Why You Should Plan an Idaho Wine Trip

The secret's out about Idaho wine — and the Snake River Valley's wine trail offers a scenic way to taste it.

Bitner Vineyards
Photo: Robert Vestal Photography

Frontiers appeal to American winemakers. Enter the Snake River Valley, an official American Viticultural Area (AVA), as of 2007, that spans parts of Oregon and Idaho. Sprawling 8,000-plus square miles with more than 1,300 acres under vine, the valley warrants the attention of any wine drinker. Indeed, Idaho is home to more than 52 wineries. With its grape-loving soils, altitude, and favorable climate, the Snake River Valley is one of the Northwest's most exciting wine regions.

Although much here is fresh and new, winemakers take a long view. They look back at a heritage of several million years when the land they have come to cherish was covered by ancient Lake Idaho. When the lake drained, it left behind fertile soil further enriched by volcanic sediment. Longtime Sawtooth Estate Winery manager Dale Jeffers said he has identified up to 10 soil types in three microclimates. "I'm still figuring out the best sites for varietals and clones," he said.

Cabernet Sauvignon vines, established in the 1970s, are among the oldest. But it is the Rhone varietals — Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault among the reds; Viognier, and Grenache Blanc, Roussanne among whites — that make most winemaker hearts beat more fondly. Snake River Valley Tempranillo and Riesling bring smiles too.

Summer's diurnal swings — hot days and long cool nights — are Idaho's secret ingredient. And the sweet spot seems to be an altitude of about 2,500 feet. Jeffers, a recipient of the Idaho Wine Commission Distinguished Member 2018 award, said he reluctantly pulled out vines where a winter freeze found a low spot to settle in and damage the crop. It's all on a learning curve.

Wine drinkers who like being a few steps ahead will find easy Idaho pathways, a casual environment, and engaging conversation along the way. A handful of small producers have gone urban, clustering in Garden City, only a few minutes' walk and hop across the bridge from downtown Boise (four of these are listed below). Ditch the car and walk, jog, or bike winery to winery along the Garden City stretch of the Greenbelt, a paved pathway along the Boise River. Often the owner or winemaker is on-site to answer questions.

Visiting the growing area is an easy drive west on I-84, 40 minutes or so, to the Nampa-Caldwell area. Sunnyslope Wine Trail includes over a dozen wineries, mostly clustered together, on or close to Sunnyslope Road; six are described below. Do drive farther afield, for the views all the way down to the snaking Snake River, to see the patchwork of vineyard and field crops, for vignettes of bucolic America and farm life. If you neglect to pack a picnic, The Orchard House will feed you a fine country meal — and fill your glass with a local pour. They, among other local businesses, are huge supporters of the industry.

Keep in mind, too, that wineries have small staffs and all are not open every day. Most welcome large groups but you need to call ahead for a half dozen or more. Also, be sure to ask about group fees. Before leaving, consider joining the wine clubs of producers you particularly like, unless you already live in the Northwest.

Telaya Wine Co.

In 2008, Earl Sullivan left behind an international career in pharmaceuticals and made 50 cases of wine. In Idaho. He, along with his wife Carrie (a former veterinarian), decided to build a family business— making long-term contracts to buy the best grapes they could find, producing wine meant to age, and custom building an urban winery. Turas, a Snake River Valley (SRV) Syrah-based red blend, has become Telaya Wine Co.'s flagship wine. Sullivan vinifies other reds, such as Petit Verdot, but not Cabernet Sauvignon. "I don't like Idaho Cab, stylistically, although other winemakers do," he said. Smack on the hiking and biking Greenbelt overlooking the Boise River, the patio with an open firepit invites lingering over a flight, a glass or two, or perhaps a picnic — which tasters are welcome to bring along.

Telaya Wine Co.
Courtesy of Telaya Wine Co.


Leslie Preston was making wine in Napa Valley back in 2006 when she became intrigued by an Idaho Syrah she tasted at Sawtooth. Two years later, she started producing her own Snake River Valley Syrah, hauling the fruit to California. By 2012, she made the leap, setting up shop in her home state of Idaho, calling her label Coiled in salute to the powerful influence of the river, with its bends, twists, and curlicues. She branched out to Tempranillo and Riesling. And lucky us that she did: Preston put her personal stamp on a classic-method sparkling Riesling she named Rizza, using encapsulated yeast in the second fermentation to eliminate riddling of the bottles. Thus, "by getting the yeast out as soon as possible," she can showcase the fruit. "It was pretty terrifying," she said about the first time she tried the process. But the result is one of Idaho's most memorable wines — celebratory stuff to toast any celebration or to the trying of new things.


Cinder owner and winemaker Melanie Krause buys grapes from a half dozen or so SRV vineyards, including Williamson and Sawtooth. She fell in love with the volcanic soils and how they add flavor intensity, especially for Viognier, Tempranillo, and Syrah. In fact, cinder remains, for which she named her winery, can be seen if you scoop up a handful of earth. Cinder has an ambitious lineup — from the Laissez Faire everyday drinking stuff to a lovely off-dry (more dry than off) Riesling to high-end reds (the Cabernet Sauvignon used in a blend comes from decades-old vines). The tasting space is ginormous, so bring all your friends — even beer lovers, who will find local brews on tap.

