Nearly six years after Washington state blazed the trail, the Idaho Wines Fly Free program took off aboard Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air on June 1.
Idaho Wines Fly Free means an Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan member may check one case of wine at no cost on his or her return flight from Boise or Lewiston. The promotion began on the first day of Idaho Wine Month.
“It’s a big deal for our industry,” said Melissa Sanborn, winemaker/co-owner of Colter’s Creek Winery & Vineyards in Juliaetta near Lewiston. “Wines Fly Free on Alaska has been going on in Washington and Oregon for a few years. This makes us feel like we’re playing with the big boys a little bit.”
Indeed, the Idaho wine industry also has joined the ranks of California’s Sonoma County and Central Coast as Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members have been flying home with wine from Santa Rosa and San Luis Obispo County.
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Diane Norton, manager of the Idaho Division of Tourism, said, “This is more validation that we are an emerging wine region. It’s very exciting for us.”
Greg Koenig of Koenig Vineyards in Caldwell said, “Especially with what happened this winter (with prolonged periods of extreme cold damaging most Idaho vines), this shows that our industry is alive and kicking. We’re excited as an industry because this is another sign that we’re mature enough to be a part of this.”
During its first 18 months in the program, the Oregon Wine Board reported approximately 5,000 cases of wine were checked for free through Alaska Airlines across the state in Portland, Eugene, Medford and Bend.
The Washington wine industry’s matching Taste and Tote program, which Alaska launched in 2011, also involves waived tasting fees at the 200 participating wineries. During the first three years, tourism and airport officials in Walla Walla, Pasco and Yakima reported 50 to 100 cases per month were checked.
Membership in Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan is free. Customers can join at alaskaair.com, and the carrier urges members to make sure their mileage plan number is included in the reservation.
“I think it will really benefit people who are coming to Idaho to visit family because they can bring back wines they have tried,” said Moya Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission. “I think during the holidays we’ll see a huge boost because wine touring on Thanksgiving Weekend has become really popular.”
Norton said it was important to Alaska Airlines that Lewiston’s airport be involved in the program. The carrier, ranked No. 1 in the U.S. by The Wall Street Journal for the fourth year in a row, notes in its promotional material that Idaho features three American Viticultural Areas.
“What really helped was having not only the Snake River Valley AVA, but then the Eagle Foothills and soon after the Lewis-Clark Valley AVAs established,” Norton explained. “That way we could open this up to partners across the state.”
For years, Idaho Wine Commission members have been asking Dolsby what it takes to get involved in the program. While the program is complimentary for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members, it’s not a free ride for the wine industry. In Oregon, it’s been supported by Travel Oregon and the Oregon Wine Board. In Washington, it is Wine Country Washington, a joint effort of Visit Tri-Cities, Yakima Valley Tourism and Visit Walla Walla.
Dolsby said Visit Idaho’s high-profile advertising campaign to promote tourism throughout the Gem State was the key in getting Alaska Airlines to establish the Idaho Wines Fly Free program. Neither Dolsby nor Norton would provide dollar figures, other than describing it as more than $100,000.
“And it’s not only with our ads in Alaska Airlines and Horizon,” Dolsby said. “They want to see how we use Idaho Wines Fly Free in advertising in other magazines such as Sunset and on Facebook.”
Other financial partners involved in the campaign include the Lewis-Clark Valley Wine Alliance, Visit Lewis-Clark Valley, the Southwest Idaho Tourism Association and the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Once again, it is about having great relationships,” Dolsby said. “The Idaho Wine Commission has a great partnership with the Idaho Division of Tourism. We are able to move ahead and do great things together.”
Summertime is a peak time for wine touring in Idaho, but it can be problematic. No one wants to leave their case or two of newly purchased wine to cook inside a hot car.
“Shipping wine around the country is often challenging due to state regulations and weather extremes,” points out Coco Umiker of Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston. “The Wines Fly Free program will allow us to broaden our direct-to-consumer sales to wine drinkers traveling through the Lewis-Clark Valley from states we are not currently permitted to ship to — and during extreme hot or cold periods of the year.”
A license to ship can cost $600 per state, which might not be feasible for the winery if there’s just one wine club member living in that state.
“People traveling from out of the state don’t want to buy wine and have to deal with the packaging and the shipping,” Koenig said. “If they can get it home without paying an arm and leg, that’s a win for us, especially since most of the wineries don’t ship in the summer when it’s hot.”
