A historical marker atop a levee in Lewiston, Idaho, commemorates where Meriwether Lewis and William Clark camped Oct. 10, 1805, as part of their grand survey of the recently purchased Louisiana Territory — stretching from St. Louis to the Pacific. Here, the Clearwater River confluences with the Snake, which, as its name suggests, meanders in a sinuous fashion westward to the Columbia in Washington’s Tri-Cities on its inexorable path to Portland and the great ocean beyond.
While the Columbia River Valley, separating Washington from Oregon, is ideal wine grapegrowing country, similar geologic forces have fashioned comparable conditions in Idaho next door, carving out valleys shielded from snowfalls typical of the Gem State’s higher elevations, and keeping those depressions warmer in winter and sunlight coddling its crops in summer.
“The Snake River Valley is geologically and climatically part of the Northwest, just the next big valley upriver from Columbia Valley in Washington,” explained Melanie Krause, the winemaker at Cinder winery in Garden City, which specializes in viognier, syrah and tempranillo. “Some combination of elevation, climate and soils seems to make for aromatic and intensely flavorful and well balanced wines” in Idaho, she said.
North from the Snake River Valley, one comes after some 260 miles to Lewiston and the Lewis Clark Valley, where the Clearwater and Snake rivers intersect. It was here, in the 19th century, that German and French immigrants planted vines to harvest communion wine.
“It was definitely on a trajectory to be a really huge industry here, and it was for a time,” said Coco Umiker, the co-owner and winemaker at Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston, adding that even the Rothschild family was harvesting wine here in the early 1900s.
The Idaho wine business had barely gotten off the ground when the state went dry in 1916, four years before the Volstead Act forbade alcohol in the entire United States — stanching the party for 13 years.
“Wine [became] illegal, and we didn’t have enough Catholics to save it. That’s my theory,” Umiker said with a chuckle of her state’s dry spell. (During Prohibition, the Church was granted an exemption for communion wine, with some estimates finding importation for that purpose skyrocketed, with the excess almost certainly rerouted into the illegal trade — effectively turning some priests into bootleggers.)
Idaho already had a thriving boom in craft beer, and, thanks to the state’s potato crop, vodka before wine truly came back in the 21st century. Entrepreneurs were eager to plant grapes in the fertile volcanic soils boosted by nutrients thanks to deposits left behind during the last ice age —making them ideal for reds. Idaho viticulture grew so much that in 2016, the Lewis Clark Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) was officially recognized along with the Snake River Valley AVA further south.
“Our cold winters allow the vines to go dormant while building up carbohydrate reserves for the upcoming growing season,” said Carrie Sullivan, proprietor and winemaker at Telaya Wine Co. in Garden City. “The combination of very hot summer days and cooler nights maintains a good balance of sugar to acid. In addition, our lack of rainfall allows wine growers to control water supply through irrigation and decreases concerns with mold, rot and dilution of flavors.”
Latitude helps too: The Idaho vineyards are at degrees similar to Rioja in Spain and France’s Rhone Valley, to say nothing of their neighbors Washington and Oregon.
With an infrastructure still somewhat nascent, the valleys reward entrepreneurial drive. Perhaps that’s why many of the native vintners are raising grapes as second careers after some time living — and growing —elsewhere.
It doesn’t really explain, however, why so many are women.
Umiker of Clearwater Canyon Cellars battled cancer as a child, which led her to study medicine. But after meeting husband Carl at the University of Idaho, the couple decided to plant some vines at her grandparents’ Lewiston farm as a lark.
“Most people thought we were completely insane. No one in my generation was really interested in farming,” Umiker said, adding her grandfather allowed the young couple a quarter-acre to get started. “We literally made four barrels of wine that first year. That’s all we could afford.”
Meanwhile, Umiker, eschewing medicine, commuted to Washington State University in Pullman to complete her PhD in food science. Her operation grew, with Clearwater Canyon now producing some 4,500 cases per year.
Sullivan, a veterinarian by trade, started Telaya with husband Earl in 2008. Even though she says fashioning Cabernet, Merlot and a Syrah-based blend called Turas (Gaelic for “journey”) requires as many hours as tending animals, she is now able to be more present in the lives of the couple’s sons.
“While there are lot of veterinary emergencies that could keep me away, wine emergencies are definitely not as common,” she said. “Our boys are able to learn about wine production and entrepreneurship while obtaining a work ethic that is difficult for young men of their age to develop.”
