CALDWELL, Idaho — Fraser Vineyard, arguably Idaho’s most coveted site for Cabernet Sauvignon, will remain in the hands of award-winning winemaker Greg Koenig four more years, and perhaps longer.
“The name ‘Fraser Vineyard’ absolutely piques the attention of consumers in the Snake River Valley. Their eyes light up,” Koenig told Great Northwest Wine. “That Cab has been a very important single-vineyard wine in Idaho, and I plan to keep that tradition alive.”
Bev Fraser, owner of Fraser Vineyard, said she looks forward to seeing her vineyard’s name associated with Koenig’s winery in Idaho’s Snake River Valley.
“I’m very pleased by this,” Fraser said. “We’ve been working on this for a while, and I can’t think of a better arrangement. I think he’s going to be very easy to work with.”
Koenig long has admired the effort Bev and her ex-husband, Bill Fraser, put into their vineyard and wines, and the Caldwell winemaker began working with the fruit last year. At this point, he’s doting on his eight barrels of Koenig Vineyards 2014 Fraser Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
“I’m thrilled with the fruit, and we’re always a little short on Cab in Idaho,” Koenig said. “It’s a special little piece of dirt up there, and despite all the damage in the vineyards in Idaho this year, it’s in great shape.”
Koenig trails only Precept in Idaho production
Seattle-based Precept Wine dominates the Idaho market with its Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth wineries, while Koenig and assistant winemaker Martin Fujishin rank next in terms of combined production at their Sunnyslope facility.
Koenig and Fujishin make an average of 19,000 cases per year for their eponymous brands and Koenig’s clients, which include 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards, Bitner Vineyards, Williamson Vineyards and Scoria Vineyards and Winery. Scoria is set to launch in 2016 and it’s a new 9-acre estate project of the Weitz family, longtime Snake River Valley row crop farmers.
Boise winemaking consultant Kathryn House, who operates the House of Wine, signed a five-year lease on Fraser Vineyard in preparation for the launch of her own Sequence brand, but she’s postponed that project indefinitely.
“It’s a great move for Fraser and Koenig and wonderful to know that this iconic vineyard will continue to produce and improve under his guidance with the continued management of Mike Williamson,” House said.
Koenig’s contract includes 2018 vintage
On July 1, Koenig picked up the remainder of the five-year lease House entered into with Fraser last summer.
In 2013, the Frasers divorced and Bev received the namesake 1,000-case winery and the 4-acre vineyard in the settlement. Last year, she decided to shutter the downtown Boise winery but maintain the Caldwell vineyard in hopes that her granddaughter, Sierra Laverty, one day will revive the brand and take over the vineyard. Laverty, 23, continues to study viticulture and enology at Oregon State University after stints at Hogue Cellars in Prosser, Wash., and Kim Crawford Wines in New Zealand.
“There’s an option for an extension, but Bev’s granddaughter may want to get involved at that point, and we never know where life will take us in five years,” Koenig said. “I’d love to take it longer, but I’m trying to make this easy for Bev and everyone involved.”
Fraser confirmed that Koenig’s lease expires with the 2018 vintage, but she’ll consider renegotiating based on Laverty’s plans.
“She’s back in school and still loves vineyards, so I don’t know,” Fraser said.
Williamson continues to manage Fraser Vineyard
The connection of Koenig Vineyards with Fraser Vineyard makes sense on several levels, particularly with Mike Williamson continuing to serve as the vineyard manager.
“Obviously now I’ll go up there all the time,” Koenig said. “It’s a five-minute drive from the winery, and I like to be kind of hands-on.”
Koenig looks forward to those short breaks in his day, but Williamson drives past Fraser Vineyard each morning when he leaves his home. The Williamson family has been farming orchards around Caldwell for generations. They first planted wine grapes in 1998, and Koenig began making wine for the Williamsons in 2001. Koenig’s vinification facility is bordered by Williamson Vineyard, and the Williamsons also oversee Koenig’s young vines near the winery.
“We work so closely with the Williamsons and source most of our fruit from them,” Koenig said. “Mike is all-things vineyard, and we talk at least once a day. We’re on each other’s speed dial. Aside from Dale Jeffers at Skyline, Mike is probably the most experienced in the state, and I’m so glad he’s a young vineyard manager. That means he’s got a lot of years ahead of him, which is important for Idaho.”
