Bill Fraser pops the cork on a bottle of 2009 petite sirah, a new varietal for his boutique Boise winery tucked into a quiet commercial neighborhood off Capitol Boulevard. In a room where concrete floor, sheetrock walls and fluorescent lights betray its past as home to his former construction company, Fraser pours ruby liquid into a half circle of glasses perched atop an upturned oak barrel. Tasters lift those glasses, give the wine their best inquisitor's eye, inhale a deep, face-in-the-glass breath and finally, take a lingering, cheek-swishing sip. In that suspended moment between first taste and final verdict, Fraser steps back and averts his eyes.
It's hardly the first time Fraser has poured wine for a public tasting--after all, it's that time of year when wineries all over Idaho are introducing their latest vintages--but when the approving nods and smiles come, he relaxes noticeably, picks up his own glass and takes a sip. You'd never guess that Fraser Vineyard had just won another award.
"We were named the Idaho Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest," Fraser says in an almost apologetic tone. "So we kind of wanted to get that word out as well."
Getting the word out is obviously not Fraser's favorite winemaking chore. Tall, lean and ponytailed, this Idaho carpenter turned vintner would clearly rather be cutting vines or blending grapes than, say, talking to a reporter about awards. According to Wine Press Northwest managing editor Eric Degerman, Fraser had to be coaxed into even submitting his wines to the magazine's review panel.
"I'd always been mystified by Bill Fraser's wines," says Degerman. "He's a very kind man, but he's rather on the shy side. I'd come across his wines from time to time and had always been very much impressed with the quality."
Yet it took Degerman several attempts to convince Fraser to send his wines in for review. When he finally did, Degerman says, "it was almost as if I was kind of a proud parent because to have Bill's wines show so well to the rest of our panel. It was just one of those things like, 'I told you this guy's wines were killer.'"
Along with the Idaho Winery of the Year award, Wine Press Northwest gave Fraser's 2009 malbec an Outstanding rating. Fraser's 2007 cabernet sauvignon also won Best Red and Best in Show awards at the 2010 Idaho Wine Competition. His 2008 malbec won a gold medal--not bad for a retiree looking for a hobby.
"Yeah," says Fraser, "I was in the construction business for probably 30 years before this. My wife and I have always enjoyed drinking wine, so we thought that this would be a fun hobby to plant some grapes and make a little wine."
Fraser pauses, looks around the room at the stacks of oak barrels, the piles of equipment and the crowd of tasters growing larger by the minute.
"It's certainly turned out to be more than just a hobby." A hobby, he says, made easier by wife Bev, extended family and friends.
"Most of the work here is just kind of with volunteer help. When we bottle, we call up a bunch of friends and they come down."
Peter Petersen is one of several of those friends attending today's tasting.
"I'm a retired physician who, about five years ago, met Bill through playing bridge," says Petersen, a pale amber glass of Fraser viognier in hand. "We both have a love of wine. He needed help, and so I help him from pruning to harvesting to crushing to pressing to bottling to sweeping the floors."
Petersen turns to another pair of volunteering friends.
"Ric and Sue help crush, press, bottle, label," he said. Ric and Sue Colby nod and in unison chant, "We love Bill and Bev."
Bev Fraser does sales calls, writes the newsletter and arranges gatherings like this public tasting. Granddaughter Sierra studies viticulture at Oregon State University and plans to come back to work in the family business after graduation.
"We definitely have a lot of family and friends involved," says daughter Suzanne Stone, who is also helping with the tasting. "In fact, all 3,000 vines were planted by hand by family and my mom and Bill, and so it's a labor of love."
Fraser Vineyard's small-scale, almost-a-hobby level of production helps keep the winemaking process intimate. While some Idaho wineries produce tens of thousands of cases a year, Fraser only bottled 120 cases of that just introduced petite sirah. Degerman calls that "the true definition of a boutique winery."
Fraser's biggest desire isn't volume, says Suzanne Stone.
"It's to see Idaho wines come up to the recognition of California wines, Washington wines, Oregon wines--and for people to take it seriously."
Over the past few years, Stone says she's seen that happen. When she and her sister first started doing tastings for their parents, she says people would ask, Where is it from?
"And we would say, 'Idaho,' and they would go 'Ehww,' and they'd walk away with the wine, and then they'd taste it and turn around with a surprised look on their face like, 'This is an Idaho wine?' They were shocked that this kind of wine was coming from Idaho."
"We're actually a warmer climate than Napa Valley," Fraser says. "People assume Idaho is so cold and awful in the winter, but our summers are nice and warm with long days, and we can get things ripe, which surprises a lot of people."
Southern Idaho's desert climate and volcanic soils can help vintners create wines that Degerman says have a depth of fruit, refined tannin structure and acidity that the greater wine world should hear about. He says that's why the Winery of the Year awards annually given by Wine Press Northwest to Idaho, Oregon, Washington and British Columbian winemakers are designed to reflect not only on individual wineries, like the Fraser family and their loyal volunteers, but on a state's entire wine industry.
"The award," says Degerman, "is not just to show how spectacular [Fraser's] wines are, but to show what Idaho can do. I think what it does is it shows the promise of Idaho, to see that wines of such standard can be made and are being made in Idaho."