Idaho wine: Couple’s efforts may put the Eagle Foothills on the national wine map

Martha Cunningham, a housewife from Eagle with a degree in physical education, has written what may turn out to be one of the most important documents in the history of Idaho wine.

“I’m an honest-to-goodness housewife,” Cunningham said. “I pay attention to things, but my education is not related to wine in any way, shape or form.”

Despite that, the co-owner of 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards petitioned the federal government to establish the Eagle Foothills as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). If her 63-page submission is successful — and it breezed through the public commenting phase without any dissent — this specific growing region would be a sub-AVA of the Snake River Valley. Its designated 49,815 acres also would be the first AVA entirely within Idaho’s borders.

Greg Jones, a professor at Southern Oregon University and recognized as one of the world’s leading figures in climate research for viticulture, said he believes the Eagle Foothills petition has merit as a grape-growing region in part because of the influence of nearby Prospect Peak, due east at 4,874 feet in elevation.

“No. 1, the landscape is so unique from everything around it,” Jones said. “The climate is clearly unique because of the drainage flow of the air that comes from the hills in the area around it. And I think the boundary was fairly easily definable. I think it makes sense.”

Caldwell vintner Greg Koenig, an acclaimed winemaker in Idaho for 20 years who also makes the 3 Horse Ranch wines, points to the distinctive qualities of the grapes grown in the Eagle Foothills.

“The most striking aspect of the grapes grown there is the uniformly small berry size and loose clusters, which can be attributed to the extremely well-drained, sandy and quartz-laden soil,” Koenig wrote in a letter to the federal government. “A second related aspect of the fruit is high ripeness levels and phenological maturity achieved at lower sugar levels than any other vineyards in Idaho.”

The federal government, wineries, grape growers, wine merchants, sommeliers and consumers all rely on AVAs as a way to help define a grape-growing region, and these areas are useful not only to vineyard managers and winemakers as identifiers, but they also help to market wine. In France, such regions are known as as appellations.

“Napa Cab” is the best example of the economic power behind putting an AVA on a bottle of wine. The establishment of the Napa Valley AVA in 1981 was the second in the nation and first for California, and the 30-mile-long growing region continues to serve as the epicenter of the American wine industry. The name recognition creates instant credibility in the marketplace and allows Napa Valley producers to charge more for their fruit and their wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon. (There are now 16 sub-AVAs within the Napa Valley.)

The establishment of the Snake River Valley AVA in 2007 — spearheaded by the Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Producers Commission — continues to be seen as the watershed moment for Idaho’s wine industry.

Five years before that, though, Martha and her husband, Gary, began planting vines.

“People thought I was the craziest loon to walk the face of the Earth,” Gary said. “I ended up putting in 9 acres the first year.”

Gary, a consummate salesman, left Sacramento, Calif., after a successful marketing career in the world of corporate business travel. When he and Martha first came to Idaho, they lived eight years in McCall before buying more than 1,600 acres along Willow Creek Road. They named their property for the three horses that belonged to their family, and for years they boarded other horses to help pay for their vineyard plantings, which stand at 46 acres.

It’s not a hobby business for either of them. He manages the vineyards when he’s not on the road selling their wine, and Martha operates the tasting room across Pearl Road from their barn.

Since its launch in 2002, they’ve built 3 Horse Ranch into the largest family-owned winery in Idaho, ranking third in production behind Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth. And thanks to their association with Koenig, the Cunninghams’ wines continue to shine. Wine Press Northwest magazine, a publication based in Washington state, named 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards its 2011 Idaho Winery to Watch. Earlier this year, their 2012 Merlot won best of class at the Seattle Wine and Food Experience Wine Awards, and the 2014 Estate Pinot Gris merited a gold medal at the Great Northwest Wine Competition, the country’s largest judging of Pacific Northwest wine.

Annual production stands at about 12,000 cases, but Gary claims he could sell twice that if Idaho vineyards could supply the fruit. And since nearly 80 percent of 3 Horse Ranch wines are sold outside of the state — a startling figure for a winery its size — the Cunninghams serve as important ambassadors for the Idaho wine industry.

Martha’s inspiration to establish a new AVA for Idaho came while she pored over a suitability analysis written by Jones for the Idaho wine industry in 2011. He spent time at 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards as part of the research, and the site fascinated him.

“As you are driving out, once you leave Eagle you won’t believe there is vineyard out there,” Jones said. “You just won’t believe it. The landscape is gorgeous. It’s the Wild West, but they are doing a nice job. There are three or four vineyards in the area.”

Its rolling hills, sagebrush and dusty roads are reminiscent of 30 years ago on Red Mountain in Washington’s Yakima Valley. And to know that a respected wine scientist sees value in their hard work and vision motivated Martha to get cracking on the Eagle Foothills petition.

“It’s important to have someone validate why we are doing what we are doing,” Martha said. “We’d lived on the ranch for almost 10 years by the time we planted grapes, and we thought we were in a special place. And when I saw Greg’s climate report and soil report, it solidified it. I thought we could be an AVA. That was in November 2011.”

