Great Northwest Wine column: Dry Moscato turns into sweet success for Hat Ranch Winery

Tim and Helen Harless, in their Muscat vineyard at their Hat Ranch Winery near Caldwell, were interested in winemaking long before they moved to the Treasure Valley in 2011 to open Hat Ranch.
Tim and Helen Harless, in their Muscat vineyard at their Hat Ranch Winery near Caldwell, were interested in winemaking long before they moved to the Treasure Valley in 2011 to open Hat Ranch.

Five years ago, Tim and Helen Harless drove out from Texas to Idaho’s Treasure Valley because they wanted to grow wine grapes and make standout wines.

These Air Force veterans have proven to be a quick study. This fall, their Hat Ranch Winery earned the title of best of show at the Idaho Wine Competition when their 2014 Estate Dry Moscato was selected as the top wine of the blind judging.

“Frankly, it was pretty stunning to get this type of recognition so early into this little winemaking phase of our lives,” Tim said. “It’s certainly inspiring us to keep moving forward with it.”

The award for the Harlesses did not come as a major surprise because that same wine received high marks from wine critics during the summer. And last year, Wine Press Northwest magazine named Hat Ranch Winery its Idaho Winery to Watch on the heels of gold medals at regional competitions for Tempranillo and Chardonnay.

“The fact that this was in a competition — a blind judging — is pretty rewarding,” Tim said. “I felt like we were making some pretty good wines, but it’s nice to be recognized by professionals.”

Harless also produces stylish wines under the Vale Wine Company label, a brand he purchased from John Danielson, who retired from winemaking in 2013 to focus on becoming a business instructor at The College of Idaho. Danielson helped mentor Harless, whose formal winemaking training came at Grayson County Community College in Denison, Texas.

Growing grapes, however, has been a new frontier for Tim, a commercial airline pilot, and Helen, a Boise dentist. She’d achieved the rank of captain in the Air Force, and he’d spent more than 20 years on active duty and in the reserves as an instructor pilot after graduating from Ohio State in aerospace engineering. One of the grapes they chose was the early ripening Muscat Ottonel, developed in 1852 in France’s Loire Valley and a relative of Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains — believed to be the world’s oldest wine grape variety.

“Part of the reason we first planted Muscat is we figured it would be cold-hardy,” Harless said. Their goal is to make wine from each 1 ½ acre block they’ve planted for Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo and the Muscat.

“Those 6 acres will put out about 1,200 cases of wine, and we’re looking at making 2,500 to 3,000 cases total a year,” Tim said.

Last year’s record hot vintage led to a successful harvest of their inaugural vintage of Muscat Ottonel. The 1 ½ acres of grapes were harvested Sept. 5, the day after Labor Day, at a level of 22 percent sugar, or 22 Brix. A few days before, the Harlesses noticed bees and birds were beginning to pay attention to those grapes, so Tim drove up to see longtime grower Ron Bitner of nearby Bitner Vineyards. That visit has turned into a fun “birds and the bees” tale among Harless and Bitner, a world-renowned bee biologist.

This year, Hat Ranch began harvest even earlier — Aug. 27 — by picking their Muscat Ottonel, and while most consumers associate the white grape with sweet wines and sparkling versions of Moscato, the stunning Hat Ranch Winery 2014 Dry Moscato offers no bubbles and no sugar. Hat Ranch Winery — named as a tribute to Tim’s great-grandparents’ homestead in Wyoming — released 126 cases this summer. The recognition as Idaho’s top wine will help the Harlesses sell the 60 remaining cases.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge to get people to try it,” he said. “We remind them that it is dry, and they are not sure what a dry Moscato is. We see a lot of surprised faces after they taste it.”

Indeed, it’s a winsome wine. Gorgeous rosewater, lychee and Texas pink grapefruit aromas and flavors linger from start to its lemony finish. There’s a huge amount of acidity, and the structure shows elegance without any bitterness. It’s refreshing and pairs deliciously with seafood and spicy Asian cuisine.

“We used some of the Moscato in our Hat Trick White blend,” Harless said. “It’s now part of the spice rack, and our plan is to continue using the Moscato in that blend going forward.”

