Idaho Wine Country 

Carving out a niche in the Northwest wine world

What's better than putting your feet up and uncorking a beautiful malbec from the Nampa wine country? No, that wasn't a misspelling, we mean Nampa, as in the heart of Canyon County, which happens to be the epicenter of the booming Idaho wine industry.

In just the last decade, the number of Idaho wineries has skyrocketed to roughly 40 wineries. From small boutique wineries like Cinder to quickly growing wineries like Koenig Vineyards to the granddaddy of all Idaho wineries, Ste. Chapelle Winery, Idaho is quickly finding its footing as a Northwestern wine region in its own right.

"It's booming," said Moya Shatz, executive director of Idaho Wines, a group working to promote the industry. There are roughly 1,600 acres of vineyards planted in Idaho, and more winemakers are adding to the area's offerings.

"People think potatoes, but it's so much more than that," Shatz said.

The wine world's powers that be agree. In 2007, the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area was created, designating an 8,000-square-mile, federally recognized grape-growing area. While that doesn't mean much for the average person, it gives the area a new level of credibility among the industry and wine connoisseurs.

Andrea Vlassis-Zahn, assistant retail manger at Sawtooth Winery, said she's seen the state's wine industry boom in just a few years but many locals are still surprised to find so much homegrown wine.

"People don't always put Idaho and wine together," she said.

For more than a year, writer Alan Minskoff and photographer Paul Hosefros have been working on a book about the industry in the Gem State. The aptly named Idaho Wine Country is set to be released in fall 2010, and the months of research have given Minskoff a unique perspective on the industry.

It's an industry that has benefited greatly from the success of the Washington wine industry, as well as the local-foods movement, which has encouraged Idaho wine lovers to seek out local wines. Additionally, since the wineries in Idaho are still getting their footing, they are willing to experiment, working to find what grape varieties work the best in our climate.

"There's a lot of diversity," Minskoff said of the industry, both in terms of varieties and geography, with wineries spanning the length and breadth of the state.

Still, the focus of Idaho's wineries can be found just west of Boise, where the combo of good soil, irrigation, sunny days and cool nights combine to grow great fruit.

Winemakers are still discovering what varieties of grapes grow the best in the area, but many are finding success with syrah and viognier varieties.

Sawtooth Winery has the largest vineyard in the state, with between 20 and 25 different varieties planted on roughly 500 acres and producing between 10,000 and 15,000 cases each year.

Bill Murray took over as Sawtooth winemaker a year ago and said he's still learning the array of grapes that can thrive in Idaho. He's particularly excited about several new varietals, including tempranillo and malbec.

The winery sells many of its grapes to other area wineries, but Murray said he hopes to eventually be able to use even more of their own fruit.

Still, the most popular wines for consumers in Idaho tend to be sweeter wines, including rieslings.

The best-selling wine at the state's largest winery, Ste. Chapelle, is called soft red, which winery employee Walt Varnes describes as a sweet red. Its popularity is followed closely by the special harvest riesling and the soft white.

Ste. Chapelle has been making wine since 1971 and now produces a whopping 55 percent of all Idaho wine, turning out roughly 160,000 to 165,000 cases and roughly 20 varieties each year.

Still, the challenge for Idaho wineries is spreading the word that not only is there wine in Idaho, but there's good wine in Idaho. It's a task made challenging in the shadow of nearby wine industry powerhouses like Oregon and Washington.

That's part of the reasoning behind events like Savor Idaho: Idaho Wines' June event that brings together an array of wineries and restaurants to help expose the public to the variety of choices out there.

At the same time that the number of wineries is expanding, so too are the number of tourists coming in search of Idaho wine. Travelers and wine lovers are realizing that the sheer mass of wineries in Canyon and Ada counties makes for a relatively easy, full day of wine tasting.

"We're lucky, in [the Boise area], a lot of the vineyards are only half an hour to 45 minutes away," Shatz said.

Getting started simply takes a visit to the Idaho Wines Web site,, where the public can download a free map showing each of the state's wineries, as well as complete address and contact information.

Most wineries have some facilities for visitors, although a call ahead never hurts, since even those with tasting rooms have limited hours.

"We're really trying to get [tourism growth] out there," Vlassis-Zahn said. "It's a greenbelt of wineries."

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