Gov. Butch Otter declared June as Idaho Wine Month in 2009, and since then the Idaho Wine Commission and the state’s 51 wineries have used all 30 days to encourage consumers to drink local wines.
Interest in Idaho wines continues to grow within the international wine community, and those fortunate enough to live, work and play in the Treasure Valley can visit tasting rooms and meet the winemakers this summer.
There’s a kaleidoscope of opportunity that awaits, from the winery/bistro at recently purchased Parma Ridge Winery to the urban 44th Street vibe in Garden City among Cinder Wines, Syringa Winery and edgy Split Rail Winery, to the stunning new joint tasting room along the Boise River for Telaya Wine Co. and Coiled Wines.
And since Memorial Day traditionally serves as the unofficial start to the summer wine touring season in the Pacific Northwest, it seemed appropriate to seek the advice of local wine experts to help both the novice and the connoisseur better enjoy their Treasure Valley wine experience.
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Taste your way across the Valley
A recent example of the increased appreciation for Idaho wines can be found via Thrillist.com. The decade-old, New York-based national lifestyles site recruited two Boise sommeliers — David Boyle of Chandler’s Steakhouse and Ryan Robinson of Ruth’s Chris Steak House — to serve on its seven-person wine tourism panel.
The Snake River Valley ranked No. 10 on that group’s list of America’s best wine regions to visit, with Sunnyslope Wine District properties Bitner Vineyards, Hat Ranch Winery and Ste. Chapelle named as the three “must-hit wineries.” And there’s some power to those mentions, as the reach of Thrillist includes more than 1.2 million Facebook followers.
While such accolades help spark awareness and sales nationally and internationally for Idaho wines, where the wineries make their accountants most content is with direct-to-consumer sales. And the tasting room experience, particularly in the Treasure Valley, is where long-term relationships with consumers often are formed naturally.
Ste. Chapelle, the state’s oldest and largest winery, created an attractive and successful draw two years ago with the expansive deck that offers panoramic views of vines, orchards, Lizard Butte, the Snake River Valley and the Sunnyslope Wine District.
That wine country ambiance — and the growing appreciation for Maurine Johnson’s wines — have combined to significantly increase tasting room visits.
“We are seeing more and more people come to Ste. Chapelle every year, from older people who have time to travel through during the weekday to our successful concert series,” said tasting room manager Mary Sloyer. “We actually had nearly 1,700 people at our Mother’s Day concert this year. That was more than double last year’s Mother’s Day turnout.
“We’re also seeing a lot more people coming in to visit during the weekend who are between the ages of 21 and 35, which is neat.”
To help visitors of any age and wine knowledge get the most out of their winery visits this summer, experts such as Sloyer offer a list of valuable advice.
It begins with something as simple as the correct pronunciation for Merlot — MARE-low in France and MER-low in the U.S., but certainly not mer-LOT.
“Sometimes people flounder when they come in because they don’t know if they want to taste or what they want to try, so let us help you,” said Stephanie Hodge, who co-owns Parma Ridge Winery with her winemaking chef/husband, Storm. “It’s OK if you don’t know because that’s part of the experience, so be willing to try.
“People will say, ‘Oh, I don’t like white wine’ or, ‘I only drink white wine,’ but you might be surprised with what you find,” Hodge continued. “You might have had a bad experience with that type of wine, but we don’t know about the quality of that wine you had before, so try something new.”
And don’t be afraid to ask questions.
“We love to answer them whether it is a simple one or a complex one,” Sloyer said.
In addition to walking through that tasting room door with an open mind, here are a few tips from Sloyer, who has seen almost everything since starting at Ste. Chapelle in 1998 and has helped the Caldwell winery grow its wine club to 3,000 members:
▪ Come in to a tasting without having recently finished mints, gum or coffee. They make it more difficult to pick out the flavor components in the wine.
▪ Taste in order. Let the tasting room team present the wines in the best possible order for you. Start with sparkling and dry whites, move to reds and finish with sweeter dessert wines.
▪ Need to cleanse your palate? Help yourself to water or crackers provided at the tasting bar.
▪ Have your own experience and enjoy. Don’t worry about what others taste and perceive in the wines.
▪ Be courteous by making room for others to taste with you at the bar.
▪ Be patient with the staff, who are trying to help everyone enjoy the experience.
