Idaho wine industry feels impact as nation’s fastest-growing state

by | Apr 12, 2022 | Idaho, Idaho wine, News | 2 comments

An aging Sunnyslope vineyard with ties to the Symms family and Ste. Chapelle Winery has been purchased by Jay Hawkins, owner of nearby Lanae Ridge Vineyard in Caldwell, Idaho. (Photo by Jim Thomssen / The Idaho Wine Ambassador)

Businesses typically monitor two or three major indexes throughout each year to help guide them toward success. For example, bankers pay attention to the “Three Cs” of credit — capacity, character and collateral — when they put loans on the books.

Another three C’s — competition, climate and coronavirus — created problems for Gem State winemakers throughout the 2021 vintage. Some areas were more affected than others, but these three factors swirled around the entire industry.

Competition

The Snake River Valley welcomed the arrival two mechanical harvesters, manufactured by Pellenc, in time for the crush of the 2021 vintage. This one works the vines at Sawtooth Vineyard. (Photo by Jim Thomssen / The Idaho Wine Ambassador)

Competition wasn’t limited to customers, wine club members and blind judgings in 2021. For the fifth year in a row, Idaho was the fastest-growing state in the nation. As most Idahoans will tell you, there are a lot of new people moving in and making their presence felt. A large percentage of these immigrants are from our wine-loving neighbors in Washington, Oregon and California, so the demand for Idaho wine is going up.

With all these folks needing places to live, the competition for land is driving up real estate prices and threatening prime agricultural land for growing grapes and other food items. Canyon County, where 80 percent of Idaho’s wine grapes are grown, is looking to change the county master plan to help protect the agricultural focus of the area by codifying what can happen in areas zoned for farming use.

The vines below Bitner Vineyards tasting room were saved from a high-end housing development in 2021 when the owners of Lanae Ridge Vineyards stepped in and purchased the land that Bill Broich, founding winemaker for Ste. Chapelle, once referred to as a “world-class site for Chardonnay.”

There’s competition for labor, too. As more houses go up, the need for construction crews continues to drive up wages and lures seasonal farm laborers into full-time construction jobs. Free markets are like that, however those seasonal workers are the lifeblood for the vineyards and winemakers at harvest time. 

Area farmers moved forward with a technological solution, just as they have in the past. At least two state-of-the-art Pellenc mechanical harvesters arrived in Idaho vineyards to help bring in the grapes. Skyline Vineyards, the breadbasket for much of the Idaho wine industry, added one to its existing fleet of harvesters. The owners of Lanae Ridge, Koenig and Scoria vineyards teamed up to invest in the other, spreading out the cost of an item that can run upward of $500,000.

While hand picking has long been the preferred harvesting method requested by winemakers, the 2021 vintage prompted some to adapt to machine-picked fruit. One challenge is that if you haven’t trained your vines to be harvested by machines, then there’s a risk of an increase in damaged fruit and material other than grapes (MOG) arriving on the crush pad. Again, the accelerated acquisitions of expensive equipment prompted by labor shortages made a difference to the 2021 vintage.

Competition among peers in the wine business also cast a spotlight on Idaho wines in 2021. The annual Seattle Times ranking of its top 20 Northwest wines of the year saw four Idaho wines earn a spot, led by Telaya Wine Company’s 2018 Syrah at No. 2. A Carménère by Clearwater Canyon Cellars came in at No. 4. The Cinder Wines 2020 Cinsault Rosé was No. 7 and Sawtooth’s GSM made it at No. 13. That Telaya 2018 Syrah took best best-of-show honors at the 2021 Cascadia International Wine Competition as well.

The Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers judging the TEXSOM International Wine Awards in Texas were wowed by entries from Clearwater Canyon and Cinder, and Two Bad Labs Vineyard in the Lewis-Clark Valley brought home a best-of-class award for its Sèmillon. 

Closer to home, Hat Ranch Winery topped the record field of 180 entries at the 2021 Idaho Wine Competition with a stellar 2018 Cabernet Franc from grapes grown by Rivaura Vineyards along the banks of the Clearwater River near Julietta. Such recognition in blind judgings near and far continues to prove Idaho produces world-class wines.

Climate

Carrie and Earl Sullivan of Telaya Wine Co., in Garden City, Idaho, used their 2018 Syrah from Sawtooth Vineyard in the Snake River Valley to win the 2021 Cascadia International Wine Competition. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Climate issues played a role as well in 2021. It was a hot year. 