Winning the Idaho Wine Competition is good not only for Hat Ranch Winery, but everyone in the Sunnyslope Wine District, Harless said.

“We’ve had some people into our tasting room who first visited Ste. Chapelle about 20 years ago and have been coming out here, but they’ve never stopped in to see us until they heard about the award,” Harless said. “Something like this is good for the industry in general because it brings recognition to the area and lets people know, ‘This is wine country’ with the vineyards and the concentration of wineries.”

And the Sunnyslope Wine District was almost love at first sight for Tim and Helen. They looked at California, Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the Walla Walla Valley before deciding to put roots within sight of the Snake River.

“We knew it once we saw it,” Tim said. “It was just a real obvious choice for us. We saw how fast Washington has grown, and rather than be one of 800 voices in the Washington wine industry, we thought it would be easier for us to get noticed if we were one of 50 wineries in Idaho.”

They also enjoy the collegial feel to the Sunnyslope Wine District, which includes Bitner Vineyards, Koenig Vineyards, Fujishin Family Cellars, Huston Vineyards and Williamson Vineyards. And it’s not unusual to see them gathered around the round table in the back of The Orchard House Restaurant.

“We have meetings fairly regularly to come up with ideas to help promote the district, and that’s pretty much where they happen,” Tim said with a chuckle.

The competition, staged Sept. 22 on the second floor of Ste. Chapelle’s beautifully remodeled tasting room, featured some of the West Coast’s top judges. The panel included Mike Dunne, longtime wine columnist for the Sacramento (Calif.) Bee, and Lane Hoss, vice president and wine buyer for the Puget Sound-based Anthony’s Restaurants group.

“I think that overall, this judging showed that beyond California, Oregon and Washington, there are really exciting things happening with growing grapes and making wines,” Dunne said. “I’ve been surprised by the diversity and the overall quality.”

Hoss, who has received the Washington State Wine Commission’s highest honor for the trade — the Walter Clore Honorarium — said the Idaho Wine Competition will help her showcase many of the Gem State’s best wines at Anthony’s new restaurant in Coeur d’Alene. It is set to open this spring and will be owner Budd Gould’s 30th in the Pacific Northwest — but his first in Idaho.

There’s a good chance Boise native Melanie Krause will receive placement on that wine list after her strong showing at the Idaho Wine Competition. Krause, a former assistant winemaker at Washington’s Chateau Ste. Michelle for Boise State grad Bob Bertheau, amassed eight gold medals in the competition.

She produced four of the top scoring wines, doing so under three brands. Her Laissez Faire 2014 Red, a $16 red blend that leads with the Italian grape Sangiovese, captured the title of Best Red. Cinder Wines’ 2014 Dry Viognier was selected as best of class along with the Huston Vineyards 2013 Merlot and Huston Vineyards 2014 Chicken Dinner White, wines she produces with Sunnyslope vintners Gregg and Mary Alger.

Sawtooth’s Meredith Smith, another Boise product, confirmed her place among the Pacific Northwest’s most talented winemakers by crafting two best-of-class wines — 2014 Classic Fly Series Grenache Rosé and 2012 Trout Trilogy Malbec. It marked the third straight year she’s produced the state’s top rosé. Overall, her wines earned four gold medals.

Idaho native Greg Koenig also was responsible for four gold medal wines, two Rieslings and the Erletxe Tempranillo for Bitner Vineyards as well as the Williamson Vineyards’ 2011 Reserve Petite Sirah.

Here’s a look at the top medal winners:

Best of show

Hat Ranch Winery 2014 Estate Dry Moscato, Snake River Valley, $18: Most consumers associate Muscat with sweet wines and sparkling versions of Moscato, but this stunning version of Muscat Ottonel offers no bubbles and no sugar.

