BOISE – Idaho’s wine industry is coming into its own.
With 50 wineries and more than 1,600 acres of wine grapes, Idaho is gaining momentum and finally feeling it can stand alone in a state renowned for its agriculture.
Indeed, the Gem State might still be most famous for its spuds, but the wine industry is serious business.
And June marks the fourth annual Idaho Wine Month, a 30-day celebration of the vineyards, wineries, restaurants and retailers that are turning the industry into a big deal.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Moya Shatz Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission. “In 2002, there were 11 wineries. That’s pretty good for a small industry. We’re having fun, and we all like each other.”
The Idaho wine industry has faced many challenges through the years, the first of which is the state’s heavily religious and socially conservative residents.
“About 30 percent of the population doesn’t drink wine,” Dolsby said, “the majority of which are eastern Idaho. We haven’t seen a problem because they see the money behind it, and a lot of religious people buy wine as gifts for others.”
Idaho wine vs. The Muppets
The second challenge can only be described as Idaho’s Sideways moment. In 1979, The Muppet Movie came out. In one scene, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy are enjoying a romantic dinner, when Steve Martin appears as an obnoxious sommelier, who manages to besmirch the entire Idaho wine industry, which back then consisted of Ste. Chapelle.
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“People are still talking about that!” Dolsby said with a laugh.
Gov. Butch Otter is firmly behind Idaho Wine Month and the industry. In fact, he will be signing bottles at an Albertsons store to promote the industry.
“That’s pretty neat,” Dolsby said.
She said retailers, restaurateurs, big grocery stores and wineries are all behind Idaho Wine Month, planning specials and events. Hayden Beverage Co., which is Idaho’s largest wine and beer distributor, also is making big promotions, which should help with its success.
The big event in June is Savor Idaho, a Taste Washington-style format that includes wineries and restaurants. It has become so popular, it already has sold out all 900 tickets.
If Idaho Wine Month and Savor Idaho sound similar to what Washington uses for its promotions, that’s no coincidence. Before Dolsby took over the Idaho Wine Commission job nearly five years ago, she was working for the Washington State Wine Commission in Seattle.
Seattle-based Precept is Idaho wine’s biggest player
That Seattle connection remains, as Idaho’s biggest producer – and supporter – is Seattle-based Precept Wine, the Northwest’s second-largest wine company. Precept can rightly be seen as the “Ste. Michelle of Idaho,” thanks to not only its dominance in the state’s wine production but also its ability to promote and willingness to work with others.
Precept owns Ste. Chapelle in Caldwell, a 130,000-case winery that started in 1976, making it Idaho’s oldest. And with Riesling being Ste. Chapelle’s most important wine, the similarities to Chateau Ste. Michelle – Washington’s oldest winery and the world’s largest Riesling producer – become even more clear.
“Idaho is extremely important to us,” said Mark Harmann, Precept’s senior vice president of sales. “It’s one of the top five core brands in our portfolio.”
Precept purchased Ste. Chapelle last year from the failing Ascentia Wine Estates. Ascentia, based in Sonoma County, bought Ste. Chapelle from Constellation Brands, which had purchased the winery in 2001 from Corus Brands. Corus Brands was owned by the Baty family, which started Precept in 2003 and later merged the two companies.
In other words, Ste. Chapelle is back in the hands of the people who first acquired it in 1997.
Meanwhile, Idaho’s second-largest winery, Sawtooth, has been owned by Precept/Corus since buying it from Brad Pintler in 1998. At 15,000 cases, Sawtooth is the state’s second-largest winery.
Precept also owns 400-acre Skyline Vineyard, the largest in the state, as well as the 70-acre Sawtooth Vineyard. And the company is looking to grow, Harmann said, hinting at plans to plant new vineyards and perhaps buy existing ones.
Idaho wine industry still finding its way
“Idaho is in such an infancy stage,” Harmann said. “We’re hunting to find the best places in the Snake River Valley. This is Washington 30 years ago.”
He and Dolsby pointed out that Idaho has a natural advantage over more-established wine regions because land is less expensive and water is plentiful, something that cannot be said about Washington, Oregon or California.
Dolsby is pleased that Precept is a partner in improving Idaho’s place in the world of wine.
“Precept has done such a good job with bringing in journalists and promoting the industry,” she said. “It’s done a great job of stepping up.”
For Precept, it all makes good business sense.
“We’re championing the state,” Harmann said. “If we can help others in the vineyard, we’re more than happy to do that. If the state continues to do better, that helps us grow, too. We’re happy to take that leadership role.”
This is just the beginning of the story for Idaho. The Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area was approved in 2007, and that was a turning point for the state.
“It just gives you that validation,” Dolsby said. “People are saying, ‘Oh, we can take you seriously now.’ ”
New Idaho AVA in works
Another AVA is in the works. Renowned geologist Alan Busacca – who will take over the Walla Walla Community College wine education program next month – has submitted the petition for the Lewis-Clark Valley, a bi-state appellation that would be around the cities of Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Wash. The approval could come as early as next year.
“It will be great when we get the new AVA,” Dolsby said. “People think northern Idaho is the great white north.”
Idaho also will be the featured region at this year’s Riesling Rendezvous, which takes place in mid-July in Seattle. This will give hundreds of wine lovers the opportunity to be exposed to Idaho wine.
None of which will be sparkling Muscatel served by Steve Martin.