David Wilkins, associate professor at Boise State University’s department of geosciences, monitors and maintains 22 weather stations in vineyards throughout Idaho. His initial data confirms that the first heat spike appeared June 3 and returned June 20, but the real run of consistently hot temperatures blazed from June 26 to Aug. 17. 

During that almost two-month period, maximum temperatures exceeded 95 degrees every day. Some vineyards experienced 37 days above 100 degrees. Keep in mind that most grape varieties will shut down their vines when the temperature goes beyond 95 degrees. With that kind of heat, yields were down in 2021 from 30 to 60 percent, depending on the vineyard. 

Earl Sullivan, owner/co-winemaker at Telaya, said, “The heat provided some of the most challenging production chemistry that I have ever had to deal with, but we also saw some of the best fruit — Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc — that I have ever seen.”

Harvest for the 2021 vintage started much earlier than usual, with some varieties picked in mid-September. Crush was completed well before the end of October. Historically, harvest end dates in the Snake River Valley — not including ice wines — have been as late as mid-November, so 2021 was an exceptional year.

With yields down because the vines were stressed, a number of winemakers reached into Washington to help meet the surging thirst in Idaho for wine.

‘Essential business’ status helps wine industry

Ilene Dudunake is a Northwest wine expert.
Ilene Dudunake owns A New Vintage Wine Shop in Meridian, Idaho. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Like every single thing in our lives, Covid-19 butted heads with Idaho winemakers. Tasting room teams were stressed beyond breaking limits regarding the evolving guidelines, and patrons often arrived with their own interpretations of those rules.

For folks who want to say “Yes!” to clients, it was a trying year as they spent time at the intersection between public health regulations and great customer service. Despite Idaho’s reputation as a conservative state, retail wine shops were classified as “essential businesses,” so they never were forced to shut down during the pandemic.

Across the state, wine sales were up significantly year-over-year based on the tax data provided to the Idaho Wine Commission, and 13.8% of the wine consumed in Idaho was produced by Idaho vintners.

Since opening just before 9/11, Ilene Dudunake has owned and operated A New Vintage Wine Shop in Meridian. Reflecting on the past two years in wine retailing, she said, “My customers are 99% awesome! Every business will always have that one person who you just can’t appease. I will never know the situation they’re in before they walk through the door. It simply is not my place to judge them.”

Even with the challenges inherent in retail sales, new wine shops popped up such as Swirl Wine Bar in Nampa and 2C Wine Down on Indian Creek Plaza in Caldwell.

The Idaho Wine Commission survived substantial financial setbacks — namely back-to-back years without the popular Savor Idaho festival and a reset of the excise tax structure via the state Legislature.

It all points to an exciting future for Gem State wines, no matter what the world throws at them. Full of innovative spirit and surrounded by knowledgeable and cooperative growers, the next few vintages in Idaho are something to look forward to.

About Jim Thomssen

Retired banker Jim Thomssen now is known as The Idaho Wine Ambassador. The Minnesota native earned a business degree at the University of Puget Sound with the help of professor/wine economist Mike Veseth prior to moving to the Snake River Valley in 1994.

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2 Comments

  1. Eric D'Arcy

    Very interesting and hopeful of Idahoe one day being in consideration with Oregon and Washington ! What do you think about this idea ?!
    Regards, Eric D’Arcy
    Wine Steward Vons #2107
    San Diego, CA.

    Reply
    • Eric Degerman

      Greetings, Eric.
      Our decades of comparative tastings and competitions continue to prove that Idaho wines rank among the best in the U.S. In recent years, panels at the prestigious TEXSOM, San Francisco International and San Francisco Chronicle have voted double gold medals and best-of-class awards to Idaho wines. In 2020, our editorial team named Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston as the Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year. The Umikers backed that up by winning eight Platinum Awards in 2020 and then nine Platinums last year. (The Platinum Awards are a year-end judging of gold-medal winning wines from the 2021 calendar year.)
      As a result of their recent success, Clearwater Canyon ranks No. 6 on the all-time list with 34 career Platinums.
      https://greatnorthwestwine.com/2022/01/12/maryhill-winery-climbs-atop-platinum-awards-all-time-leaderboard/
      And last year, Telaya Wine Co., near Boise used a 2018 Syrah from the Snake River Valley to win best of show at the Cascadia International.
      https://greatnorthwestwine.com/2021/06/05/boise-area-telaya-wine-co-uses-idaho-syrah-to-top-cascadia-international/
      Bottom line, when evaluated under blind conditions, the Idaho wine industry is indeed producing some world-class wines.
      Sincerely,
      Eric Degerman

      Reply

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