Gorgeous rosewater, lychee and Texas pink grapefruit aromas and flavors linger from start to its lemony finish. There’s a huge amount of acidity and the structure shows elegance without any bitterness. It’s refreshing and pairs deliciously with seafood and spicy Asian cuisine. (12% alc.; 126 cases)

Best red wine

Laissez Faire 2014 Red, Snake River Valley, $16: This second label for Cinder Wines in Garden City is a delicious and affordable red blend that leads with Sangiovese. Aromas of black currant, baked plum and raspberry give way to flavors of black pepper, blueberry and cocoa powder. It’s an easy-drinking red that is priced for weeknight enjoyment. (14% alc.; 860 cases)

Best rosé

Sawtooth Winery 2014 Classic Fly Series Grenache Rosé, Snake River Valley, $20: This wine shows off aromas of apple, lime zest, strawberry and spice, which lead to delicate, clean flavors of cherry, raspberry and a hint of cranberry. It’s all backed by a stream of bright acidity that leads to a persistent finish. (12.8% alc.; 168 cases)

Best dessert

Bitner Vineyards 2014 Late Harvest Riesling, Snake River Valley, $19: Grape grower Ron Bitner half-jokingly refers to winemaker Greg Koenig as his “retirement plan,” and they’ve teamed up on another winner with this after-dinner treat. Aromas of spice, honey and apricot invite further exploration, leading to luscious flavors of baked pear and Key lime pie. Bright acidity lifts the flavors. (10% alc.; 325 cases)

Double gold

Vizcaya Winery 2011 Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $29: This new winery in Kuna produced the only double gold — a unanimous selection by the judges — and best of class using this red grape. It exudes aromas of pomegranate, cherry and raspberry, followed by flavors laden with bright red fruit and spice. This structure features solid tannins and remarkably bright acidity. (12.7% alc.; 70 cases)

Gold medal

Bitner Vineyards 2013 Riesling, Snake River Valley, $17: Some of the Sunnyslope Wine District’s oldest vines produced the competition’s top Riesling. Aromas of poached pear, Gala apple, honey and nutmeg lead to rich flavors of more orchard fruit with honeydew melon. Granny Smith apple acidity and orange zest easily balance the 1 percent residual sugar. (12.6% alc.; 98 cases)

Cinder Wines 2014 Dry Viognier, Snake River Valley, $18: Melanie Krause produces two versions using this white Rhône variety, and this dry style struck a chord with the judges, who deemed it best of class. It’s loaded with white peach, Bosc pear, Golden Delicious apple and honeysuckle as citrusy acidity and minerality give it complexity and balance. (14.1% alc.; 1,080 cases)

Huston Vineyards 2013 Merlot, Snake River Valley, $27: There’s a richness of oak influence swirling around the competition’s top Merlot, but the mocha and toast don’t overshadow the fruit core, which comes with notes of red currant, plum and juicy blueberry. Hints of green peppercorn and slate add to its charm. (14.2% alc.; 140 cases)

Huston Vineyards 2014 Chicken Dinner White, Snake River Valley, $16: Melanie Krause doesn’t work with Riesling for her brands, but the noble German grape leads this blend and continues to create a following for the Alger family. It’s a bright and seamless offering with tones of sweet herbs, green apple, minerality and nutmeg as the stellar length allowed it to capture the title of best white blend. (13.1%; 1,170 cases)

Sawtooth Estate Winery 2012 Trout Trilogy Malbec, Snake River Valley, $35: One of the competition’s most expensive wines proved its mettle, earning best of class and a gold medal for its showy use of oak, bold flavors of black cherry, blackberry and plum as well as its skillful balance and classy finish. (14.6% alc.; 224 cases)

Ste. Chapelle 2013 Panoramic Idaho Syrah, Snake River Valley, $25: This youthful and weighty release from Sawtooth Vineyard proved to be the best Syrah of the competition, and perfumy oak is joined by notes of Marionberry, elderberry, tobacco, tar and black tea. Blueberry skin tannins and a juicy acidity make for a firm, yet age-worthy finish. (13.3% alc.; 143 cases)

Colter’s Creek 2014 Ice Wine, Idaho, $20: Mike Pearson manages the vines for his wife, Melissa Sanborn, and these grapes came from what will become the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area. They make for an ice wine that’s nearly 13 percent residual sugar and filled with apricot, caramel and honey tones while not coming across as too syrupy. (13.9% alc.; 100 cases).

