Wine: Idaho's new tourist attraction

As out-of-towners visit and spend, Idaho's once-small wine industry is growing fast.

adutton@idahostatesman.comMay 21, 2013 

  • SAWTOOTH: A BIG DRAW

    It's a Mother's Day tradition. Sawtooth Winery sells tickets every year for a wine festival at its expansive vineyard. As many as 1,300 people show up. This was the event's 24th year.

    "I would say about 75 percent of the people who come have been coming for a few years at least," says Kelli Geselle, retail manager and event coordinator for the Nampa winery. It was founded in 1987 as Pintler Cellars, then joined Corus Estates and Vineyards in 1998 and became Sawtooth Winery.

    "Most of them are local. A lot of them bring their mothers or their families that are coming into town that weekend," Geselle says.

    But the tasting room, a regular fixture, attracts probably 40 percent out-of-towners, 60 percent locals, she says. Some are visiting for pleasure, some are in town for business.

    "We ship out quite a bit," she says.

    Wine fans from New York, Washington, D.C., Virginia and Texas have said they're drawn by Sawtooth's mountain-scene label and by the fact that Idaho wine is lesser known than some others, she says.

    Audrey Dutton

An airline pilot and his wife, a dentist, moved to Idaho from Texas two winters ago. Their goal: Make wine in the Snake River Valley.

The couple "had been making wine for eight years or so," Tim Harless says, "then came here just because ... there's so much potential here for [winemaking], the grape-growing industry and the similar climate to Walla Walla," a wine-rich valley in Washington.

Tim and Helen Harless opened Hat Ranch Winery last August south of Caldwell. They have produced close to 600 cases, using grapes purchased from local growers. Hat Ranch wines are already winning gold medals at regional wine competitions. The couple have planted three acres of grapes, literally laying the groundwork for a full-scale vineyard.

Tim Harless doesn't keep a tally of local versus out-of-town customers stopping by the tasting room. He estimates about 60 percent are from the Boise area. But a large share are tourists. He's used to meeting road trippers who pulled off Interstate 84 to check out Idaho wines, or curious wine lovers visiting from Salt Lake City.

The ranch also advertises a bed-and-breakfast, an amenity that neighboring wineries now offer as well, catering to both the vacationing wine aficionado and the flock of weddings that occur each summer on the picturesque Sunnyslope Wine Trail.

What was once a small industry - Idaho had 11 wineries a decade ago and about 50 today - is now bustling. Its tasting rooms and B&Bs, Downtown shops and wine-pouring events have the region's attention. Idaho's wine country is showcased in the June edition of Salt Lake magazine, which gave Idaho vineyards some love last April as well.

"If wine industry forecasters are right, grapes are going to be Idaho's next famous crop. And right now, at the beginning of the story, is the best time to visit," wrote Mary Brown Malouf. "Idaho's not-yet-world-famous Snake River American Viticultural Area, or AVA, has great volcanic soil and the perfect weather to grow grapes: Warm-to-hot days that ripen the fruit to maximum sugar with cooling nights that keep the acids high."

AFTER 30 YEARS, A B&B

The family-owned Bitner Vineyards, producing about 1,000 cases of reserve wine each year, has a bed and breakfast, too. Ron and Mary Bitner's vineyards, also south of Caldwell, are 32 years old. The tasting room is 6 years old.

The bed-and-breakfast is in its second year. Already, most weekends are booked.

It helps to have eight to 10 wineries - many of them wedding destinations - within five miles, Ron Bitner says.

From May through November, the vineyards attract 100 to 150 people on the weekends, and a growing share are from out of state.

"The Salt Lake market's been great," he says.

At the same time, locals "are just now discovering that you're 35 or 40 minutes from really nice wines," he says.

Gary Cunningham, owner of 3 Horse Ranch Vineyard north of Eagle, says his brand is now known by visitors from five states, because it's sold in their local shops. About 75 percent of the vineyard's customers in the summer months are tourists, looking to sample the wine where it's born, or to check out Idaho wine country after seeing an advertisement or brochure, he says.

OUT-OF-STATERS FIRST GO ONLINE

For a visitor, a real treat is how close Idaho's vineyards are to the Boise city center.

No one keeps track of how many tourists come to Boise for the wine. The Idaho Wine Commission leaves it up to vintners.

But the commission does collect one set of data - website traffic - that hints at Idaho wine's reach.

Washington beat Idaho as the state with the highest number of residents perusing the wine commission's website in March. More than 2,200 people in Washington stopped by wine.idaho.gov. Most were from Seattle.

The Miami and Dallas areas had more eyes on the website than Boise did.

Almost one-fourth of all 9,500 website visitors in March were foreign. European and Asian countries ranked high, with China and Canada providing the most hits to the website.

ADVERTISING IS MOSTLY LOCAL

"To drive tourism, we work very closely with the state and Southwest Idaho Travel Association," says Idaho Wine Commission Executive Director Moya Shatz Dolsby, who also is president of the SWITA board.

Dolsby says the commission starts here with advertising, getting the word out to hotels and restaurants about Idaho wine varieties and local vineyards.

That way, when Boiseans take visiting friends and family to a Caldwell vineyard for a Saturday tasting, the region's reputation "spreads virally," she says. "Not to say we don't advertise out of state, but the majority of our funds are spent locally."

She expects the number of wineries to grow even more, forecasting 75 wineries in five years. That's a 50 percent growth rate. Sound a little too ambitious? "Look at how many wineries have opened in the down economy," she says.

CONVENTIONEERS BUY IDAHO WINES

One of those wineries is owned by Ken and Holly Rufe, of Eagle.

The Rufes opened Cellar 616 in 2010, turning a hobby of many years into a part-time business.

Ken Rufe's full-time job at Hewlett-Packard helps support the fledgling winery, which already has won a couple of awards for its syrah and viognier. Cellar 616 is producing about 250 cases a year, and it takes a year to 18 months to sell out of those cases, he says.

Most of the customers at Cellar 616's tasting room, at 6th and Grove streets in Downtown Boise, are locals, but "we get a lot of out-of-town people [from] conventions" at the Boise Centre, he says. The most recent was a group of people from Nebraska, Kansas, California and other states in town for a geological seminar.

He and others relatively new to the scene praise the local industry, saying Idaho's winemakers work together, more like family members than competitors.

His goal now is to build the winery into his full-time job. The prize his eyes are on: Going into a quasi-retirement seven years from now, with a hearty wine business and "maybe" a vineyard.

See a map of vineyards, wine cellars and wineries in Southwest Idaho

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Audrey Dutton: 377-6448

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