans for 100 acres under vines. Micron executive Jay Hawkins is working with the Koenig brothers on J Victor Vineyards, an extremely warm 32-acre site overlooking the Sunnyslope Wine District. Virtually all of the fruit from either planting already is spoken for by top winemakers such as Greg Koenig, Krause and Sullivan.

“Both my grandparents had farms, so I had that feeling of getting back to farming,” Hawkins said. “I’ve been in the semiconductor industry for 34 years, and I’m retiring this summer. To me, it’s just farming. Naturally, there are the other aspects to it, but we found a wonderful site that’s really warm, and it’s been a good opportunity.

“Once I started to learn more about the wine industry and the kind of investment is needed, it made me feel like we were doing the right thing,” Hawkins added.

Weitz family applies farming acumen to viticulture

Sydney Nederend stands on the site for growing Scoria Vineyards, which offers views of the Snake River, Lizard Butte and the Owyhee Mountains. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

For Sydney Weitz Nederend, 25, her family’s vineyard and winery serve as examples of what’s important to wine consumers in her generation. At Savor Idaho 2018, she poured her first estate wine, the Scoria Vineyards 2016 Malbec, a product of her family’s plantings that stand at 18 acres. They plant to keep growing around the pit of scoria — a red volcanic soil. Petit Verdot will be a focus going forward, and Koenig will continue to make wine for them.

“A lot of what I see with my generation, what’s really important to them, is that the grapes are actually from Idaho,” Nederend said. “They want to get in the vineyards and walk around and have more of an experience. Of course, the millennials are all about that.”

So she and her husband, third-generation dairyman James Nederend, worked with James Beard Award-nominated chef Dustan Bristol in nearby Nampa.

“We did our first vineyard education two weeks ago, starting it in the scoria pit and with a glass of Riesling. It included lunch from Brick 29 and some Malbec,” she said. “It was fun to get people in the scoria pit. It was a hit.”

Savor Idaho brings wines to Boise market

Bottles of wines poured at Savor Idaho are available for purchase via a booth staffed by the Boise Co-op. (Photo by Deborah Christison/Courtesy of Idaho Wine Commission)

Most of the Gem State’s wineries are within an hour’s drive of the state Capitol, but Savor Idaho is all about on the wineries bringing their bottles to Boise.

“We had this suspicion there was a bigger wine community that we weren’t tapping into,” Fujishin said. “We’d talk to people all the time who would say, ‘We drive right by on our way to Walla Walla,’ or ‘We go to California for wine tasting all the time.’

“We’re saying, ‘Hey, you could come see us right down the road,’ Fujishin pointed out. “And they’d go, ‘Yeah, I guess we should.’ ”

They have. Few wineries charge tasting fees north of $5, and they are selling out of varieties such as Tempranillo, Malbec, Syrah and Viognier. Tasting room traffic picks up with Valentine’s Day and pushes strongly through Thanksgiving Weekend, which has become a valuable sales period. Some winemakers reluctantly have trimmed allocations to restaurants and merchants because their winery can sell those bottles directly out of the tasting room or to their growing wine club.

A record 30 wineries poured this year at Savor Idaho, which also serves as a key fundraiser for the commission’s marketing/promotion efforts.

“I wish that we had had 200 wineries open up in Idaho in the last 10 years,” Alger said.

Thanks to a partnership with Boise Co-op, a local grocer, festival goers can purchase bottles of wines poured at Savor Idaho. But perhaps the most important component for the wineries and winemakers is to establish connections with consumers. Better yet, have them join their wine club.

“When you look at the intent of Savor Idaho, it’s meant to show the industry,” Sullivan said. “There is no one vendor that gets special treatment. We’re all together, we’re all in the garden and equally paired up with other vendors that make the industry interesting – food vendors, a brewery, cideries, a peanut shop. It all plays into that ‘buy local’ aspect that’s really prevalent in Idaho. We see a huge emphasis in ‘buy local.’ ”

Wine commission finds garden spot for Savor Idaho

Mostly sunny skies and temperatures near 70 degrees made for weather described as the best in the 10-year-history of Savor Idaho in Boise. (Photo by Greg Smith/Courtesy of Idaho Wine Commission)

The venue and the setting has become such a local tradition that Dolsby recently joined on as a board member for the Idaho Botanical Gardens.

“The more partnerships you can have in the community, the better,” she said. “It gives you access to different things, and then people want to help you as well. It’s all about working together and being kind.”