Bitner Vineyards 2012 Erletxe Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $27: In Spanish, this means “bee house” and is pronounced air-lay-chay, and Greg Koenig’s work for bee biologist Ron Bitner results in a clean, rich, delicious and food-friendly red with smoky red cherry, currant, tobacco leaf and mint. Enjoy with Basque-influenced cuisine. (14% alc.; 74 cases)

Camas Prairie Winery 2015 Strawberry Mead, Idaho, $14: Moscow winemaker Jeremy Ritter continues the tradition of award-winning honey wines with this fresh, luscious and pleasant bottling that’s off-dry but not overly sweet at 5.5 percent residual sugar. (12% alc.; 75 cases).

Cinder Wines 2013 Tempranillo, Snake River Valley, $29: Melanie Krause deserves much of the credit for Idaho’s continued success with this Spanish red grape, and she works with Sawtooth and Martin Brothers vineyards to present a bold but balanced wine that’s smoky and filled with black raspberry and dark cherry. (13.5% alc.; 550 cases)

Cinder Wines 2013 Syrah, Snake River Valley, $28: Three of the Treasure Valley’s most important vineyards — Skyline, Sawtooth and Williamson — come together in this stylish Syrah that offers food-friendly hints of dusty brambleberries, tar and a shake of black pepper. (14.1% alc.; 620 cases)

Cinder Wines 2014 Chardonnay, Snake River Valley, $18: A product of Washington State University and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Melanie Krause reaches into Sawtooth Vineyard for a Chardonnay that shows a deft touch with oak. Pleasing notes of toast, butterscotch and Spanish almond are joined by apple and apricot as nectarine pit bitterness makes this ideal for Serrano ham, quiche or bisque. (13.4% alc.; 560 cases)

Cinder Wines 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Snake River Valley, $28: This Meritage-style wine doesn’t come with a fancy name, but it’s classy and complex with a theme of black currant, plum jam, cocoa, dark blueberry and dusty minerality. (13.9% alc.; 600 cases)

Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2013 Carménère, Washington, $28: Last year, Boise-raised Coco Umiker cracked The Seattle Times Top 25 list with this obscure red Bordeaux grape from Phinny Hill Vineyard in Washington’s famed Horse Heaven Hills. She’s followed that up with this version that’s plush while offering notes of blackberry, plum, vanilla, black pepper and meatiness. (14.7% alc.; 117 cases)

Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2013 Renaissance Red, Washington/Idaho, $23: This confluence of three vineyards in the bi-state Lewis-Clark Valley leads with Malbec and makes for a juicy and rounded drink featuring hints of blackberry, sweet red cherry and Craisins. (14.2% alc.; 450 cases)

Coiled Wines 2013 Black Mamba, Snake River Valley, $30: Boise native Leslie Preston strikes gold again with a sinewy blend of Petit Verdot and Syrah from Sawtooth Vineyard that offers dense notes of blackberry, blueberry, cranberry and jasmine tea, yet finishes with a sense of smoothness. (14.3% alc.; 225 cases)

Cold Springs Winery 2009 Phren/ology Riesling, Snake River Valley, $10: Pilot/attorney Bill Ringert has his Hammett winery on the market, and his work with this now 6-year-old Riesling serves as a delicious sales pitch. A product of estate vines, it’s well-maintained with an Old World charm as petrol, apple blossom and dusty orchard fruit come inside a structure that’s bright, rich and bone-dry. (11% alc.; 864 cases)

Colter’s Creek Winery 2012 Koos•Koos•Kia Red, Idaho, $22: This husband-wife team in tiny Juliaetta coined their blend of Bordeaux varieties as a tribute to the Nez Perce name for the nearby Clearwater River. It’s a lighter-styled, easy-drinking red with notes of Marionberry, blueberry and cranberry with a touch of mocha and green peppercorn. (14.2% alc.; 500 cases)

Crossings Winery 2012 Bleu Noir Blaufrankisch, Snake River Valley, $19: This is a delicious, come-hither example of Lemberger, a rare red Austrian variety that has found some success in Washington. Beautiful aromas of ripe raspberry give way to inviting flavors of plush fruit backed by tangy acidity and firm tannins. (12.5% alc.; 500 cases)

Crossings Winery 2012 Zabala Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Snake River Valley, $19: Classic aromas of Rainier cherry, crushed leaf and mint lead to flavors of lovely ripe red fruit and a hint of pipe tobacco. It is a well-crafted and approachable wine with a long finish. (12.5% alc.; 400 cases)

