It’s a good time to be a fan of Idaho wine.
Gem State winemakers produced two best-of-class awards and 11 gold medals at this spring’s international Cascadia Wine Competition in Hood River, Ore. And with spring in full bloom, Treasure Valley residents and tourists alike are making the tasting rounds.
Alas, the proposed weekend lane reductions on Interstate 84 between Nampa and Caldwell for resurfacing work mean it may take wine lovers from the Boise area more time to reach the Sunnyslope Wine District. Both the eastbound and westbound lanes on the stretch between Franklin Boulevard and Franklin Road will be repaved by the Idaho Transportation Department, and the bulk of the work is expected to take place over four weekends. Those dates haven’t been set yet. There will be some additional overnight work on I-84 as well as roadwork on some other southern Idaho routes this summer.
“People have to really want to come out to the Sunnyslope if they are coming from Boise,” said Beverly Williamson-Mack, co-owner/marketing director of Williamson Vineyards in Caldwell and president of the Sunnyslope Wine Trail. “A lot of our core wineries are very concerned, but we’re not sure how to proceed.”
As it stands, those tasting rooms in Garden City, Kuna and the Hagerman Valley, as well as Coiled Wines’ new tasting room near the Idaho Capitol, stand to benefit from the pending travel headaches.
“I feel bad for the Sunnyslope, but we think it will help us because we are closer to Boise,” said Kay Hansen, co-owner of Vizcaya Winery in Kuna. “Those weekends might divert more traffic toward us and introduce people to us who wouldn’t normally know that we are here.”
Vizcaya and Indian Creek Winery, also in Kuna, are members of the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, the nonprofit alliance created to help promote and market the region where many Snake River Valley wineries pull their grapes. Williamson-Mack said her group is looking at creating ways to limit the impact of the freeway closures on their businesses. Members agree the road work must be done.
Parma Ridge Winery, owned and operated by Seattle transplants Storm and Stephanie Hodge, appears to be better positioned than its friends near Caldwell. Most of its tasting visitors are from Ontario and Parma. When asked how business is going, Stephanie Hodge ran her Square cashiering program: “We’re up 74 percent,” she said with a chuckle.
“We’re having a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s awesome. The biggest thing for us is space. This isn’t the biggest tasting room, and it’s important for us to have the big patio, but we’re looking at next year as an opportunity to expand production and create overflow seating for the winery.”
The 2016 vintage marked the first full year of operation for the Hodges, who reopened Parma Ridge on Aug. 28, 2015, after purchasing and rebranding the winery, vineyard and grounds from retired pilot Dick Dickstein. Storm’s background as a commercial chef in the Seattle area and as assistant director of housing and food services at the University of Washington makes Parma Ridge a delicious way to begin or end a day of wine touring in Canyon County.
“It’s about 20 minutes from the Sunnyslope to Parma Ridge, and they are becoming a staple on the trail,” Williamson-Mack said. “People either start or end there, and they can enjoy a great meal along with their wine. Storm and Stephanie make everybody feel welcome. They have that patio and music out there. And the people of Parma absolutely love it.”
Williamson Vineyards’ move into a new tasting room has been successful, too.
“From when we opened in October to the end of February, we saw a 45 percent increase in sales,” Williamson-Mack said. “Yes, it was huge. The grand opening was marketed very well, we’re more accessible to the highway, and (we) got a lot of very good news coverage.
“It’s posed new problems that I won’t complain about. I don’t need one of those guys with a spinning sign standing along the highway for us!”
The Sunnyslope Wine Trail also continues to set new highs after receiving its specialty-crop block grant to help fund marketing and research.
“Since 2013, the year before our grant, we were at nine wineries participating,” Williamson-Mack said. “Now we’re at 12. And we’ve seen an increase of 15 to 20 percent every year in sales and traffic.”
Wine lovers came out in droves after their winter hibernation, starting with the February Wine and Chocolate Weekend, when Williamson Vineyards reported a 37 percent increase in sales over the previous year. She had a sense, adding a third tasting-room staffer that weekend, but Williamson-Mack said she could have used two more helping her pour.
“People are coming out to the Sunnyslope in droves,” she said. “That weekend, there were a lot of people from Utah, three groups from Salt Lake City, folks from Washington. We’re hearing people tell us they’ve never been out here before. That’s not just us, but the whole Sunnyslope Wine Trail. It’s not quite a juggernaut, but the ball is rolling now.”
A number of Sunnyslope wineries, including Bitner, Huston, Ste. Chapelle and Williamson, now offer special after-hours events or extended hours once a month and sometimes once a week. Such is the interest in Snake River Valley wines.
Scott and Susan DeSeelhorst of Snake River Winery recently closed their Bodo wine shop after eight years and announced plans to partner with Clay and Josie Erskine of Peaceful Belly Farm and Stack Rock Cidery. Their new 14-acre project is planned for Hoskins Road near the Fujishin Family Cellars tasting room on Idaho 55, and they hope to establish at least a retail facility on the Sunnyslope by late summer.