Most of the Gem State’s wineries are within an hour’s drive of the state Capitol, but Savor Idaho allows the wineries to bring their wines to Boise.

“It started with the original 200 wine consumers that were living here in Idaho,” Fujishin said with a smirk. “And they were here with their friends. Now, it’s exciting to see this level of enthusiasm for Idaho wine just growing over the years.”

This year for the first time, Dolsby and her team extended the weekend by staging the inaugural Savor Idaho Sneak Peek Dinner, an intimate alfresco Saturday event in the middle of the botanical garden on the eve of Savor Idaho. It spotlighted wines by each of the governor-appointed commissioners — Greg Koenig (Koenig Vineyards), Crystal Potter (Potter Wines), Melissa Sanborn (Colter’s Creek Vineyards & Winery), (Mike Williamson) Williamson Vineyards and Telaya.

Attendance was limited to 50 patrons, and catering was personally handled by Juniper executive chef Aaron Wermerskirchen. It also was a sellout at $110 per plate.

“We wanted to do something fun and different,” Dolsby said.

Savor Idaho symbolic of Idaho Preferred program

Greg Koenig, a governor-appointed commissioner to the Idaho Wine Commission, chats with vineyard owner Jay Hawkins of J Victor Vineyards during Savor Idaho 2018. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

The state’s Idaho Preferred program remains a cornerstone to Savor Idaho, which features Idaho agriculture products in addition to wine grapes.

“Keep buying Idaho wine. Ask for Idaho wine. Ask for local — always,” Dolsby said. “If they don’t have Idaho wine, then I say, ‘Well, I’ll have water.’ ”

On Aug. 11, the commission will stage its third annual Savor Idaho North, which features nine wineries pouring for 60 patrons during a cruise of Lake Coeur d’Alene. The wine commission’s lodging partner is famous The Coeur d’Alene Resort. In Boise, it is the urban boutique Hotel 43.

“There’s a whole different profile of people that come to Savor Idaho North — people from Spokane who knew nothing about Idaho wines,” Alger said.

And even though he’s planted a 32-acre vineyard that’s got a waiting list of customers, Hawkins admits that he and his wife are newcomers to wine. Sunday marked just his second Savor Idaho experience.

“I know this sounds crazy, but we weren’t big wine drinkers until we bought the property and made the investment,” Hawkins said. “We’re learning, and this is another great event to continue our educational processes.”

Fuijshin growth symbolizes Idaho industry

Fujishin Family Cellars, operated by Martin Fujishin and GM/wife Teresa Moye Fujishin in Caldwell, Idaho, has been named as one of 10 Hot Brands for 2016 by Wine Business Monthly magazine.

Fujishin Family Cellars, operated by Martin Fujishin and general manager Teresa Moye in Caldwell, Idaho, was named as one of 10 Hot Brands for 2016 by Wine Business Monthly magazine. (Photo courtesy of Fujishin Family Cellars)

Fujishin also came from an ag background, born into a family of row crop farmers on the Oregon side of the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area, an AVA that was established by the federal government in 2007, a year before Dolsby arrived and started work on the first Savor Idaho.

“It really seems like people come to Savor Idaho to get educated and to try the wines,” said Fujishin, who formally debuted his eponymous brand at the second Savor Idaho. “The timing worked out perfectly for us that year. It’s a more serious wine crowd, and that’s one of the reasons why we’re always dedicated to being here.”

The success and growth of Fujishin Family Cellars, recently named by Wine Press Northwest magazine as its 2018 Idaho Winery of the Year, tracks along a success path similar to Savor Idaho.

“When we launched in 2009, we had 300 cases total,” Fujishin said. “For this year, we’ll be close to 4,500, if things go well — knock on wood. It’s been a good run. I can’t complain.”

And this year, Dolsby even got the weather to work with her on Savor Idaho, providing mostly sunny skies and temperatures around 70.

“The commission staff spends hundreds and hundreds of hours in prep and planning,” Sullivan said. “The team was there ahead and after we’d all packed up and gone home, and a crew of volunteers gets involved in it, too. It’s a big lift, and they do a really good job. If there was a problem, the consumer certainly didn’t notice it, and that’s what’s important.”

Dolsby said, “It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun, and I think it’s worth it. I love seeing happy people.”

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for 15 years. He is a frequent wine judge along the West Coast and contributor to Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, the region's longest-running golf publication.

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