Did you know that wine is made in all fifty U.S. states? It’s hard to believe with so much—nearly 85%—made in California alone, and another 11.5% from Washington State, New York, Pennsylvania and Oregon. The remaining 5% is divided amongst 45 states, with Idaho, considered one of the “new frontiers,” coming in at 22 in terms of production. (worldpopulationreview.com).
Idaho, Not Only for Potatoes
The Idaho wine industry, while not yet in the big leagues, is gaining traction as one of the fastest growing wine producing states. However, viticulture in northern Idaho isn’t brand new—the industry was booming in the mid to late 1800s. However with the advent of Prohibition in the 1920s, the U.S. wine industry came to a halt and it took Idaho a long time to recover; it wasn’t until the 1970s that things started to get going again.
Today, Idaho’s wine industry has 69 wineries and 1,300 acres planted within three American Viticultural Areas (AVAs): Snake River Valley, Eagle Foothills and Lewis-Clark Valley. The production of wine makes a significant impact on the state’s economy, bringing in revenues of $209 million dollars annually. (Idaho Wine Commission)
Where is Idaho?
Having lived in the northeastern United States my whole life, and frequently traveling to both the east and west coasts, I’m pretty good with my coastal U.S geography. But I’m embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of the U.S. heartland is not one of my strong points.
When I was invited to attend a Zoom seminar on Idaho wines, I had to google the state to find out exactly where it was. Much to my surprise I discovered that Idaho is a part of the Pacific Northwest, right next door to Washington State and Oregon, home to some of the greatest American wines.
Who knew?! But now it all makes sense.
Many Grapes and Wine Styles
Like its neighbors to the west, Idaho has the right conditions for growing grapes and making wine. Nestled between the Rocky Mountains and the Snake River, and with ancient volcanic soils, an abundant water supply, and a moderate climate of warm days and cool nights, Idaho’s wine growing area basks in ideal conditions for producing complex, full-flavored, well-balanced grapes. The state is known for classic varieties like Syrah, Merlot, Riesling and Chardonnay, as well as varieties that are less commonly grown in the Pacific Northwest such as Tempranillo, Malbec and Chenin Blanc.
“We have two very distinct wine regions, the north and the south,” says Earl Sullivan, co-founder and winemaker of Telaya winery. “Different things grow better in the different regions, and in general, we have a wide range of grapes that do really well in Idaho.” Sullivan notes that with the evolution of Idaho’s wine industry, many different wine styles are being made, including contemporary American (typically richer and more fruit forward), as well as European (lighter, more acid-driven) .
The crew at Sawtooth winery with their freshly harvested Pinot Noir. Photo: @Sawtoothwinery on Instagram
“The nice thing about it is, you can go and taste wines from three different wineries,” says Sullivan, “and they might be pulling the fruit from the exact same vineyard but they’re going to taste wildly different—all of good quality, just stylistically very different.”
A Welcoming Wine Community
With a wine marketing slogan of “Come as you are,” the attitude in Idaho’s wine country is that there’s no need to dress up or feel intimidated when visiting the wineries. You can arrive straight off a kayak, a bike or the ski slopes.
“This is an awesome place,” says Martin Fujishin of Free Dog Wines, “whether you are just coming to explore wine, or you’ve known about wines from other regions and you’re coming here from California, Washington or Oregon.” Idaho winemakers take a lot of pride in what they make and want their wines to be enjoyed on a daily basis.
“The wines are accessible and can be opened up on a weeknight to share with family and friends,” says Fujishin. “The price points are going to be half of what you see in other regions, but the quality is just as good, if not better in many cases. These are not trophy wines that are only to be opened on special occasions.”
On the Sunnyslope Wine Trail. Photo: Huston Vineyards.
The state’s heaviest concentration of wineries, where you can sample a large selection of what Idaho offers without traveling long distances, can be found in two areas: along the Sunnyslope Wine Trail (part of the Snake River Valley AVA), and at the urban wineries of Boise and its surrounding communities. Chances are, you’ll even meet the winemakers themselves.
Mike Williamson, 4th generation fruit grower says that he loves to see the expression on the face of visitors, whose eyes light up when they taste that first glass of Idaho wine. “When you come to an Idaho winery,” he says, “there’s a good chance that you can talk to somebody whose name is on the bottle, who has vineyard dirt on their boots, whose thumbs are green from handling the vines or purple from the wine.”
Visit Idaho This Summer
With Covid vaccinations increasing and international trips still mostly off-limits, travel within the United States will see a big upswing in the coming months. I, for one, am already looking into expanding my geographical horizons by spending time outside of the east or west coasts.
