BOISE, Idaho — Wineries in the Walla Walla Valley and the Columbia Valley successfully woo consumers in Idaho’s Snake River Valley, requiring a four-hour drive to the northwest.
On the other hand, it’s rare to see a vintner based in Walla Walla invest in Idaho, yet that’s exactly what Proletariat Wine Co., is doing.
Led by winemaker Sean Boyd of acclaimed Rôtie Cellars, Proletariat is best known for its keg wine program, which now spans eight states, including Texas and the Carolinas. Keg wines have long made sense for restaurants because customers get fresh wine at a value while the restaurateur achieves nicer margins. They can provide higher-quality wine for diners while cutting down on waste, storage and figuring out how to recycle all those glass bottles.
Coming out of the pandemic, bars and restaurants seem to be consolidating their wine offerings while focusing on more casual outdoor dining options. The rising cost of bottles and supply chain issues make the economics of keg wines and by-the-glass sales even more appealing.
So, why would a company that sells 80% of its production in five-gallon aluminum containers build a tasting room more than 200 miles away from its main production facility near the Walla Walla Regional Airport?
Idaho residents make up most of the ownership.
Elizabeth Baggerly and her husband, Tracy, were enjoying life in the Treasure Valley in the early 2000s. They built a home and raised their family in Horseshoe Bend, a rural bedroom community in the hills north of Boise. Tracy achieved success as a financial planner and helped launch the Eagle Rodeo while Elizabeth worked for Hewlett-Packard on its Boise campus. Some close friends moved to Walla Walla, so the Baggerlys found themselves visiting that emerging wine region. Those trips, as well as a “vine to wine” education series at Ste. Chapelle
Winery on the Sunnyslope west of Eagle, planted a seed for Elizabeth to nurture as she began to transition out of the tech sector.
Meanwhile, longtime friend Scott Burum was the manager/sommelier at a Boise hotspot — Angell’s Bar & Grill. He often lamented how having 27 various bottles of wine open each night at the restaurant created an immense amount of waste because once the cork is pulled, the clock is ticking on the quality of any wine.
Another friend, Scott Thompson, a serial entrepreneur of sorts, was searching for something that was more fun than his existing endeavors. Add in a chance meeting with Boyd — one of the Northwest’s biggest talents with varieties native to the Rhône Valley in southern France — and Proletariat Wine Co., went from a dream to reality in 2011.
“A Tahoe pulled up and asked to taste Rôtie, which not many people knew about,” Boyd says. “EB (Elizabeth) has always had the inside track on everything wine in Boise and Walla Walla, so we tasted through the Rôtie lineup on a table I made out of a pallet, forklift and some type of cloth.
“When we were done tasting I said what would you like to purchase. They said ‘Three of these, three of these and four of these’ or something like that,” Boyd continued. “I brought 10 bottles down in a case. They laughed and said ‘We want cases, not bottles.’ So the Tahoe left as a lowrider and I thought that Boise must be lined in gold! So I became their friend as a pure gold digger!”
The focus was to “bring high-quality, otherwise expensively priced wines to wine lovers everywhere … at very reasonable prices.” With an eye toward sustainability and the environment, they concentrated on putting really good wine into refillable containers that were charged with nitrogen to reduce the oxidation that makes wine start to taste different once a bottle is opened. They also provided the necessary equipment to the restaurant trade at cost to help increase the uptake of the keg wine concept.
Restaurants rapidly warmed up to the idea. In 2011, there were only about 70 options for “containerized wine” registered in Washington state. Today, there are more than 1,000.
Fast forward to 2019. Proletariat was selling the equivalent of 11,000 cases of wine, most of it in the Pacific Northwest, and a by-the-bottle club was born.
All this led to the idea of opening a tasting room to help increase the bottle sales and spread the word about their wines. With most of the team living in the Snake River Valley, it made sense to find a spot near Boise.
Elizabeth searched and found a seemingly ideal site in Garden City, another Boise suburb, that would allow Proletariat Wine Co., to develop a casual neighborhood vibe with fantastic food, wine and craft beer. The group closed on the parcel along 36th Street in February 2020 — about three weeks before the pandemic shut down the world.
Boyd, Proletariat Wine to plant flag Garden City
Now, however, Proletariat Wine Co., is poised to break ground soon and celebrate its new tasting room in mid-2023. Plans are approved, and permits are ready for a 6,500-square-foot building with a 1,700 square-foot rooftop patio space.
“With a name like Proletariat, it sounds best if we are in the blue-collar neighborhood and rise up,” Boyd says. “It’s nice to be in an industrialized area so if you need things welded, it’s down the street. If you are sick of wine, there is a brewery down the street. If your forklift breaks down, you have bribed your neighbors to help you out.
“This, plus it’s the center of all Boise’s wineries so we want everyone who is out tasting wine to stop by,” Boyd added.
Boyd’s wines for Proletariat are made from several American Viticultural Areas in the Northwest, including the Walla Walla Valley, and he’s begun to buy Snake River Valley grapes. A sparkling Riesling from Skyline Vineyard near Caldwell was Proletariat’s first Idaho wine. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from Paxton Estate Vineyard — the Baggerly family’s planting in the Eagle Foothills — means estate grapes will be in the mix, too.
“No question Proletariat will be its own winery,” Boyd said. “We will need to have a kick-ass GSM, but besides this, it’s fun making lots of other wines and right now we are figuring out our favorites. It’s a really fun project, and I couldn’t have better partners in this beauty nor a better crew working for us.”
Moya Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission, welcomes the additional investment in her state, particularly by a group that includes a winemaker of Boyd’s reputation.
“I’m overjoyed that another vineyard will be coming into commercial production and that there will be an additional local buyer for Idaho grapes!” she said.
Dolsby is in her 14th year as the leader of the Idaho wine industry, which has grown to more than 70 wineries. And the Gem State will soon have another Washington state brand arriving in Boise when Rocky Pond Estate Winery — owned by Capital High grad David Dufenhorst and his family — opens a satellite tasting room.