JULIAETTA, Idaho — It was last fall when it became clear the Hewett family’s early efforts in the historic Lewis-Clark Valley with Rivaura Vineyards and Winery warranted recognition as Great Northwest Wine magazine’s 2022 Idaho Winery to Watch.
Then came a string of top awards for Rivaura at Sip magazine’s Best of the Northwest judging, followed by news that Napa-based Wine Business Monthly magazine named Rivaura as one of its nine Hot Brands in the U.S. It’s just the third time in 18 years for an Idaho winery to be spotlighted by the national publication.
The Hewett clan has come a long way in a short period of time, and while the property has been in the family for generations, their young wine project started with a snapshot that attracted the immediate interest of three leading figures in the Walla Walla Valley — winemaker Billo Naravane, the Master of Wine behind Rasa Vineyards, Whitman College geologist Kevin Pogue and Steve Robertson, a visionary grower and vintner in The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater.
“My dad sent them a picture, and they said, ‘We want to come see this spot,’ ” says Lane Hewett, who shares in the winemaking with his cousin, Vince. “They told us, ‘You guys should definitely do this,’ and they helped us from the beginning by taking soil samples and telling us what varieties should go where.”
There’s definitely magic surrounding the site that’s been in alfalfa and cattle. At the Sip judging staged in Seattle, Rivaura received double gold medals for its 2019 Viognier and 2020 Cabernet Franc rosé, while the 2019 Grenache received a gold. It was the 2019 Viognier that first attracted the admiration of Wine Business Monthly.
Last year, that rosé — made by both cousins — earned a gold medal at the 2021 Idaho Wine Competition. At the same judging, Tim Harless, winemaker/owner of Hat Ranch Winery, used Cabernet Franc off Rivaura to win both best red wine and best of show at the Gem State competition.
“It’s quite possibly the most beautiful-looking European hillside vineyard that is not in Europe,” Harless says. “I’ve never been to any place that looks so beautiful.”
3 generations behind Rivaura project along Clearwater
The name stems from when the three generations of Hewetts were establishing their vineyard along banks of the Clearwater River.
“They were planting one day, looked out across the vines with the river and the sun a certain way, and someone said, ‘It seems as if there’s a special aura here,’ ’ Lane says. “With the river here and that aura, there’s a sense that this is a destination, and it speaks of where we were supposed to be. So we combined ‘river’ and ‘aura.’ ”
All of their wines are pulled off their young vines, 27 acres so far, near the confluence of the Clearwater and the Potlatch rivers, about a 20-minute drive upstream from Lewiston and about 90 minutes east of Walla Walla. At around 800 feet elevation, their vines might be the lowest in state. Rivaura planted its attractive Viognier in 2016 as part of the family decision to transform some of their holdings on opposite sides of the Clearwater into wine production starting in 2014.
“Most grape varieties that need a lot of heat do well out here, especially Bordeaux and Rhône varietals,” Vince says. “Syrah does very well with the heat but also does well in our most rocky and sandy soils. Plus the lowered trellis puts these vines just 24 inches off the ground giving the fruiting zone extra heat off the exposed rocks and sand. This helps reduce the vigor and stress out the berries to get a depth of flavors such as dark purple fruit, olive tapenade, and hits of minerality.”
Few in the Northwest wine industry realize that the L-C Valley is a banana belt. Its growing degree days line up with those of the Walla Walla Valley and the Yakima Valley’s Rattlesnake Hills, and the vines in this region avoid the winter damage that has plagued other parts of Idaho in recent years.
“My grandfather and father were in construction, and now all of a sudden there’s this crazy thing,” Lane chuckles.
In fact, the two cousins were attending the University of Idaho in nearby Moscow when the family got serious.
“We would come back on the weekends and help with the irrigation and the trellising and they would tell us, ‘If you guys want to do this and keep it within the family, we could do something really good,’ ” Lane says.
Until that point, Lane planned to enter the world of media relations. Vince’s path was headed toward engineering school.
“We were both going into careers that we were pretty excited about,” Vince says. “The vineyard was going in no matter what we were doing.”
Cousins graduate from winemaking programs
They soon enrolled in Walla Walla Community College’s acclaimed viticulture and enology program. Lane worked the 2016 harvest at Saviah Cellars in Walla Walla, graduated from Walla Walla in 2017 and headed to Hat Ranch in the Snake River Valley for two years.
