Idaho vintners have insisted for decades that our state offers ideal conditions for high quality wine production. They cite our arid (i.e. rot-prohibitive) soil, wide temperature swings and distinct seasons as perfect for crafting a grape with balanced acids, sugars and free of parasites. The trouble is that almost nobody, it appears, heeded these declarations until our industry had fallen far behind those of our Pacific Northwest neighbors in Walla Walla and the Columbia Valley in Washington. Of the 23 wineries currently bottling in Idaho 13 are under five years old, but those who are producing do so to great acclaim. From a Best of Show at the prestigious 2004 Riverside International Wine Competition (won by Ste. Chapelle's 2001 cabernet sauvignon) to numerous gold medals at competitions up and down the West Coast, it seems all but certain that Idaho wineries constitute a slumbering giant on the brink of national prominence. Someone just needs to pop the cork.
Enter the corkscrew: the Treasure Valley Wine Society (TVWS). According to Ted Judd, founder and president, "[Society members] would always talk about competitions we traveled to in Seattle, California or wherever, and we kept noticing that everywhere we went, a lot of the best wines would come from Idaho. But [for competitions] there is nothing actually here." The answer to such a dilemma, as evidenced recently by Boise's local filmmakers at the True West Cinema and Idaho International Film Festivals, is to stage a intra-state festival of one's very own--and who better than the bourgeoning TVWS to lead it, via the Idaho Wine Festival, at The Winery at Eagle Knoll this Saturday, August 28.
"There are other wine festivals in Idaho, but none like this," explains TVWS vice president Walt Thode. "We've gathered all the Idaho wines that exist, as well as people who know as much as can be known about what these wines should taste like. It is kind of like the Westminster Dog Show." The haughtiest of winos might cough in their cabernet at a paralleling of wine and canine, but the analogy works on several levels. Like dogs, wines are assessed by a judge (or in most cases a panel) whose interpretation of the ideal form of Syrah, Riesling or Gewurtztraminer provides a yardstick for all competitors in those categories. Like dogs, wines may be deemed wholly unfit for gold medals by the judges, and it is possible, albeit highly unlikely, that no "Best of Show" will emerge (without giving away any secrets, I can safely reveal that this was not the case at this year's event). Finally, the two contests are alike in that judges are often the first to admit how subjective the process of ranking is, while still defending their choices and qualifications to fisticuffs.
The challenge facing a foundational organization like TVWS, then, is to find judges with taste buds beyond reproach to gauge the accomplishments of the blossoming wineries, and in that they have aimed high. Joining a team of four winemakers from Washington and sellers from Idaho at the blind judging event on August 21 (the results will be announced at the festival) was Ann C. Noble, former professor of Viticulture and Enology (the science of winemaking) at the University of California at Davis. Noble has long studied the subtle ways that shade, slope and other growing conditions manifest through specific flavors in wine, and has even devised an intricate training program to train amateur wine palettes by placing flavorful objects like cloves, soy or berries in wine. She is largely responsible for imparting terms like "earthy," "cooked fruit" and "black pepper" to future winemaking generations, but the lively scholar sums up the difference between her and the Rossi-swilling rabble in simple, not condescending terms. She simply knows what the nose knows.
"We, as people, don't tend to listen to our noses," she explained to me while sipping water between the Merlot and Syrah sections of the competition. "The perfect analogy is that if a baby is crying next door, and people are talking loudly, the only one who hears the cry is either the mother--or someone who hates babies. That mother doesn't have better hearing, but she is attuned. The same information is getting to your brain either way, but your brain has to learn to pay attention to it." The best way to counteract this scenario, not surprisingly, is simply to "taste a lot of different wines, and remember what you taste."
Witnessing five such synched brains sip and spit their way through 105 glasses of vino apiece over an afternoon is a spectacle similar to an Olympic event--or at least to American Idol judging outtakes. The judges, who also included Walla Walla-based winemaker Rich Funk, local vineyard owner Dennis McArthur, wine seller Vern Kindred and Boise Co-op wine broker Divit Cardoza, threw elaborate flavor descriptions, resolute glares and dismissive judgments at the legions of anonymous glasses sitting before them, while TVWS members charted the results. My favorite conclusions included, "[Sip, snort, spit] Big, but lacks The Fruit. Bronze-plus-plus. [Sniff] No, silver-minus" and: "[Slurp, spit] I like it. Bronze."
"Bronze? I thought you said you liked it!"
"What, isn't bronze good anymore?"
It may all sound hopelessly complicated and elusive, but rest assured, this work is intended to help you, the wide-eyed shopper adrift in the wine racks, to establish a starting point from which to leap into becoming a local gourmand. Just ask Stuart Scott, owner and winemaker of Camas Prairie Vineyards in Moscow, Idaho, who has 10 wines featured in the contest including some delicious fruit-infused mead. "If the befuddled consumer is looking between 12 to 15 cabernets in a supermarket, a shelf-talker or decal that says 'Idaho medal winner' might help them decide for once what is good to try," he explains. On the larger scale, the very existence of an Idaho medal legitimizes our state as a wine producer worthy of recognition and visitation. "Before, we had always just hoped that Idaho wineries would be successful simply because the wine is so damned good," he explains. "But to be thought of as a wine region is magnetic. It helps everybody."
In other words, with the first statewide competition, Idaho's wine-scape is finally maturing from isolated manufacturers into a statewide industry worth raving about. "Five years ago," Judd recalls, "when you wanted to visit 'wine country,' you had to wonder where else to go, because here you had the same four or five wineries to visit. Now, it is getting to be exciting and different. This may be a wine festival for Idaho wineries, but soon we'll be the ones inviting Washington and Oregon wineries to join us here rather than the other way around."
Saturday, August 28, 2-10 p.m., $20 in advance at Select-A-Seat for wine tasting, competition ceremonies, silent auction and commemorative wine glass, $25 at door, FREE admission to the afternoon and evening concerts. Food, wine and beer available for purchase. The Winery At Eagle Knoll, 375 N. Highway 16 (2 miles north of State Street). Competition results announced between 6 and 9 p.m. More at idahowine.org/winefestival.