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State of the Grape

Forget dipping our toes, Idaho dives right in

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When Prohibition ended in 1933, it was a bittersweet victory for many alcohol manufacturers and aficionados, though arguably winemakers had the worst situation to rectify. Across the nation, hundred-year-old vineyards had been ripped from the soil and since then, American wines have had to regain stature in the age-old global market.

Many states remain relatively new or nonexistent on the national wine scene, but Idaho is presently gaining a reputation for excellent wines and vineyards at breakneck speed. The upcoming second annual Idaho Wine Festival (for details, see 8 Days Out on pages 18-23), produced by the Treasure Valley Wine Society (TVWS) at the Winery at Eagle Knoll, is testament to our state's budding wine industry.

Last year, festival organizers were overwhelmed with the line of people stretching into the parking lot-500 over the expected 200. The event this year will encompass the entire grounds of Eagle Knoll to accommodate a similar, if not greater, turnout.

"What was so phenomenal," says Julie Canoy, a TVWS member and steward of the Festival, "is that Idaho had been making wine for awhile, in fact years, but it has recently boomed in recognition. The [Idaho] wineries themselves are becoming more intelligent." Canoy observes how a leisurely drive anywhere in the state seems to reveal the replacement of hay fields with vineyards. These new ventures, however, benefit from the stability of St. Chapelle, Idaho's first and largest winery established in 1976, as its commercial strength reels in wine enthusiasts who then stumble upon the lesser-known wineries. It is the same setup that works well for Washington state, according to festival judge and Oregon wine writer Cole Danehower, and he predicts Idaho's success may outlast states like Oregon, whose industry is fragmented by having only small, private wineries.

In line with regions distinguished by their name (like Napa Valley) to imply a presence of many interconnected wineries, the idea to officially nickname our state's wine country the Snake River Valley is circulating through the local wine scene. Staking a nickname now is timely, considering the creativity and originality that characterize developing ventures. "To me, it's a spirit of experimentation," says Danehower, impressed with the wines he sampled at the judging event held last Saturday. "[Idaho's] not afraid as a new wine growing region. They're doing interesting things-cabernet sauvignon [vines] next to a pinot noir? But who says you can't do that?" Wineries are bringing in new varietals, mixing sandy river rock with a well-structured soil. "There seems to be a lot of promise," says Danehower.

While many believe Idaho is experiencing considerable success, by comparison, many feel the glory days of California wines are dwindling. "California is not developing wine like it used to," says Canoy. She attributes the decline to perhaps climate change, recalling Biblical passages of 50-year jubilees marking the end of resting vineyards. Her recent trip to California with Sharon Oelrich, another TVWS member, was "really sad because we could see firsthand that the vineyards were discolored." Danehower disagrees with the California demise theory, instead believing the difference "is a market driven thing."

"People burn out on a wine and want an alternative," he says of the problem commercial wineries create sticking to a once profitable label, like a Merlot or White Zinfandel. Though White Zin serves a purpose as a starter wine, coaxing non-drinkers into wine in much the same way The Da Vinci Code coaxed "non-readers" into the literary world, redundancy does create a backlash. "California is not out of fashion," Danehower continues, "but people want an alternative to high in sugar, high in alcohol, extracted fruity and forward, not all food friendly wines-the best wines are to be paired with food." Danehower recognizes Washington has its slew of commercial wineries, as California does, but produces a higher quality thanks to passionate company founders. He compliments Idaho winemakers when he says: "Idaho is very much, in my mind, a part of the Northwest wine ethic."

Yet the focus Saturday is not on the industry. "Our purpose is not to satisfy the ego of the winemaker or the economics of businesses," says Lee Buddecke, head steward of the festival, "it's just to educate the consumer, tell them what wines are good." Festival attendees will definitely have their pick-107 varieties of wine from 25 Idaho wineries will be available to taste beginning at 5 p.m., with awards given in gold, silver and bronze categories.

To put on the festival and judging event, TVWS committees have been meeting bi-monthly since January. And the judging event was hardly a lackluster scene: Stewards scrambling behind the scenes to bring the judges flights of wine in labeled glasses, keeping the competition blind. One panicked steward shouts for freshly washed glasses while another behind a computer curses and skips lunch to tally the evolving scores in preparation for the re-judging of the top medal contenders. In a separate room were judges diligently recording a lengthy list of attributes of each of the 107 wines, no easy feat either. Respect was definitely due, especially as attempting even one sample flight (15 wines) for this curious writer was abandoned on the eighth glass, the lesson being that the spittoon cup is not for kicks. As one experienced judge from Washington put it, "The more you taste, the more you train, the better you get like anything else. It's nice to see Idaho starting out. They have the little guy complex but they're doing really well. It's not a mystery-you crush your grapes, you add your yeast. It's a process of art and science."

"The people work hard," says Buddecke. "The judges have to think, 'Is the color right, is the nose proper ... but back here, we're having fun. This is the place to be-the stewards' room!" Buddecke should know. His steward resume includes years in Orange County's bustling scene, working festivals judging 3,000-plus wines. And he's quick to attend to my glass. "It's like a vacuum, nature abhors a vacuum. I hate to see an empty glass!" he says, an appealing motto that will be prevalent at the festival.