Alaska Airlines guidelines stipulate that wine must be in a protective shipping container, and it should carry a “FRAGILE” sticker. The Transportation Security Administration wants containers unsealed to allow for inspection. As a result of the Idaho Wines Fly Free promotion, wineries plan to have more case shipping boxes on hand for customers.
“If they buy a case, then we put it in a shipper box for them, which is just a lot more secure,” Sanborn said. “Those cost about $6. When it’s hot, we’ll have them use the Styrofoam boxes.”
If a winery does not have one of those boxes available, Alaska Airlines suggests stopping by FedEx, Staples, U-Haul, or UPS for boxes.
As part of Idaho Wine Month, Williamson Vineyards will stage a June 16 tasting at the Boise Airport, which has embraced Idaho wines for several years. The Greenbelt Magazine Shop sells bottles from about a dozen Snake River Valley wineries to fliers as carry-on items.
“I’ve been surprised by just how much wine we’ve sold over the years behind security to people who just put a bottle or two in their handbag,” Koenig said. “Every year, we do a couple of tastings with them, and the vintages are current, so they are moving enough product.”
Sanborn, a governor-appointed commissioner on the Idaho Wine Commission, would like to see these fliers make a long-term investment in the Idaho wine industry.
“It’s not fun schlepping wine, so we’re happy to offer them that free shipping box as a perk,” Sanborn said. “We just hope they bring it back because we’ll be happy to fill it up for them!”
In the meantime, expect to see the Idaho Wines Fly Free logo layered on top of a growing number of advertisements in magazines and websites starting this summer. Time will tell just how long the promotion stays in the air on Alaska and Horizon for Idaho wines.
“We didn’t really discuss that, but I believe we will be able to continue the relationship with Alaska just as other Fly Free programs have,” Norton said.
Some vineyards escape horrendous winter damage
Many vineyards in the Snake River Valley suffered devastation, especially the industry’s breadbasket that is Skyline, but there are encouraging signs that the 2017 vintage won’t be quite as meager. Greg Koenig said he expects a crop of 80 percent from Fraser Vineyard, one of the highest-elevation plantings in the Pacific Northwest. The Chardonnay and Syrah at nearby Bitner Vineyards also came through the winter OK.
And the young Scoria Vineyards project of Sydney Nederend and her father, Joe Weitz, fared better than most. At one point, Nederend feared her vines would need to be cut down to the ground and re-trellised this spring — meaning no crop in 2017 but a return for 2018 and beyond.
“That’s the best vineyard site in the state,” Koenig said. “They took a wait-and-see approach before cutting everything down to the ground, and it paid off. I’m excited for them.”
Petit Verdot, a prized Bordeaux variety in the Pacific Northwest, seems to be thriving at Scoria.
“The Petit Verdot looks awesome,” Nederend said. “We only suffered about 2 percent loss in that, and while the damage is about 40 percent in the Malbec, we have tons of little clusters and we’re going to be getting some pretty fruit. We just cut out what was dead in the Malbec, and we’ll be back to 100 percent next year.”
Avoiding large-scale devastation has emboldened Nederend. She plans to plant 19 acres of vines next spring, doubling the size of Scoria, which features volcanic soils and panoramic views.
“Our Mourvèdre is so popular, and Syrah is such a fantastic base for a blend, so I’m looking for sure at more Mourvèdre and Syrah, but everyone keeps bugging me to grow Tempranillo so I’m thinking about it,” Nederend said with a chuckle.
Koenig makes some of the wine for Scoria, named Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 2017 Idaho Winery to Watch. He said while the Weitz family is new to the wine industry, their decades of farming expertise served them well last fall.
“They cut the water off to the vines pretty early, which better prepared them for the dormancy cycle,” Koenig said. “If the plant gets too much water late in the season, then the vines don’t dry out enough.”
Idaho Wine Commission scores with Savor Idaho
The signature event of Idaho Wine Month is Savor Idaho, and the ninth annual wine-and-food festival at the Idaho Botanical Garden set for June 11 sold all 900 tickets seven weeks in advance.
“We beat our record by a month,” Dolsby said. “The garden is big and we could expand, but it would take away from the event. The lines would be even longer, and I hate long lines.”
Those who planned in advance and bought tickets will be greeted by 29 wineries and two cider producers. Yes, cideries can become members of the Idaho Wine Commission.