Their plantings make up two-thirds of the 69 acres of vineyards in the proposed AVA. Gary manages two other vineyards between 3 Horse Ranch and Eagle, so he and Martha guided Jones on a tour of the region as part of the Idaho study.

“I really enjoyed meeting the Cunninghams,” Jones said. “I enjoy their wine, and I talked to them a lot. There was good interaction. I didn’t do a lot of work, but I helped Martha pull information together.”

In early 2013, Jones successfully petitioned the federal agency that regulates the wine industry — the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) — to establish the Elkton Oregon AVA, so his experience proved invaluable.

Martha also recruited Clyde “C.J.” Northrup, a geosciences professor at Boise State University, to serve as collaborator and lend his soil expertise to the petition. He views the soils as distinctive because of the granite pebbles mixed in with the volcanic ash/sandy loam, a sign of the Eagle Foothills’ position along the Boise Front and near the northern margin of Ancient Lake Idaho.

“Rather than multiple flooding events that stacked things up, there was a long-standing lake here that occupied the Snake River Valley — about the same size as Lake Michigan today,” Northrup said. “A lot of the rocks that we see here are lacustrine sediments that accumulated in that lake.

“There’s a mixture of material that washed from the highlands adjacent, so you have the granite that sits in the uplands north of Boise that produced some of the sediment, but there’s also the Yellowstone hotspot that was migrating its way along,” Northrup continued. “So there were big ash clouds that went out and rained down through the water column of the lake as well.”

Both scientists know the wine industry. Jones’ father is the founding winemaker/viticulturalist and owner of renowned Abacela in Roseburg, Ore. Northrup, who earned his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology also has winemaking in his background, including work last fall at Hat Ranch Winery. Each collaborator was quick to hand off credit.

“They were the orchestra,” Martha said of Jones and Northrup. “I was more of the conductor. They were fantastic. By May 2013, we had it done and in the TTB’s hands. It took six months. We were determined.”

Northrup said, “She carried the day, and it’s very much like Martha to not take credit. This would not have happened without her sustained effort.”

A delicious bit of irony is that Martha is a proud graduate — class of ‘78 — from the University of California-Davis, home to the nation’s most important winemaking program. It’s also where her daughter, Taylor, is studying literature and Italian.

Martha’s petition initially sought to call it the Willow Creek Idaho AVA because of the natural drainage formed by Willow Creek — which flows through 3 Horse Ranch. It’s also the name of the road that connects the town of Eagle to the region. However, TTB forced Martha to generate a new name and resubmit the petition. There’s Willow Creek Winery in New York, but according to the TTB, the reason for the rejection was “the name evidence provided in the petition did not sufficiently demonstrate that the region is known by that name.”

No one is complaining about the federal agency in this instance.

“For us, changing it to Eagle Foothills was a really positive thing,” Gary Cunningham said. “In Idaho and the Treasure Valley, Eagle is pretty well known as the premium high-end market for property, so there’s a lot of identity with that.”

In a good year, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards grows a significant percentage of its own grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne and Sauvignon Blanc. One of the nearby vineyards, not far from Beacon Light Road — which forms much of the southern boundary of the AVA — grows Sangiovese.

“The Cunninghams could have drawn the boundary for a potential AVA around their own little valley, but they didn’t,” Northrup said. “Right from the get-go, there were community meetings and all kinds of ways to include people and make sure no one was alienated. Martha did a great job of handling the people, and so much of the (AVA process) is about people, in addition to addressing the science.”

Alas, winter damage at 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards wiped out much of its crop for the 2013 and 2015 vintages — similar to vineyards in other portions of the Snake River Valley — so there would be few wines from either vintage to carry the Eagle Foothills AVA on the bottle.

Going forward, the Cunninghams hope global climate change will help their vineyards, which top out at 3,000 feet in elevation, and the availability of water for irrigation does not loom as an issue. Aquifers and nearby rivers paved the way for Arizona developer Bill Brownlee’s plan to blend homes, schools, business and agriculture into the 6,000-acre M3 Eagle/Spring Valley Ranch community just over the hill from 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards.

“Eagle is an area where there are a number of nice housing developments,” said Jones, the Southern Oregon University professor. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful area, and then once you pass Eagle, you are in those foothills. If people get enough access to water, I think those are going to be great places to grow grapes.”

According to the AVA petition, the Spring Valley Ranch master plan includes 400 acres of vineyards. The Cunninghams estimate 3 Horse Ranch includes an additional 550 plantable acres, and that the best sites have not been touched.

And while she may not realize it yet, if the Eagle Foothills AVA is established, Martha might end up fielding calls and emails from across the country asking for tips on how to write petitions to the TTB.

“I’m going to tell them, ‘Call C.J. Check with Greg,’ ” she said playfully.

Later, she turned serious.

“I am so fortunate to live in a time and place that allows me to accomplish the things that are important to me,” she explained. “We knew we were right about this place and this drainage. Gary knew the soils. We knew the sun exposure. We knew the water. We could feel this is the right thing to do for us — and the right thing for Idaho and the right thing for Eagle.”

The phone calls and emails could start before the end of 2015.

Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information website. Learn more about wine and see more of their stories at