Celia Gould, director of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture, cheerfully admitted to taking some teasing over the Idaho Wine Commission project. “People said, ‘You’re going to California to sell Idaho wine?’”
Undeterred, members of the Commission came to the El Dorado Hotel Sonoma where they hosted a lunch and tasting of wines being produced today in the Gem State. And there were gems, along with jokes about potatoes.
Asked to introduce ourselves and say if we had visited Idaho, it turned out that all of the guests at lunch had been to the state, and two of us admitted that one of our most memorable stops was the Potato Museum in Blackfoot. My kids found a brochure about it and insisted we stop on our way to Yellowstone; any museum that gave you a free baked potato was high on their list of Something Not To Be Missed.
But only one person had visited an Idaho winery. This, however, is rapidly changing. Idaho, as of 2016, planted 1,300 acres of grapes and produced 156,686 cases of wine. “The number of wineries has doubled in the last 10 years to 56,” Gould said. “But the (change in) quality is immeasurable. It’s off the charts.”
What’s inspiring the growth? For one thing, it’s the availability of land for winemakers who are bringing in their expertise in return for a comparatively affordable place to grow grapes. For others choosing to make wine in Idaho, it’s a lifestyle choice, like Earl and Carrie Sullivan, who followed a dream to Idaho to find a family friendly place to raise their kids and work together, merging their backgrounds in science and love of natural beauty. Their Telaya winery gets its name from the Teton mountains and la playa (the beach).
Earl Sullivan was the winemaker representative in the contingent, and he filled in the picture of what is making the state appealing: the volcanic soils, desert climate and access to water. With this comes a sense of adventure — and freedom — to experiment and see which grapes best thrive in this interesting terroir, to take a few risks, and also to live in a state where there are more cows than people.
For example, the first wine the group poured, as guests were arriving was Rizza from Coiled winery, a methode-Champenoise sparkling wine made from Riesling grapes. Different? Yes. Good? Absolutely.
Riesling was one of the first and most widely planted grapes, Sullivan said, but winemakers have shifted away from the first, mostly sweet versions of the grape. Not everyone is so bold as Coiled to embark on sparkling.
They poured two more Rieslings with an Idaho-inspired lunch. A 2016 Sawtooth Riesling from “Classic Fly” series ($18) was poured with an Idaho potato vichyssoise garnished with Idaho sturgeon caviar and Idaho potato chips. It was crisply acidic and refreshing, and also put to rest the idea that anyone is using potatoes to make wines where there are much better uses for them.
Gould noted that her staff had included a pronunciation of vichyssoise for her. “They know I am a farmer,” chucked the fourth generation owner and operator of G+ ranches, where she raises Black Angus and Wagyu-Angus beef in addition to crops.
Koenig Vineyards’ Riesling, a 2017 Sunnyslope Cuvee, was served with a quinoa-crusted trout, and we learned that Idaho is the number one producer in the U.S. of both trout and quinoa). This wine from the is made from grapes grown high above the Snake River in southwest Idaho. This wine was one-dry and delicate, but rich in flavor.
With an Idaho Snake River steak, we got a taste of other grapes that are being grown in Idaho, this one a 2016 Malbec made by Williamson Orchards & Vineyards, in Caldwell, Idaho. The Williamson family has had their orchards for more than 100 years; the second generation decided to plant grapes. The fourth generation is making wines. This was expressive, rich in fruit flavors, but balanced and a beautiful color ($25).
For the last wine, Earl Sullivan poured one of his own, the Telaya Wine Co. 2016 Turas, a stunning, silky, slightly spicy example of his interest in growing Rhone varietals in the southern Snake River Valley AVA. Up north is more of a “banana belt,” Sullivan explained, where they are planting Cab and Petite Sirah.)
Dessert was huckleberries, which grow wild in Idaho.
By the end of the lunch, I have to say, our horizons had expanded considerably beyond potatoes. If you go to Idaho, by all means, don’t miss the Potato Museum, but check out the wineries too. They are certainly now on my own Not To Be Missed list.