This year marks the second annual Savor Idaho North, and tickets went on sale June 1 for the Aug. 10 sunset cruise on Lake Coeur d’Alene. Cost is $50, which features hors d’oeuvres by Beverly’s, tastings from as many as 10 wineries, and Boise singing guitarist Douglas Cameron. It’s a concept Dolsby and Sara Dirks, the commission’s marketing and grant manager, had talked about for seven years. The Panhandle is the longtime home to both Pend d’Oreille Winery and Coeur d’Alene Cellars, and the new Anthony’s Restaurant location in the Lake City has been gobsmacked by the thirst for Idaho wines.
Koenigs showcase their wines in Copenhagen
Koenig, who suffered significant damage to his own vineyards, recently purchased 4 acres of land near his new tasting room.
Next spring, he plans to expand his vineyards. This spring, however, he and his wife, Kristen, accepted an invitation from his Denmark importer to visit Copenhagen.
“It was a chance to pour Idaho wine, and they like American wines in general,” Koenig said. “They are eager to explore new regions, unlike China, which is stuck on Bordeaux and famous brands.”
What most surprised Koenig was to learn that the Danes are attracted to dry rosés and older whites because they pair deliciously with the fish dishes that dominate menus.
“I was shocked to see they were pouring older vintages — my 2010 Chardonnay, 2011 Viognier, 2012 Rosé, ’08 Cab and ’09 Syrah — but the importer told me that he buys wine and places it in his warehouse for at least three years. The 2010 Chardonnay was so good and complex and layered. That was fun.”
Grant program that helps promote Idaho wines at risk
A federal budget proposal from the Trump administration would eliminate funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant program, according to WineAmerica, a nationwide advocacy group.
Dolsby said Idaho’s emerging wine industry benefits substantially from those grants, which account for 20 percent of the commission’s budget.
“That’s a pretty large percentage for a small organization,” Dolsby said. “We rely heavily on the USDA to fund the growth of the Idaho wine industry. If the funding goes away, we will definitely have to restructure with staff and rework all of our programs.”
The Idaho Wine Commission uses those grants not only for marketing and promotional efforts, but also for education.
“We sent 10 wineries or growers down to University of California-Davis for continuing education,” she said. “We hired a (California) vineyard consultant who is tasked with helping to improve the quality of Idaho wine. We brought in several speakers for the annual meeting we would have otherwise not been able to afford. We have used the funds for the Wine Quality Initiative with (Master of Wine) Bob Betz and for an economic impact study in 2013.”
Idaho wines in the spotlight at the James Beard House
Mai Thai and Telaya Wine Co., have staged a number of winemaker dinners in Boise, so Garden City winemaker Earl Sullivan didn’t want to miss executive chef Justin Scheihing’s performance April 13 at the iconic James Beard House in New York City.
It was the first time since 2005 for an Idaho restaurant to be invited to the iconic Greenwich Village home of Beard, the historic culinary figure from Portland who died in 1985 at age 81.
Scheihing paired the Telaya 2015 Chardonnay with his Thailand-inspired Fried Catfish with Green Mango Salad.
“It was definitely a highlight to be able to pour our wine in such a storied location,” Sullivan said. “I think I made my parents proud that night.”
Coiled Wines’ 2015 Rizza Sparkling Riesling was served with hors d’oeuvres. For dessert, Koenig Vineyards 2014 Botrytis Single Berry Select Late Harvest Riesling joined Woon Gati Mamung, aka Coconut Jelly with Fresh Fruit.
“The James Beard dinner was fantastic,” Sullivan said. “The people at the James Beard House couldn’t have been nicer and more gracious.”
Not long after Beard’s death, chefs around the U.S. staged dinners to raise funds and help secure the building that has become the Mecca for American cuisine.
“As a chef-celebrated venue, they were wonderfully accommodating to a non-chef and were very easy to work with,” Sullivan said. “The customers attending the dinner were very curious about Idaho wines and very complimentary of both the food and the wine.”
Ten days later, and a 15-minute cab ride to the south, was the Manhattan screening for the PBS-TV documentary “James Beard: America’s First Foodie.”
The fascinating American Masters episode expires for online viewing at pbs.org on June 19. See it at pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/james-beard-americas-first-foodie-film/8432.
Eric Degerman runs Great Northwest Wine, a news and information website. Learn more about wine and see more stories at GreatNorthwestWine.com.