Meanwhile, Vince went on to Washington State University to earn a four-year degree in spring 2019. His résumé includes Muret-Gaston Winery — where he worked for a pair of proud Cougars in Kyle and Amy Johnson — and Artifex, the acclaimed custom-crush facility in Walla Walla. That’s where the Rivaura wines continue to be made and where they meet regularly with Navarane to make decisions on the wines.
“It’s not by the numbers with him; it’s all by taste,” Lane says of Navarane. “Vince and I will look at the numbers, and all he has to do is taste and he’ll say, ‘It’s not there yet.’ ”
Harless, the former Air Force pilot at Hat Ranch, credited Lane’s winemaking skills and his family’s fruit for last year’s best-of-show entry.
“We only got 2.8 tons of Cab Franc, and that was one of the three or four times when a load of fruit rolled through our place and you just know it’s special,” Harless remembers.
Even though Lane spent two years in the Hat Ranch cellar, that Cabernet Franc was the first and last time that Harless — or anyone else — would get their hands on Rivaura fruit because the Hewett family already was gearing up for its growth.
“Lane arrived to me as an exceptionally trained guy, and I told him, ‘Lane this is your fruit and you grew up with it,’ so he picked the lane he wanted — no pun intended — and it was like bowling with bumper lanes,” Harless said. “He pulled from what he learned at Walla Walla Community College from (winemaking instructor) Tim Donahue.”
And while the two cousins each wear the title of assistant winemaker, Vince takes the lead in the vineyards and the cellar.
“He’s more into science and the winemaking, and I’m a bit more into marketing and sales and doing the talking,” Lane says.
Family construction expertise on display at Rivaura
The family’s successful background in construction throughout the Lewis-Clark Valley shows up in its modern rustic tasting room.
“We were looking for a Walla Walla vibe, and it really puts you in a spot that you don’t see in Idaho,” Lane says. “It makes you feel special, and everybody compliments us on the slabs of Canadian walnut.”
Ask any of the competition judges, and the Hewetts don’t need that picturesque setting to help them sell their wines. In 2018, the family had a short-term goal of 1,200 cases when they first opened to the public.
“But we ran out after six months and shut down the tasting room,” Lane says. “As soon as the 2019 vintage, we were making closer to 3,500 cases, and we have in bottle 4,500 cases from the 2020 vintage.
“With our 30 acres, when everything comes on line we can do 5,500 cases, and we don’t really want to be more than 6,000 cases,” Lane adds. “That seems like a good point where we can still focus.”
They say Merlot has been reliably “beautiful every year,” and the Hewetts look forward to seeing how their acre of young Sauvignon Blanc fares along with the Cabernet Sauvignon program.
“We have 6 to 7 acres left to plant, and there’s been some talk about terracing, but that’s down the road,” Lane says. “Right now, we’re really trying to get this established, and Vince has really dialed in our vineyard practices.”
And earlier this year, the Hewetts unveiled a portfolio of beers that are brewed just below the tasting room.
“Yeah, it’s a little crazy of us to add that, but we wanted to be able to sell some beers because not everyone who comes out here with their friends drinks wine,” says Lane, 25, an avid golfer. “So then we thought, ‘If we’re going to offer beer, let’s make it ourselves,’ and all of a sudden my dad started ordering all the equipment. So it’s cool that we have River Ranch Brewing Co., at Rivaura. You can get a dual experience.”
Vince, 26, a snowboarder, is also the brewmaster. Unofficially, he’s been making beer longer than he has wine. At Rivaura, his lineup includes pilsner, kolsch, amber ale, pale ale and an oatmeal stout. The plan is for sales to be limited to the tasting room.
“It was the first fermented beverage we made in our apartment in Walla Walla — obviously we weren’t drinking any wine,” Vince says with a chuckle. “And then when I went to WSU, my roommate who was into wine was also into beer.”
No one akin to Navarane is involved with the nascent brewing program, but with their shared experience during college, formal education in fermentation and acclaim for Rivaura’s wine, the Hewetts seem to be poised for success.
“We probably should have found a Billo for beer,” Vince quipped.
Each cousin is engaged to be married later this year, so there will be plenty of toasting with the wine and beer they’ve made.
- Rivaura Estate Vineyards and Winery, 21622 Rivaura Lane, Juliaetta, ID 83535, Rivaura.com, (208) 276-3245.