GARDEN CITY, Idaho – Earl Sullivan’s problem at Telaya Wine Co. is a good one to have – selling wine faster than he expected.
The phrase he used last week to describe business was “amazingly crazy.”
That craziness grew even before he and his wife, Carrie, opened their multi-million-dollar tasting room and vinification facility in the Boise suburb of Garden City.
“It is the ideal location for making and selling wine,” Sullivan said. “If we can’t make it work at this location, then we can’t make it.”
Since the Feb. 4 opening, making enough wine would seem to be the problem. Quantity – not quality – is the issue at this point for the 3,500-case winery. Telaya’s new 12,000-square-foot facility will help with that starting this fall, but its 700-member wine club might need some patience and understanding as production grows.
A stone’s throw away is the Riverside Hotel – the largest in the region and a property that’s being renovated thanks to local owners. And the only thing between the Boise River and Telaya’s patio is the Greenbelt, a hugely popular biking and walking path that stretches for miles and includes the campus of Boise State University.
We caught up with Earl and Carrie Sullivan earlier this year, just a few hours ahead of the opening of Telaya’s new winery and tasting room, which they share with Coiled Wines.
Here’s the interview:
Sullivans’ vision for Telaya began in 2008
The dream for their own winery has been a thought for the Sullivans since their first vintage in 2008, but their vision got pushed ahead as Cinder Wines – their landlord on 44th Street – began to expand.
“The process started 15 months ago when Melanie Krause came to us and said, ‘We’re getting too big and you’re getting too big. This isn’t going to continue to work past your current lease,” Earl said. “Fortunately, we were able to get through this past harvest. We broke ground on this in July, and seven months later, we’re finished.”
The setting is one thing, but the quality of the wine is what’s really been driving sales. And that was well before Wine Press Northwest named Telaya its 2016 Idaho Winery of the Year.
“We say that we’re having fun making serious wine,” he said. “That’s the goal.”
It’s been a rather rapid rise for Sullivan, identified as the Washington-based magazine’s winery to watch from Idaho the year before.
Awards, recognition follow Telaya to new facility
Last year, the Telaya 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon from Scooteney Flats Vineyard on Red Mountain in Washington ranks among the Pacific Northwest’s most decorated wines. It won the Chairman’s Award at the Riverside (Calif.) International Wine Competition, a gold in Seattle and a coveted double platinum in Wine Press Northwest’s year-end Platinum Judging.
This year, he’s kept rolling.
Two of his recently released reds – the 2013 Mourvèdre and 2013 Turas Red Blend – merited gold medals at the 2016 Cascadia Wine Competition, an international judging in Hood River, Ore. Both are made with Snake River Valley fruit.
Soon after, Great Northwest Wine awarded its top rating to the 2013 Boushey Vineyards Sruth, a Right Bank-style red with Merlot (40 percent), Cabernet Franc (40 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon (20 percent).
In recent years, about 20 percent of Telaya’s wines have been made with grapes from some of the Columbia Valley’s top vineyards at winemaker Charlie Hoppes’ Wine Boss facility in Richland, Wash.
“We’ve always had the vision of making the best possible wine that we can make,” Earl said. “We want to make wine that’s meant to be aged. Wine that’s meant to be savored. Wine that has a statement of the sense of place it comes from.
“It starts with the best fruit, and we just don’t have enough fruit in Idaho for all of us to make great wine,” he added. “Other winemakers were here first. They have contracts, and they have taken up a big chunk of the fruit. As things come up in Idaho, we try to get involved and make it happen.”
Sullivans work with renowned viticulturists, vintners
Sullivan’s contacts in the Columbia Valley paid huge dividends last year because harvest was well off as a result of the November 2014 freeze event in the Snake River Valley. And these are not production vineyards he’s developed relationships with. They have included Champoux in the Horse Heaven Hills, Quintessence and Scooteney Flats on Red Mountain and Damon LaLonde’s French Creek Vineyard near Prosser.
“Dick Boushey, I love that guy to death, and he and his wife, Luanne, just bend over backward for us,” Sullivan said. “Marshall (Edwards) at Quintessence has been fun to work with. And Damon just farms great fruit, too.”
Another layer of charm to the Telaya project is the relationship the Sullivans have built with Coiled winemaker Leslie Preston and her husband, Ross Lamm. They both leased space from Cinder. Now, Coiled is a tenant of Telaya, but it goes beyond that. Each couple has two sons of similar ages, which turns winemaker dinners in McCall into a family vacation.
“We are cohorts in crime with Coiled as Leslie is making wine in here, and we’ve got 3100 Cellars in here making a little bit of wine,” Earl said. “Physically, we don’t have enough space to make all the wine here, so we’ll continue to operate with a footprint in both states. I don’t mind the drive to the Tri-Cities so much. I’ve got the drive down to about four hours, and we’ve got good friends we can stay with when we are there.”
Ireland among Sullivans’ inspirations
Many of the wines are named in tribute to Earl’s Irish roots. For example, sruth translates to river, while turas is a reference to journey, and the Sullivans named their winery (pronounced tuh-LIE-uh) by blending two of their favorite places – the Teton Range and playa, the Spanish word for beach.
“It’s as close to Telaya as you can get because we have the equivalent of the beach with the river right in front of us, and we can see the Boise Foothills from our office, so that’s as close as we can get to the Tetons for Boise, Idaho,” he said with a chuckle. “From an aesthetic standpoint, Carrie and I refer to this as Jackson Hole-light with metal and cedar, big wooden doors and urban bronze handles.”
Events and hospitality are key components to Telaya’s business. Weddings are a possibility, “but we’re much better with receptions,” Earl said.
The showpiece facility also is a testament to husband and wife working together on a dream not only for themselves, but also for their two boys.
“The vision of the winery wasn’t just the vision of making wine,” Earl said. “It was also working with each other and having the kids here. The project has brought that all back together, which is really nice.”
Carrie smiled, adding, “We’ve been through a lot harder things than building this, not that this building has been easy, but it has brought us closer together.”
And now that their sons require a bit less supervision, Carrie will get her hands a bit deeper into the winemaking process. The 2016 vintage will see her create a Rhône-inspired rosé, the first for Telaya.
“I think rosés are sometimes devalued, and I want to make a very complex rosé that makes people think twice about what a rosé can be,” she said.
Greenbelt offers unique wine touring experience
Based on the first few rather successful months with their new winery, the Sullivans are breathing a bit easier after taking on some financial risks. Earl worked on the family farm in Kentucky and met Carrie at Centre College in Danville, Ky., on his way to a career in the pharmaceutical industry. She became a veterinary surgeon, and they both continue to consult on occasion. But there’s little doubt that Telaya is their passion.
“If we can get people walking or riding down the Greenbelt to take notice, hopefully they’ll say, ‘OK, I’m going to give Idaho wine a shot,’ ” Earl said. “We need to educate people on Idaho wine, on Telaya wine and on hospitality.”
There are bike racks for daytime visitors – it’s 10-minute ride from those 44th Street wineries – and a fire pit for evenings. Hotel guests can take a bottle of wine back to their room because they don’t cross a public street.
“I want our wines to be something they can depend on, and people will get a level of hospitality when they come here. They feel like they are at home,” Earl said. “I’ve always said that my greatest success would be for someone to have an “ah-hah” moment with one of our wines. That would be the ultimate success for me.”