▪ Responsible tasting rooms will encourage patrons to use the spittoon, which is common among professional and serious wine tasters whether they enjoy the wine or not. There’s also a suggested etiquette for this practice.
“Don’t be overly verbal when using the dump bucket if there’s something you don’t like,” Stephanie Hodge said. “It’s more polite and helpful if you say, ‘That’s not something I’m interested in because it’s either too sweet or too dry.’ It will help the person pouring for you to use that wine as a steppingstone. The whole goal of tasting is to find something you like.”
Tasting fees are now the norm throughout the U.S. wine industry, so expect a nominal fee of $5-10 in the Treasure Valley. In most instances, if you buy a bottle, that fee will be either waived or applied to that purchase.
If you have exceptional service at a tasting room, don’t be shy about leaving a gratuity. An elegant way to express “thank you” is by including a tip at the bottom of the receipt.
Another way to spark dialogue with tasting room attendants is to ask about their favorites. (One of Sloyer’s is the recently released 2014 Panoramic Idaho Chenin Blanc, which is done in a dry style.)
Parma Ridge: Worth the drive
While most winery visitors will naturally gravitate toward the Sunnyslope area or Garden City, the setting and the food-and-wine culture created by the Hodges at Parma Ridge give a growing number of tourists a reason to spend more time in Parma than they might expect.
“We’re a little bit off the beaten path, but we’re still part of the Sunnyslope Wine Trail,” Stephanie said. “People are looking at us not just as a tasting room but as a bistro, so we’ve had to adjust to the demand of the business as we continue to grow.”
Storm, a graduate of Idaho State University, spent a decade as a culinary instructor and director of dining at the University of Washington. He and Stephanie purchased Parma Ridge from Dick Dickstein in 2014 and reopened the tasting room last August.
Instead of managing more than 1,200 campus employees, Storm recently bottled 400 cases of wine he made with help from Bart Fawbush of Bartholomew Winery in Seattle. And Storm’s insight into food and wine shared through his bistro-style gastropub offers a unique ambiance in the Treasure Valley. He’s enticing visitors to return with flatbreads, gourmet burgers and ribeye topped with blue cheese butter.
“It’s presented in a casual style but elevated because he’s using fresh ingredients,” Stephanie said. “He’s a huge fan of truffle oil, and his hand-cut rosemary garlic truffle fries are amazing — and so addicting.”
New this summer
Wine lovers in the Treasure Valley will find a number of improvements over last year’s touring. This marks the first full season for the Kuna tasting room at Vizcaya Winery, Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 2016 Idaho Winery to Watch. Koenig Vineyards has targeted late June or early July for the grand opening of its showpiece tasting gallery on the Sunnyslope, and there will be a culinary component.
Nearby Fujishin Family Cellars has expanded its tasting room to include table service, a rarity in the Idaho wine industry. The winery now offers seated private or group tastings of current releases. Martin Fujishin also presents a lunch option where guests can order a box lunch from the Orchard House and have a flight of three wines waiting for them upon their arrival. Find more information at the winery’s website (www.ffcwine.com).
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Melanie Krause making wines in her hometown, and Cinder now offers wine, beer and cider by the glass as it continues to grow and add attractions since Coiled and Telaya moved into their new facility adjacent to the Riverside Hotel in Boise.
Find a list of Snake River wineries you can visit at idahowines.org.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information website. Learn more about wine and read more of their stories at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
▪ Precept Wine plans to begin work this fall on an amphitheater at Ste. Chapelle for the 2017 concert season.
▪ Ilene Dudunake recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of A New Vintage Wine Shop at Meridian Crossroads. Her customer service and strong support of the Treasure Valley wine industry may be the two biggest reasons she’s thrived through the previous decade’s economic downturn.
▪ Two brands led by millennial women are set to release their first wines in the Treasure Valley: sparkling winemaker Hailey Minder of 3100 Cellars in July, and grower Sydney Weitz-Nederend of Scoria Vineyards this fall.
▪ Race organizer Final Kick Events expanded its Idaho Wine Run series to three: Bloom (which was April 22), Summer Nights (a 5 and 10k July 2 at Ste. Chapelle) and Harvest (a half-marathon, 5 and 10k Aug. 27 at Julia Davis Park in Boise). There is wine sampling from several Idaho wineries after the races, plus live music. Register at idahowinerun.net.