“We’ve been friends with Clay and Josie for a long time,” Scott DeSeelhorst said. “They wanted to start in this direction and we began talking about what we could do together. They bring some younger energy and are very creative, some nice elements that, frankly, Susan and I lack. They’ve developed a brand and have marketed very well themselves to the community.”
DeSeelhorst continues to focus more on his interests in Idaho after his family sold Solitude Mountain Resort in Utah. “I don’t have two full-time jobs anymore,” he quipped.
The Erskine partnership also will move the retail side of Snake River Winery closer to Arena Valley Vineyard, the DeSeelhorsts’ estate planting established in 1983. Plans for a production facility probably won’t fall into place until 2018.
“There’s suddenly some significant capital investment going on out on the Sunnyslope that’s been lacking for so long,” DeSeelhorst said. “The Williamsons have stepped out. Ste. Chapelle has plans for its amphitheater, which is some real money. And I don’t know how much Greg Koenig’s new tasting room cost, but that is a major commitment. It’s no longer mom-and-pop operations with people pouring wines out of their garage and planting 3-acre vineyards.”
A number of Sunnyslope vintners have heard rumblings about a resort and spa in the area, and the Marsing Chamber of Commerce is recruiting more wineries as members. The chamber’s home page reads “Marsing is the gateway to the Owyhee Mountains and the Sunnyslope Wine Trail,” and the town, pop. 1,100, is growing its third annual Wine & Art in the Park festival on May 6 at Island Park. The reopening of the historic Sandbar Restaurant also encourages tourists to spend more time along the Sunnyslope for a more well-rounded wine country experience. The restaurant now has a unique business plan as a nonprofit.
“We’re excited to have a cidery come out to the Slope,” Williamson-Mack said. “It creates more diversity and makes it more interesting for people when they are wine tasting. Every little thing helps.”
This year, Boise winemaker Mike Crowley moves Syringa Winery from Garden City into Vizcaya’s new production facility in Kuna. The Hansens will continue to pour their own Vizcaya wines in their young Greenhurst Road tasting room near Vizcaya Vineyard. Crowley will continue to make the Vizcaya and Syringa wines, and the new 2,000-square- foot winery will afford him the elbow room he didn’t have at Split Rail Winery. Construction is expected to be complete by May, and Hansen said the hope is that Crowley’s permit to pour Syringa wines in the new winery will be approved later this year. In the meantime, he’ll be limited to pouring at Vizcaya during its special events, which include the monthly concerts on select weekends, starting April 23 with Patrick Dansereau.
Ste. Chapelle’s Summer Concert Series in its Vineyard Park begins May 14. Sister winery Sawtooth remains open for tasting in Nampa, and its annual Mother’s Day celebration features jazz by powerful Eagle-based vocalist Pamela DeMarche. The Sunnyslope Wine Trail and other members of the Idaho wine industry plan celebrations throughout the May 12-14 weekend. Precept Wine, the Seattle-based owners of Ste. Chapelle, has broken ground for a 5,000-seat amphitheater and new tasting room nearby for sister brand Sawtooth. Concerts this year at Ste. Chapelle will be moved to a temporary stage, and the series at Idaho’s largest winery begins Mother’s Day with the Fabulous Chancellors.
The successes of marketing, the gold medals in blind judgings and the profiles on winemakers will continue. Unfortunately, the prospects of a dramatically diminished 2017 vintage hang over every Snake River Valley grower, winemaker and consumer — not only this year but also several years down the line as a result of this year’s nearly absent harvest.
“It’s a very tough situation, but I still see lots of silver linings,” Williamson-Mack said. “Maybe I’m too cavalier, but that’s what I try to do. What grapes we do produce will be really good. Vines will put all their energy into producing what little fruit they can. The boys and I were teasing each other, thinking that if we charge $500 a bottle, it will carry us through.”
Eric Degerman runs Great Northwest Wine, a news and information website. Learn more about wine and see more stories at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
Visit the wineries
From tasting rooms to concerts, many area wineries welcome visitors. Visit the individual wineries’ websites for information on events and tasting hours. The Idaho Wine Commission’s website also has event information and a list of area wineries. Go to IdahoWines.org.
The Marsing restaurant, at 18 Sandbar Ave., recently reopened under new management with an entirely different mission. The Sandbar: Café with a Cause is now a nonprofit organization with a goal to feed low-income seniors and disabled citizens in the area with its in-house and Meals on Wheels programs.
Here’s what it means for diners: Patrons 60 and older who qualify through registration at the restaurant can get a meal whether they can pay for it or not. The prices are a suggested donation. Those who are under 60 can get affordable dishes from the breakfast and lunch menus, and it supports a great cause.
To learn more, visit thesandbarinmarsing.org.