For Sullivan and Umiker, the career change to vintner was as meandering as the Snake River. But for others, like Melissa Sanborn, owner of Colter’s Creek Winery & Vineyards in Juliaetta, the passion was planted at a young age.
“When I was 19, my mom took me on a trip to Northern California. A friend was completing a culinary internship at Jordan Winery and got us a private tour,” Sanborn said of the Healdsburg institution. “I fell in love with the Alexander Valley that trip and the wine industry in general.”
Sanborn says the entrepreneurial spirit of the Idaho wine industry is a primary attractant to enterprising women like herself. Changes in education have also helped.
“A lot of us females came into careers at a time when women were encouraged to lead in the sciences and in agriculture. Had I been born 20 years earlier, that may not have happened,” she said. “I think the youth of the wine industry in Idaho is the reason so many women winemakers are rocking it here.”
For all the advances, however, Sanborn said inevitably someone will approach her husband and partner, Mike, thinking he’s the one making decisions at Colter’s Creek.
“People unfamiliar with our winery assume he is the ‘everything’ behind the vineyard and winery,” she said. “I often get asked how I am involved in the business [and] when I tell them I make the wine and grow the grapes alongside Mike, they sometimes take me more seriously. Sometimes they don’t.”
“I honestly take it with a grain of salt, because as long as they enjoy and purchase our product, that’s the bottom line to me.”
“In a blind taste, you can’t tell gender,” said Meredith Smith, winemaker at both Sawtooth and Ste Chapelle Winery, the latter Idaho’s longest continually running operation. “There are great female winemakers all over the world. The skepticisms are typically based upon the wine [being] from Idaho and not with regards to my gender. At least that is my perception.”
Smith also came to wine mid-career, returning to Washington State in her 40s to study. This gave her an appreciation not only of the need to import some fruit to Idaho for making wine, but also how to better raise grapes in her home state.
“We know how Idaho wines and fruit compare within the Northwest,” Smith said. “We consistently taste wines and compare, and find that Idaho is competitive and, at times, is better. The perception of the general public is harder to transform in a short period of time.”
Sydney Weitz-Nederend, the founder of Scoria Vineyards in Caldwell, is a fourth-generation Idahoan whose family has made their living in agriculture since immigrating from France in the 1940s. Her grandfather “experimented” with growing Idaho table wines in the 1970s and her father is a distiller.
“I wanted to find a career that allowed me to continue my family’s rich agricultural heritage [and] I recognized that there was great potential to grow wine grapes in the sandy, volcanic soil in Idaho’s Snake River Valley,” Weitz-Nederend said.
Much of what the vintners produce stays in Idaho, with their top market the thriving restaurant scene in Boise, the state capital, to which many oneophiles are moving from other Western states with already-established viticultures. Wine club memberships and industry trade shows get Idaho bottles to other states and countries, but one of the biggest hurdles remains the provincial attitudes borne by those who decree that “real” American wine can only come from California or its neighbors.
“It is unfortunate when people only drink one kind of wine, say, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. They are missing out on an entire world of fun and exciting varietals from obscure regions,” said Weitz-Nederend.
“I love the skepticism surrounding Idaho wines. And no, we do not make our wines out of potatoes,” added Sullivan of Telaya. “I just have to get them to open up their minds and their palates — and give Idaho wines a taste. Then I got them!”
Clearwater Canyon’s Umiker, who is also the president of the Lewis and Clark Valley Wine Alliance, said that because Idaho’s wine sector is not yet on par with Washington or Oregon, there is a certain camaraderie among her fellow growers.
“I never even thought about winemaking as more of a male-dominated occupation,” she said. “But it’s a very physical activity. When I worked in Walla Walla as a cellarmaster, I was doing everything the guys were doing. I was picking up empty barrels. I probably could not do that now.”
The challenges these vintners face are legion, not the least of which is importing enough fruit from other states. Then there’s the lack of a migrant workforce in the Mountain region, pest infections and a 2017 cold snap that nearly wiped out that year’s harvest. A warming climate is a constant concern in the long-term (in an irony, snow actually “protects” the roots in winter from certain infections), and equipment and supplies often have to be shipped in from California, undercutting the bottom line.
But from such common adversity comes an esprit de corps: What’s good for one is good for all. And they are slowly winning over new acolytes, one glass at a time.
“When it’s in [competition with] wine from California or Washington and we do really well, it’s helpful,” said Umiker. “One of my greatest joys is seeing someone walk in who has no expectations and being completely blown away by the quality of the wines here.”