Fraser Vineyard, planted in 2003, was the closest thing Idaho has had to a cult winery. The Fraser Vineyard 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon swept the top awards for 2010 Idaho Wine Competition with a double gold and awards for best red and best of show. A year later, Fraser Vineyard was named the 2011 Idaho Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest magazine.
“Bill and Bev did a great job with that vineyard,” Koenig said. “It was more of a hobby for them, so they always kept the yields low. They had a good wine club, and more importantly they had restaurant support. You’d see it on the high-end wine lists — the captain’s lists — and it had the interest of collectors. It speaks to the fact they did a great job of making the wine and growing the grapes.”
Telaya bottled Fraser Cab from 2012 vintage
The Fraser Vineyard 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, a 425-case lot, merited a gold medal at the 2014 Great Northwest Wine Competition. Alas, that was the brand’s final vintage. According to House, who helped broker the grapes and unfinished Fraser wines, Telaya Wine Co., Split Rail Winery and Melanie Krause of Cinder Wines all got Cabernet Sauvignon from Fraser in 2012. In 2013, it went Krause and Split Rail. In 2014, Split Rail received a ton of Fraser Vineyard Cab, but that connection ends with Koenig taking over the lease.
Last fall, Koenig immediately embraced his eight tons of Fraser Cab and devoted eight of his most expensive new Taransaud barrels to the project.
“It so happens that I got those barrels the same year as I got that fruit, and I love the subtleties that French oak does for Cab,” Koenig said. “We’ll have 450 cases of it, and for Fraser, that’s a huge amount. Last year was a vintage of good yields and good quality, which makes up for 2011, 2013 and this year — which is going to be low for everyone. At least we will have a lot from last year.”
Koenig happy to pay price for Fraser Cab
While many winemakers in Idaho balked at Bev Fraser’s asking price of $1,750 per ton, Koenig does not, even though it is several hundred dollars more that Cab grown elsewhere in the Snake River Valley. On Washington’s Red Mountain, however, growers get $4,000 for a ton of Cab.
“I want to work with Idaho fruit, and Fraser is the best stuff around,” Koenig said. “It’s also an expensive place to farm.”
The unique aspects to Fraser Vineyard go beyond its elevation of 2,700 feet. While the Frasers planted the vines six feet apart, the rows also are six feet wide. That’s unorthodox and too narrow by modern standards.
“It’s so narrow, you can’t take a normal tractor down the rows, so it’s fun to work with that and they also have to use something that’s almost the size of a lawn tractor,” Koenig said. “That makes it hard to farm. I planted my vineyard at 3 1/2 by 9 on unilateral cordons so I approach the density of Fraser, but I can still get a tractor down the row.”
Koenig to offer 3 vineyard-designate Idaho Cabs
Fraser Vineyard averages about 2 tons per acre, compared with most sites in the Snake River Valley that are farmed between 3 and 4 tons per acre for Cab. Despite those factors, Koenig said he doesn’t plan to charge more than $30 per bottle for the Koenig Vineyards 2014 Fraser Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.
“For an Idaho wine, there’s a bit of a glass ceiling of $30,” Koenig said.
At that asking price, combined with French barrels that sell for $1,200 each, there won’t be a ton of margin, but a huge profit is not his purpose.
“The oak program? That’s my personal passion and maybe it’s not the smartest thing,” Koenig said with a chuckle. “I love oak, and I wanted to use these barrels. If it works out, I’ll keep going forward. I’ll release it to my wine club and hopefully it will be good for my reputation. I’ll make some money, but if someone says it tastes like a $40 wine from Walla Walla and it’s only $28, then maybe in 10 years I’ll be able to charge $35 or $40 for it. In the long run, I hope it helps our reputation and the reputation of Idaho to do it the right way.”
With the addition of Fraser Vineyard to his portfolio, Koenig soon will offer three vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignons from Idaho grapes. His goal is to release all three — including his Hells Canyon and Bitner bottlings — next spring when he opens his new tasting room adjacent to his production facility on Hoskins Road in Caldwell’s Sunnyslope Wine District.
“But the flagship is going to be Fraser, and that will always be a standalone,” Koenig said. “I’m looking forward to the release party, and I’m hoping that Bev and Kat will be able to make it. A year from now, the tasting room will be done, so maybe it will be a joint party.”
Fraser said, “He wants to see me involved in promoting the vineyard and the wine, and I’m very excited about that.”