The poet Robert Frost had a famously disciplined style. When some of his contemporaries began to abandon rhyme and meter, he later remarked: “I’d sooner write free verse as play tennis with the net down.”
Frost has something in common with vintners everywhere. They love to make wine, but every so often they need to know if their efforts are clearing the net. Some derive satisfaction from sales, but others go beyond and seek a measure of validation from wine competitions.
Last week, dozens of winemakers from the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area participated in the annual Idaho Wine Competition, conducted by Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company based in Washington, in conjunction with the Idaho Wine Commission. There was a stellar panel of judges sipping reds, whites and dessert wines at Ste. Chapelle in Caldwell.
Among them was my good friend Mike Dunne, who writes about wine for the Sacramento Bee and who, since 2008, has been judging regional and international wine competitions at the rate of 12 to 15 per year.
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If Dunne likes a wine he will tell you so and tell you why — and you’ll be the better for it if you buy up a batch. I served as his editor for four years at the Sacramento Bee and owe what little I know about wine to absorbing what he wrote and occasionally sipping alongside him.
He is a legend around Northern California and especially the Sacramento region — where most people are surprised to learn there are 300 wineries from Lodi to Clarksburg to the Sierra Foothills. He has traveled and swirled glasses extensively up and down California and the West — and he knows his international wines.
When I ran into him at a wedding a few years back in California, I had just moved to Idaho and had only begun to taste the wines. I told him I was pleasantly surprised and that he should keep his palate open to Gem State juice.
The next thing I knew Dunne was taking a liking to Idaho Rieslings at a San Francisco wine competition. Then somebody sent him a mixed case of Idaho varietals. He wrote about them in his SacBee column, and then a combination of curiosity and communication brought him here to judge last week and tour Snake River wineries.
Though Dunne had plenty to say, here are highlights:
• Kudos to Riesling. From his first sips earlier this year and carrying on with later tastings and on to the competition, “the biggest surprise has been the riesling class.” Dunne said the varietal proved to be extremely strong in the Idaho competition. “We gave five of the 10 (tasted) gold medals to Rieslings.” Though Idaho, in his mind, was not that closely identified with Riesling, it will be going forward.
• Yes to Tempranillo. “I came in thinking that Tempranillo would probably do pretty good in this climate and with the soils. We had four Tempranillos in our judging class and three of them got gold medals. I thought that was a pretty high endorsement of Tempranillos.”
• Overall assessment. “Rieslings and Tempranillos come from two different European regions and to have them show so well side by side in the Snake River Valley is, I think, reflective of a couple of things: One, this is still a young area, and they are still searching for the right varieties, rootstocks and the right sites; (the area) has a bunch of different micro-climates and elevations and soils — which can really lend itself to doing well by several grape varieties. It’s not going to be locked in — like Napa is pretty much locked in to cabernet sauvignon. Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley, it’s chardonnay and pinot noir. You’ve got quite a bit more variety going. ... We gave a gold medal to a lemberger, a carmenere. We gave a gold medal to a mourvedre. That surprised me. Even if vintners don’t have much experience with those kinds of obscure varieties, they seem to be doing well here — growing them and making the wine.”
• Challenging varietals for the Snake River Valley: pinot noir and to some extent chardonnay and cabs.
• Proprietory blends are a strength. Laissez Faire, Cinder’s 2014 red blend ($16), won for “Best Red” and some white blends such as Huston Vineyards 2014 Chicken Dinner White ($16).
• Rhone varietals, both red (Syrah) and white (Viognier), have a bright future in Idaho. Dunne said he did not taste a disappointing dessert wine during the competition or during his travels.
• Futures. “I tasted a 2014 barrel sample of Koenig zinfandel. Whenever that is released, buy a half case of that because it is juicy, it’s got raspberry, blackberry and spice — not too much oak.”
Let’s keep all this between us for now.
Robert Ehlert is the Statesman’s editorial page editor. Reach him at 377-6437 or follow @IDS_HelloIdaho