The owners of 3 Horse Ranch Vineyard in the Eagle Foothills have a passion: to make Idaho wine from Idaho grapes and tout that to the wine-drinking world.
That they went to the trouble, time and expense of applying for a new American Viticultural Area — a sub AVA of the Snake River region and the only one wholly located within the State of Idaho — underscores that mission.
This is not to say Gary and Martha Cunningham will never incorporate grapes from another state into their wines, because they have — and likely will do so in the future. That’s because the ebb and flow of available grapes and the seasonal torments that affect crops virtually guarantees Idaho wineries will continue sourcing grapes from across borders.
But the Cunninghams live for those vintages when most of their 10,000-to- 12,000-case output can be produced from the Bordeaux and Rhone varietals growing in the high desert near along the border of Ada and Gem County.
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As Martha poured samples of estate Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and a Bordeaux-style red blend (Cabernet Sauvignon with traces of Malbec, Cab Franc, Merlot and Petite Verdot), I was especially taken by the latter –– a 2012 Beau Geste. 3 Horse Ranch winemaker Greg Koenig did a wonderful job of blending all that liquid sunshine while mixing in all of the Cunninghams’ dreams and hard work into a delicious bottle that will tell the Idaho story well.
This is not one of those tobacco-and-leather Cab-based blends you find in the Rutherford region of the Napa Valley, nor is it one of the more fruit-forward Cabs I associate with Washington State. Though still relatively young, this was all Idaho, with a depth of deep cherry cola spiciness with subtle tanins from those big, blending grapes.
As you taste it in the wine, you see the pioneering kind of Idaho Eagle Foothills AVA pride Martha Cunningham projects when she speaks of the the family vineyard. It was back in 2003 when she and her husband broke ground in the foothills and planted “historic Vitis Vinefera” rootstock in the volcanic ash/silt/granite pebble soils along these south-facing slopes.
They theorized correctly the combination of soils, and that slope would create an exciting and unique viticultural environment: hot afternoons, evening shade –– an ideal combination of punishing heat and cool nights wherein grapes like to thrive.
“The way to see the Eagle AVA is to stand in it,” Martha Cunningham said during a brief walking tour that took us into the heart of the original Cabernet Sauvignon planting. “You can witness the slope, which gives a super amount of solar radiation and sunshine to ripen the plant and make the fruit super sweet and ready in the fall.”
The rows are planted northeast to southwest, at least 10 feet apart to keep the vines from shading one-another –– even when the long shadows come later in the year.
These new AVAs –– Eagle Foothills and and the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA located around Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston, Washington –– are expanding the story of Idaho wine around the country, and more than likely stimulating future growth.
Though 3 Horse Ranch is the only winery within the Eagle Foothills AVA right now, the Cunninghams have demonstrated that it can be done. Martha knows of others who are coming to give it a go –– and Idaho needs that. With only 1,300 Idaho acres planted in wine grapes, one of the biggest hurdles to wine industry expansion is the lack of available grapes.
The Gem State needs more grapes to be planted and more people like the Cunninghams to pursue their winemaking dreams.
There still are general admission tickets ($45) available for Savor Idaho. Hosted by the Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Producers Commission, this is Idaho’s premier intersection of wine and food — falling smack dab in the middle of Idaho Wine Month on June 12. It takes place from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise and features small plates and bites designed to pair with all those wonderful Idaho wines — as well as food and wine demonstrations and entertainment. You’ll come away with a greater understanding of Idaho wines and a commemorative wine glass. Before it sells out, visit savoridaho.org for details or to purchase tickets.