The secret is out.
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. A vast 8,000-plus square miles with 1,800 acres under vine and a doubling of that possible within a few years, the valley warrants the attention of any American wine drinker. Indeed, Idaho is home to 52 wineries already, with more on the way. The grape-loving soils, altitude and climate have made the Snake River Valley the next must-go-see-taste wine destination in the country.
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. Long-time Sawtooth and Skyline vineyards (400 acres total) manager Dale Jeffers says he has identified up to 10 soil types in three microclimates. “I'm still figuring out the best sites for varietals and clones,” he says of mix-and-match changes in plantings.
Cabernet Sauvignon vines, established 35 years ago, are among the oldest. But it's Rhone varietals—Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault among the reds; Viognier, 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 to long cool nights—are Idaho's secret ingredient. And the sweet spot seems to be an altitude of about 2,500 feet. Jeffers, recipient of the Idaho Wine Commission Distinguished Member 2018 award, recently 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 ahead of the curve 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/winemaker is on site; ask 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 live in the Northwest, that may be the only way to have access to Idaho wines. At least for right now.
In 2008, Earl Sullivan left behind an international career in pharmaceuticals and made 50 cases of wine. In Idaho. He, along with 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 their flagship wine. Sullivan vinifies other reds, such as Petit Vverdot, but not Cabernet Sauvignon. “I don't like Idaho Cab, stylistically, although other winemakers do,” he says. Smack on the hike/bike Greenbelt overlooking the Boise River, the patio with an open firepit invites lingering over a flight, a glass or two, perhaps with a picnic—which tasters are welcome to bring along.
Open: Daily, noon-6 p.m. $5/3 wines.
240 East 32 Street, Garden City
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 and twists and curlycues. 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 says of first trying the process. But the result is one of Idaho's most memorable wines—celebratory stuff to toast any celebration, or trying new things.
Open: Thursday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m. $5, waived with bottle purchase.
3408 West Chinden Blvd., Garden City.
Owner/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 line up—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 35-year-old vines). The tasting space is ginormous, so bring all your friends—even beer lovers, who will find local brews on tap.
Open: daily, 11 AM-5 p.m. $5/4 wines, waived with bottle purchase
107 East 44th Street, Garden City.
Jed Glavin experiments. But smartly. “I'm fascinated by orange wines,” he says. “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, usually eight choices. And kegs that local restaurants buy and love, especially for the low/no-waste feature. “People come back for Horned Beast.” That's a 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. Intimate, friendly, funky and often recommended by his peers.
Open: Wednesday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m. $5/4 wines, waived with bottle purchase.
4338 Chinden Blvd. Garden City.
Fly-fishing gear hangs on the walls of Sawtooth's brand new 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, near Stanley) 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 explains. 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.
Open: daily, 11 AM-5 p.m. $10, waived with bottle purchase.
19348 Lowell Road Building C, Caldwell.
You don't expect to find Gothic chapel design in rustic Idaho, but there it is, plunked on a hillside: Ste. Chapelle's octagonal tasting room, 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 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. Appetizer menu available.
Open: May-October: Monday–Wednesday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday – Saturday, 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m. November-April: Sunday– Friday, noon-5 p.m., Saturday, 10 AM-5 p.m. $5/5 wines; $10/5 reserve wines.
19348 Lowell Rd., Caldwell.
208-453-7840 ext. 3
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 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 new 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.
Open: Wednesday to Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Monday and Tuesday by appointment only.
$5/5 wines, waived with 2-bottle purchase.
14807 Sunnyslope Road, Caldwell
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 says. 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 his winery design, which features stone-and-beam construction, using local sandstone for accent caps, lintels and benches.
Open: daily, noon-5 p.m. Up to 5 wines complimentary.
21452 Hoskins Road, Caldwell.
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. “And wine culture has already changed dramatically,” he says of the last few years. “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.”
Open: daily, noon-6 p.m. Up to 6 wines complimentary
15593 Sunnyslope Rd, Caldwell
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. Then 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, until 10 years ago transforming a tractor shed into a tasting room where guests can enjoy the view that clinched the original real estate deal. The Bitners farm sustainably, plant cover crops for bee habitat, and adorn their corks with leaf-cutter bees.
Open: May-November, Wednesday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.; December-April, Friday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.; or by appointment. $5/5 wines.
16645 Plum Lane, Caldwell
Writer Margaret Shakespeare lives in New York City and the winelands of Long Island. She often reports from wine regions around the world.