CALDWELL, Idaho – Sawtooth winemaker Meredith Smith saw her responsibilities skyrocket from 10,000 cases to 135,000 in one day when Maurine Johnson gave notice that she was leaving Ste. Chapelle – Idaho’s largest winery – to join the red wine team at Hogue Cellars in Washington’s Yakima Valley.
Seattle-based Precept Wine told Great Northwest Wine on Thursday that Smith will head up all of its Idaho winemaking. Today, Precept will announce the closing of Sawtooth’s winemaking facility in Nampa and consolidating production at Ste. Chapelle.
The plan was for Johnson and Smith to remain with their respective brands, then Johnson shocked Precept by tendering her resignation Wednesday afternoon.
“This had absolutely nothing to do with sharing space,” said Johnson, an Idaho native who has worked at Ste. Chapelle in the Sunnyslope Wine District since 1987. “I was looking forward to working with Meredith and collaborating on things, but it just happened that this opportunity popped up and I would be a fool not to take it.”
Precept to invest $2 million on Sunnyslope
Precept will announce today that it has purchased 40 acres surrounding Ste. Chapelle from the Symms family as part of a master plan that includes the establishment of a new tasting room for Sawtooth, new vineyard plantings and eventually a 5,000-seat amphitheater.
“We want to create a more quintessential wine country experience and make it a real destination for Idaho,” said Alex Evans, chief sales and marketing officer for Precept. “We view this as a really important investment for us in Idaho and helping to create a halo effect on the Sunnyslope.”
Precept said it will continue to operate the tasting room at Sawtooth through the 2016 touring season and honor all public reservations for the facility. The vineyards surrounding Sawtooth are not for sale, and Precept hopes to lease the production facility and tasting room to a third party in the future.
“We need to create more visibility for Sawtooth,” said Evans, an avid fly-fisherwoman whose connection to Sawtooth stretches back to 1998 when she worked for Corus Brands and served as the winery’s brand manager. “It’s not been the easiest for wine tourists to find, which on the map is Nampa, but it’s technically closer to Marsing. With this move, we’ll be adding to the Sunnyslope area.”
Precept owns more than 4,200 acres of grape vines in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Australia. Sawtooth and sister planting Skyline combine to make up nearly 500 acres in the Snake River Valley.
Amphitheater, vineyard plantings begin in 2017
Groundbreaking for the amphitheater is tentatively scheduled for April 2017. Chantelle Lusebrink, Precept’s new communications and public relations manager, put the estimated cost of the land purchase, amphitheater and construction involving Sawtooth at more than $2 million. Much of the land is under Red Delicious apple trees, and the vines have been casually referred to as Winery Hill Vineyard.
“There are currently 13.4 acres of vines planted at Ste. Chapelle,” Lusebrink said. “With the acquisition of the 40-acre parcel, up to 23 acres of that can be planted to vine.”
Moya Dolsby, executive director for the Idaho Wine Commission, said, “We’re thrilled and excited about these positive changes for the industry. Sawtooth is an important and historic brand for Idaho, and we’re hopeful that another winery will move into that facility some day. It’s a beautiful setting.”
A spokeswoman with Constellation Brands, which owns Hogue Cellars, did not return a message left Thursday afternoon, however this will be Johnson’s second time working for one of the world’s largest wine companies. Constellation purchased Ste. Chapelle from Corus Brands in 2001 and owned the winery until 2008. Precept purchased the Caldwell winery in 2012 from Ascentia Wine Estates, a now-defunct company that was based in Healdsburg, Calif.
Johnson leaves Ste. Chapelle after 29 years
Smith learned of Johnson’s departure via a phone call from Bill Murray, Precept’s director of winemaking operations for Idaho and head winemaker for Canoe Ridge Vineyard in Walla Walla, Wash.
“I was pouring at an event for consumers at Fred Meyer when Bill told me,” Smith said. “I was shocked, and it’s a bit overwhelming, but I’m super excited. And I think it’s a great opportunity for Maurine. Now she gets to work with Washington fruit and make a wonderful contribution for Hogue.”
This spring, Johnson said she learned of an opening on the red winemaking team at Hogue Cellars – the 19th bonded winery in Washington and one of the state’s largest. She got to know Greg Winter, Hogue’s director of winemaking, at a seminar prior to going through the interview process. She’s especially looking forward to working with Cabernet Sauvignon from the Columbia Valley.
