Bad year for vintners, good year for Treasure Valley wine

A tough year shouldn’t affect the growth of Idaho’s budding wine industry.

zkyle@idahostatesman.com, kgreen@idahostatesman.comOctober 16, 2013 

With the fall harvest, 2013 is shaping up to be a good year for local wine and a bad year for local vintners.

Treasure Valley grape growers are in the midst of harvesting a crop they describe as low-yield but high-quality. A combination of an unusually cold winter and late spring frosts damaged vines throughout the Treasure Valley, lowering the yields for growers such as Gary Cunningham of Eagle.

Cunningham’s 3 Horse Ranch endured 25 days that reached sub-zero temperatures.

“Rows (of grapes) that normally produce 1,000 pounds are now producing 100 pounds,” Cunningham said.

Dale Jeffers is the vineyard manager at the 400-acre Skyline Vineyards in Nampa, the largest in the state. Skyline sells grapes to 16 wineries, including Ste. Chapelle in Caldwell and Sawtooth in Nampa. Jeffers said about 20 percent of his crop was badly damaged by the cold and had to be cut to the ground and retrained, or pruned to an ideal structure to stimulate growth. Retraining added work through the summer on vines that won’t produce this year.

“It kills the revenue by more like 30 percent,” Jeffers said. “Then there’s all of the value we had to spend retraining the plants. It’s a lot of money. It won’t be a good year financially at all.”

Idaho vineyards grew a record 3,227 tons in 2010, said Moya Shatz Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission. That year had a mild winter and a hot, dry summer. The state’s yield was 2,240 tons last year.

Less fruit on the vine often results in better grapes, Shatz Dolsby said. The 2013 crop could turn out to be of higher quality than last year’s, which could be a long-term benefit for the reputation of Idaho wine, she said.

“The yield is down, but I think it’s really a good problem,” Shatz Dolsby said. “It will make Idaho wine quality go up, and maybe (growers) will think about thinning their crops more often because that’s how you get better flavors. The weather forced them to have lighter crop loads whether they wanted it or not.”

Greg Koenig, owner of Koenig Distillery and Winery in Caldwell, said yield on his 10.5 acres will be down between 20 percent and 30 percent this year.

Koenig, who is picking this week, said heavy rains in September have thrown off the usual order in which his varietals ripen and are ready for harvest.

“Last year we had a phenomenally warm summer, and that extended into September and October,” Koenig said. “It was like Sonoma County in California, and the wines tasted like it. So far, the quality looks the same this year. We just had that weird little spat of rain in September.”

The Idaho wine industry has grown from 11 wineries to 50 since 2002. Idaho winery revenues grew from $15 million in 2002 to $52 million at the time of the industry’s last economic impact study, in 2008. The industry has gained 12 wineries and 200 acres of wine grapes since then.

This fall marks Jeffers’ 15th season growing grapes. He said the industry has gained steam because of improving wines and marketing campaigns that have brought tourists to Idaho, and to the Snake River Valley in particular.

“It’s a completely different atmosphere than there was even 10 years ago,” Jeffers said. “There’s a buzz. There’s energy. There’s so many more people talking about wine, and a lot more younger people involved in it.”

Zach Kyle: 377-6464,@IDS_zachkyle

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