Split Rail Winery

Jed Glavin, owner of Split Rail Winery, experiments. But smartly. "I'm fascinated by orange wines," he said. "But I don't think there's a market in Idaho. There's a fine line between natural wine and marketable." What does sell, by the growler, is wine on tap and kegs that local restaurants buy and love, especially for the low/no-waste feature. "People come back for Horned Beast," he said of the flagship Rhone blend made by this "Rhone guy." Exploding Mirror, a white blend, varies every year. And he changes up varietals for his rosés too. Glavin, who loves creating packaging, wishes Riesling wasn't so misunderstood (note: it's not always sweet). He manages everything — from crush to bottling to hand-labeling to pouring for visitors — in a tiny space that's intimate, friendly, funky, and often recommended by his peers.

Split Rail Winery
Courtesy of Split Rail Winery

Sawtooth Estate Winery

Fly-fishing gear hangs on the walls of Sawtooth's tasting room. Fishing flies are embossed on bottle capsules. Fish swim on the labels. Even without views of its namesake Sawtooth Range (those mountains are slightly to the east), this brand evokes the enticing, vast, and rugged Idaho outdoors. The prolific Sunnyslope vineyard slopes, which are in view, yield lots of varietals to mix and match or vinify singly. Winemaker Meredith Smith has the luxury of producing, say, a Gewurtztraminer only in years when "those incredible aromatics are just right." She swoons over how the SRV reds age so slowly and elegantly. "Acid is why. And that's because the nights get so cool. We don't have big jammy alcoholic wines here but they still have complexity," she expained. Wade right into the limited edition (tasting room availability only!) Trout Trilogy series — Carmenere, Grenache, Malbec, Tempranillo, Petit Syrah, Syrah — to taste what she means.

Ste. Chapelle

You don't expect to find a Gothic chapel in rustic Idaho but there it is, plunked on a hillside: Ste. Chapelle's octagonal tasting room is indeed inspired by the medieval French original. Founded in the 1970s and long the only producer distributing nationally, Ste. Chapelle is the state's legacy winery and is still a leader in volume (120,000-plus cases) and research. Industry leader Meredith Smith makes the wine here — from the entry-level Chateau series (that pretty pink is Riesling with huckleberries) to the Snake River Valley series (great for sampling varietals such as Chardonnay, Grenache, and Syrah, of course) to top-line Panoramic and Treasure Valley series. Reserve a table and they'll have a glass of bubbly waiting for you. An appetizer menu is also available.

Ste Chapelle
Annie Garner/Boise Home Photography

Williamson Orchards & Vineyards

In 1998, nearly a century after this homesteading family headed west, becoming known for white peaches and u-pick cherries, the Williamsons decided to tap their fruit-growing expertise and planted vinifera on part of their 400 acres. They were the first in the valley to grow Sangiovese, some of which they make into a don't-miss bursting-with-flavor rosé. "We focus on a fruit-forward style," says Mike Williamson, one of the fourth generation now managing the farm. The Cabernet, Petit Syrah, and a proprietary red blend (Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Petit Syrah) called Harvest Moon Red prove his point. Handsome hand-stitched heirloom quilts hanging in the airy tasting room honor family history, as does Lilly White, a blend of Viognier, Riesling and Muscat labeled with a photo of Great Great Aunt Lilly. The tasting counter also features local cheeses, cured meats, and bread.

Koenig Vineyards

Greg Koenig studied architecture, then came home to Idaho where "the idea of making local products became infectious." And in this blessed agricultural area, he had lots of choices. "There are probably 150 different crops, including some very important seed production, between here and Boise," he said. While his brother down the road became a distiller, wine grapes got Greg's attention. Especially Syrah. "That's a benchmark grape here, and if I had to choose just one for winemaking it would be Syrah." He also produces a notable Cabernet Sauvignon, with Fraser Vineyard grapes, the highest point in the county; and makes custom-crush wines. A love of Italian vernacular architecture inspired the design of Koenig Vineyards' winery, which features stone-and-beam construction, using local sandstone for accent caps, lintels, and benches.

Bitner Vineyards

Several decades ago, Ron Bitner, an internationally recognized entomologist who specializes in bees and pollination, bought 15 acres in the Sunnyslope area — just for the view. A neighbor suggested that the land might be ideal for grape-growing, especially for Chardonnay and Riesling, which he planted in 1981 when the Idaho industry was a neonate. Joined by wife Mary and, later, daughter Amy, Bitner added Tempranillo and other reds to the vineyard, selling most of the crop. He later transformed a tractor shed into Bitner Vineyards' tasting room, where guests can enjoy the view that clinched the original real estate deal. The Bitners sustainably plant cover crops for bee habitat and adorn their corks with leaf-cutter bees.

Fujishin Family Cellars

Martin Fujishin, from an Idaho agricultural family, got his start in the wine business working for Greg Koenig. Cellar rat stuff at first, until, by 2009, he was ready to open his own shop, Fujishin Family Cellars. "And wine culture has already changed dramatically," he said. "Clientele have become much more knowledgeable." He likes for wine to be a learning experience and sometimes offers classes or special tastings. "Tempranillo and Syrah are slam dunks for Idaho." He favors Rhone varietals, likes "playing with" oddballs such as Mouvèdre, and has developed a certain industry wisdom: "You have to over-deliver in Idaho, make a $25 wine that tastes like $50." Does he? "We have demand now that we can't fill."

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