When it comes to winemaking regions, Oregon and Washington may be bigger and better known, but Idaho shares an early wine tradition with both. The Civil War was coming to a close when some of the first wine grapes planted in the Northwest turned up at Lewiston. For the next 50 years, Idaho produced highly acclaimed wines, winning awards in competitions across the country.
That came to a screeching halt in 1919 with the onset of Prohibition. By the time the Volstead Act was repealed 24 years later, those Idaho vineyards and wineries were long gone. Almost 40 years would pass before wine grapes would again return to the state--in 1970 (just a few years behind Oregon and Washington), the first new vineyards were planted in Idaho, this time along the Snake River Valley. Ever since, Idaho has being playing a game of catch-up, lagging behind our neighbors to the west. But things are starting to change.
Ten years ago, there were fewer than a dozen Idaho wineries, and growth seemed to be permanently stalled--this despite the fact that the southwest section of the state provides a unique and very desirable location for growing grapes. The Snake River Valley--with its cold winters (encouraging the vines to go dormant), poor soil (ironically grapes thrive in bad dirt, which helps keep production low and quality high), an ideal climate with long, warm summer days (assuring ripeness) and cool summer nights (preserving essential acidity)--makes for an ideal terroir.
Recognition came in 2007 with the designation of the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area. Encompassing more than 8,000 square miles, the area starts in Oregon and stretches across Southwest Idaho. While it lacks the name recognition of Walla Walla or Napa Valley, it's a good start. Containing fewer than 2,000 vineyard acres, the designation coincided with an influx of new wineries (now at 50). That new demand should act as a catalyst for vineyard expansion.
Given the region's size, touring the wine country can be a bit difficult. While many of the wineries are huddled around Sunnyslope near Marsing, you'll find others in far flung locations that include Hagerman, Ketchum, Kuna and Wilder. Of course, most of those are an easy drive from Boise.
You can also enjoy a day of wine tasting without leaving the city. One option is to visit the Capitol City Public Market on Saturdays, where several wineries have tasting booths. Arena Valley's Snake River Winery has a BODO tasting room at 786 W. Broad. They're open from 10:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Fraser Vineyard Winery also has a tasting room just off Capital Boulevard, at 1004 La Pointe St., open Saturdays noon to 5 p.m.
Swing over to the Linen District and you'll find one of the state's newest ventures, Mouvance Winery, French for "circle of influence." Located at 1414 W. Grove St., they use grapes from their family vineyard in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
It's just a short hop from there to Garden City, where you'll find a unique venture that embraces the cooperative spirit found throughout Idaho's wine industry. Husband and wife team Melanie Krause (former assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle) and Joe Schnerr returned home to Idaho to start Cinder Wines. In 2008, they came across a vegetable-packing warehouse that looked promising, so they signed a lease for part of the space. Vale Wine Co. and Syringa Winery shared the facility before moving on to other digs.
Today, the Urban Winemakers Cooperative has taken over the entire building, housing Cinder, Coiled Wines and Telaya Wine Co. Interestingly, all three are headed by female winemakers. Coiled's Leslie Preston worked at California's Clos du Bois, Saintsbury and Stag's Leap before venturing out on her own. She made her first syrahs in Napa--but using Idaho grapes--before deciding Boise would be a better place to raise a family. Telaya owners Carrie and Earl Sullivan lured Kathryn House away from Betz Family Winery in Washington to head up their winemaking operation. The cooperative is located at 107 E. 44th St. Cinder is open to the public Wednesday-Sunday, from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., but if you want a wine tasting trifecta, stop by on Saturday afternoon, when all three are open.