Slideshow: 'Wine Industry Boot Camp' Buses Oenophiles Across Idaho Wine Country 

Attendees of the Idaho Wine Commission's  Wine Industry Boot Camp on Sept. 24 started drinking at 9 a.m., when the owner-operators of Williamson Orchards and Vineyards greeted the loaded tour bus with trays of croissants and glasses of German-style Riesling.

"If you have to have wine for breakfast, this is a good one," joked Beverly "Bev" Williamson, who runs sales and marketing for the family vineyard. The white wine was crisp and light, the perfect introduction to an eight-hour day of tasting.

click to enlarge Malbec in the vines at Williamson Orchards and Vineyards. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Malbec in the vines at Williamson Orchards and Vineyards.
Following Bev, her brother Mike and her cousin Patrick (all Williamsons, members of the family that has called the Caldwell land parcel home since 1909), the boot camp attendees plunged into the vineyard's rows of vines, picking Malbec and Syrah grapes to snack on before trying the vintages they produced.

"You know how in real estate it's all about location, location, location?" asked Mike, the operations manager, standing between two net-covered rows of Malbec. "We're about the fruit, about the fruit, about the fruit."

Williamson was just the first stop on an Idaho wine and cider odyssey that took attendees down the Sunny Slope Wine Trail to

Koenig Vineyards (where 

Fujishin Family Cellars and Bitner Vineyards also set up tables for tasting) and Sawtooth Winery (which hosted Ste. Chapelle), then to Par Terre Winery in Garden City and the new downtown Meriwether Cider House. Local snacks from Guru Donuts, Porterhouse and The STIL popped up along the way to help keep the crowd the right side of tipsy. Idaho Wine Commission Executive Director Moya Schatz Dolsby led the group, giving insight into Idaho's growing crop of 52 wineries along the way. 

click to enlarge Grapes being processed post-harvest at Koenig Vineyards. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Grapes being processed post-harvest at Koenig Vineyards.
At Koenig, campers tried two unfinished wines: rose juice made from Sangiovese grapes that was still non-alchoholic and sweet, and half-fermented estate-grown Viognier, which was sharp and citrusy with a mouthfeel similar to champagne. Harvest was already underway, and grapes poured through a series of shoots to be crushed and de-stemmed outside the facility, while inside racks of kegs (tended by winemaker and self-proclaimed "keg freak" Greg Koenig) fermented last year's juice.

In the Koenig tasting room, Martin Fujishin of Fujishin Family Cellars spoke on pushing boundaries, and his quest to find out, "What else can we grow here in Idaho?" He poured tastes of his raw, fruity 2015 Tempranillo while outside on the patio, Ron Bitner of Bitner Vineyards offered his own vintage of the same grape. Bitner, originally a "bee biologist" by trade, prides himself on having the only LIVE-certified winery in Idaho, a third-party standard for sustainability. He's in his 34th harvest this year, and makes a point to plant plenty of flowers around his grapes to attract bees.

click to enlarge Kelly, the tasting room manager at Sawtooth Winery, demonstrating how to open a bottle of bubbly with a sword. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Kelly, the tasting room manager at Sawtooth Winery, demonstrating how to open a bottle of bubbly with a sword.
At the next stop, Sawtooth Winery, winemaker Meredith Smith talked about the process of producing 135,000 cases per year for Sawtooth and neighboring Ste. Chapelle and praised the "synergy" of the Sunny Slope Trail. Then, as guests chowed down on Porterhouse sandwiches, the Sawtooth Tasting Room manager used a 1825 French cavalry sword to chop the neck off a bottle of non-vintage Gruet Sauvage to a round of applause. It was sparkling and dry, a clear-cut following a heavier red.

At Par Terre, dancer-turned-winemaker Travis Walker spoke to working on a smaller scale as campers tasted his 2017 Rose, made from Washington grapes sourced after Snowpocalypse crippled Idaho's grape production in 2016. Pointing to his hand-cranked crusher/destemmer, Walker joked about why his production is limited to 10 tons.

"I'm not as strong as I used to be," he said with a grin.

The tour finished at Meriwether Cider's taproom in downtown Boise, where co-owner Kate Leadbetter explained the process of cider-making over glasses of Foothills Semi-Dry. When the campers finally wandered out into the sunlight to resume their normal lives, their arms were heavy with bottles and their minds buzzing with facts that they'd promised to share, spreading the news of Idaho wine. 
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