Idaho is referred to as the ‘Gem State’ for its natural beauty, and it offers a plethora of outdoor activities, along with stunning vistas that are a landscape painter’s dream: extreme mountain peaks, deep river gorges, thundering whitewater rapids and pristine lakes.
With 30 national parks, nature enthusiasts can partake in many active adventures: hiking at Shoshone Falls, mountain biking in the Teton Mountains, skiing at one of the many ski areas (Sun Valley being the most well-known), kayaking on Redfish Lake, white water rafting on the Salmon River, and fly fishing on Idaho’s legendary Snake River. Just to name a few!
Photo: @VisitIdaho on Instagram
For those who prefer effortless to strenuous, either an easy road trip along one of Idaho’s 31 scenic byways, or a relaxing dip in the mineral pools at Lava Hot Springs would fit the bill. At night, the state’s capital, Boise, offers many cultural treats. You can take in an opera or the philharmonic, followed by a glass of wine at Coiled Wine Bar and then a paella dinner at The Basque Market.
Fun fact: Boise has the largest Basque population outside of Basque. The immigrants came through the area while herding sheep, and the culture and the climate felt like home, so they stayed.
For more information on things to do in Idaho, visit visitidaho.org.
During the Zoom seminar, I tasted a wide range of Idaho wines with the winemakers (see below for tasting notes). Overall, I was pleasantly surprised, and found the quality of the wine to be top-notch.
The wines may be hard to find in your local shop and restaurants, but I’ve provided links below for ordering them online. Give them a try! You won’t be disappointed.
For more information on Idaho’s wineries and tasting rooms, check out idahowines.org.
Free Dog Albariño 2019 ($18).The winery gets its name from the owner’s furry family members, who, as they say on the website, “have been through every step we have made as a business and a family.” The heartwarming story of how they “ended up” with their first dog, who they got for free, can be found here. And a portion of the winery’s proceeds is donated to animal charities.
The label’s flower is a blue-eyed grass, a part of the iris family. (My dog Benny’s favorite wine!)
Albariño is a grape that hails from Galicia, Spain, an area whose western side abuts the Atlantic Ocean. And while no one would mistake this for Spanish Albariño, which tend to have a distinct and mineral saltiness, it’s delicious in its own right, as a fine Idaho wine.
My friend Graham, who runs the wine shop at Sotheby’s here in NYC, tasted the wine blind and he was almost certain that it was an Italian Vermentino. And I can see why—it’s quite aromatic on the nose tropical fruit notes like mango and pineapple as well as stone fruit, like apricot. On the palate, there’s good acidity; lots of citrus (lime, grapefruit), but also that tropical fruit, along with a long enjoyable finish. This is a great wine for the summertime—very refreshing and would pair well with fresh seafood, or as the winery recommends, “a plate of smoked salmon and cheese.”
Sawtooth Chenin Blanc 2020 ($24). Some say that Chenin Blanc’s best expression comes from the limestone soils of its homeland, the Loire Valley. And while that may be true, this one is a fine example of what the terroir of Idaho can produce with expressive, aromatic, high acid whites like Chenin Blanc.
A wine worth taking note of!
The winery’s Snake River Valley vineyards sit close to Lizard Butte, an ancient volcano that imparts earthy flavors on this light and crisp wine that has a slight creaminess mid-palate. Subtle notes of green pepper reside underneath the tropical fruit and white flower notes, and there’s a nice balance of acidity, fruit and alcohol. This is not a complex Chenin, but it’s very refreshing and enjoyable. Another summertime winner!
Clearwater Canyon Merlot 2018. (The 2019 is available online for $28). From the Lewis Clark Valley right on the edge of Washington State, this wine’s aromas are full of vanilla oakiness intermingled with fresh dark berry fruit. Soft velvety tannins meld wonderfully with the rich fruit that gets a lift from its bright acid. In a year or two, the oak should be more integrated, so it’s worth buying and holding onto for a bit before opening.
Colter’s Creek Fondo Syrah 2018 ($25). Located in the Lewis Clark Valley, this Syrah comes from a cooler vineyard site located next to the Clearwater River. The wine is a bit lighter in body than what you would expect from a Syrah, with very low tannins, a soft, fruity and fresh texture, complemented by earthy and spicy notes. I found the wine got even better after open for a day or two.
The Fondo Syrah’s label, “Biking in the Mountains” is part of a series by Idaho artist Laurel Macdonald.
Telaya Syrah 2018 ($34). This wine is what you would expect from the Syrah grape: dark purplish in color, with meaty, bacony notes, and soft but firm tannins. Great acidity and bold spices keeps the fruit in check. Lots of mineral notes, particularly of stone and iron. A complex, rich and powerful Syrah, yet not too strong on the alcohol, which comes in at 13.7%.