“I’ll definitely be making different wines than I have been in Idaho,” Johnson said. “And I won’t miss the waiting and waiting and waiting on Cab to ripen.”
The addition of Johnson, 55, would seem to be a good fit for Hogue. The Yakima Valley giant is getting an easy-going, talented and experienced winemaker who won’t be intimidated by the 500,000-case production facility in Prosser. And the past president of the American Sewing Guild in Boise and 4-H supporter won’t be looking to start her own wine label.
“My plan is to be there at least 10 years,” Johnson said. “I think it’s going to be great opportunity to work with different fruit and different wine profiles. I’m going into this looking at it as a brand new adventure for me, and I’m so energized to be doing something new. It’s the chance for personal growth.”
Johnson, who replaced Chuck Devlin as Ste. Chapelle’s head winemaker in 2011, described the timing of the move to Hogue Cellars is almost too good to be true. The Utah State grad recently sold her house in Snake River Valley town of Greenleaf in order to downsize, five years after the death of her husband, Steven. Her youngest son lives in Moscow, so working in Washington’s Yakima Valley will bring her closer to him.
And her second term as a commissioner for the Idaho Wine Commission – a position appointed by Gov. Butch Otter – was set to end June 30.
“This has absolutely amazing,” Johnson said. “I’ve never had anything go together so easily. I keep looking over my shoulder expecting something to go wrong.”
Dolsby feared the worst when Johnson approached her after Thursday’s wine commission meeting.
“I thought she was asking to talk to me privately because there was something wrong,” Dolsby said. “I was really surprised when she told me she was leaving. Never in a million years would I have thought she would leave. She’s been so rooted here and so involved in the community.
“We’re sad to see her go, but she’s a great winemaker and this is a great opportunity for her to use her skill set,” Dolsby added. “She’s starting a new life.”
It was winemaker Mimi Mook hired Johnson for Ste. Chapelle, and the Twin Falls native stayed on to work for Kevin Mott, former Mondavi winemaker Steven Roberto and then Devlin.
Johnson leaves Ste. Chapelle on a high note, recently earning a double gold medal for her 2014 Panoramic Idaho Riesling Ice Wine at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition – not far from Constellation’s headquarters in Victor, N.Y. Her final day at Ste. Chapelle is July 7, and she said her first day at Hogue Cellars is July 18. The first crush for her in the Yakima Valley will be just around the corner.
“I’ll miss Ste. Chapelle,” said Johnson, who started as a lab technician. “Twenty-nine years is a long time to be in one place. I’ll miss the crew and the fans of Ste. Chapelle.”
Smith’s career comes full circle
Smith, who chuckled when describing herself as “a young 48,” left a career in real estate in 2007 to pursue two lifelong interests – wine and horticulture. She took classes through Washington State University and arrived at Sawtooth in 2009, starting as a crush-pad worker for Murray shoveling grapes for $10 an hour. Her knowledge of viticulture and passion for winemaking have been a natural fit at Sawtooth, where her talents continue to shine a spotlight on the vineyards established by pioneering grower/vintner Brad Pintler in 1982. Pintler began production in 1987, built the winery in 1988, then sold business to Corus in 1999.
“This is hard for me because Maurine is Ste. Chapelle,” Smith said. “She’s been in Idaho for a long time, but her opportunities are grand. I’m happy for her and sad to see her go, but she deserves that job at Hogue.”
Earlier this year, the Idaho wine industry voted Smith as its first Distinguished Member of the Year. This fall, the graduate of Boise High School will be making more wine than anyone else in the Gem State and becomes one of the most influential female winemakers in the Pacific Northwest.
She knows there will be challenges, such as learning to make Ste. Chapelle’s popular off-dry Riesling with huckleberry, and she’ll lean on the production and bottling team Johnson leaves behind. Portions of Sawtooth’s bottling have been done at Ste. Chapelle over the years, so she’s familiar with the crew.
“I still have a bottle of wine from Ste. Chapelle from 1986 that I’ve saved since someone gave it to me after high school graduation,” Smith said. “That was an important wine for me, and it’s hard for me to fathom that I’m now the winemaker at Ste. Chapelle.
“As my son says, ‘I didn’t see that one coming.’ she added with a chuckle. “It’s crazy.”