Indian Creek Winery 2014 Muscat Canelli, Snake River Valley, $15: This is everything you hope for in an off-dry Muscat: aromas of rosewater, citrus and lychee, followed by luscious flavors of melon and tropical fruit. It weighs in at 5% residual sugar, making this a perfect brunch or picnic wine. (12% alc.; 200 cases)

Lindsay Creek Vineyards 2013 Mourvèdre, Washington, $31: This winery in the Lewiston area crossed the Snake River to bring in Mourvèdre from Washington. It’s a beautiful example of the bold red Rhône variety, thanks to dark, spicy aromas of sweet oak, raspberry and plum, followed by fruit-driven flavors of pomegranate, red currant and blackberry. (13.4% alc.; 96 cases)

Sawtooth Winery 2014 Estate Riesling, Snake River Valley, $12: The first of two gold-medal Rieslings from winemaker Meredith Smith, this offers aromas of lemon zest, mango and pineapple followed by flavors of juicy papaya, marmalade and a hint of lychee. It’s a delicious off-dry wine with 1.5% residual sugar. (13.3% alc.; 180 cases)

Sawtooth Winery 2014 Classic Fly Series Riesling, Snake River Valley, $20: This is a dramatic, bright, dry Riesling with aromas of minerality and green apple and flavors of crisp orchard fruit, including apple and Asian pear. Quite similar to a Mosel-style Riesling. (12.5% alc.; 180 cases)

Snake River Winery 2012 Arena Valley Vineyard Cabernet Franc, Snake River Valley, $20: Scott DeSeelhorst creates a classic Cab Franc from estate vines, and it starts with aromas of sweet herbs, green peppercorns, black cherry and vanilla. On the palate, it reveals flavors of juicy red fruit and red rose tea backed by elegant acidity and modest tannins. (13.6% alc.; 98 cases)

Snake River Winery 2013 Arena Valley Vineyard Riesling, Snake River Valley, $10: Here is a delicious, intriguing and affordable off-dry Riesling. On the nose, it reveals steely aromas of lime and dusty gravel, followed by luscious flavors of flint and honey. It is beautifully balanced. (12.1% alc.; 250 cases)

Ste. Chapelle 2013 Panoramic Idaho Malbec, Snake River Valley, $25: Varietal bottlings of this red Bordeaux grape are pretty rare in Idaho, but they show tremendous promise. This example from the state’s largest and oldest producer unveils aromas and flavors of blackstrap molasses, vanilla, chocolate and focused dark fruit. It is perfectly balanced on the palate. (13.7% alc.; 140 cases)

Ste. Chapelle 2014 Panoramic Idaho Riesling Ice Wine, Snake River Valley, $25: Made from Riesling grapes frozen solid just before harvest, this luscious dessert wine opens with aromas of honey, nutmeg and poached apricot. On the palate, it reveals flavors of fresh citrus zest and ripe pear. Bright acidity tempers the 16% residual sugar. (10.6% alc.; 700 cases)

Telaya Wine Co. 2013 Turas, Snake River Valley, $32: Owner/winemaker Earl Sullivan blended Syrah, Petit Verdot and Malbec to craft one of the best red blends in the state. Aromas of blackberry, black currant, black tea and baking spice lead to flavors of rich dark fruit topped with cinnamon. Perhaps there will be a case or two still available this winter when Telaya moves to its new tasting room overlooking the Greenbelt next to the Riverside Hotel. (14% alc.; 275 cases)

Williamson Vineyard 2011 Reserve Petite Sirah, Snake River Valley, $35: The Williamson family works with winemaker Greg Koenig to craft superb wines from estate-grown grapes in the Sunnyslope Wine District. Aromas of horehound candy and dark plum give way to flavors of blackberry, nutmeg and dried cranberry, all backed by elegant oak notes. (14.2% alc.; 128 cases)

Want to know who won the silver and bronze medals? Click on the words “silver and bronze” to learn more about the Idaho Wine Competition results.

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

Visit Hat Ranch

Hat Ranch Winery is at 15343 Plum Road in Caldwell. The tasting room is open from noon to 5 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Call (208) 994-6416 or visit for more information.

Explore Idaho wines Thanksgiving weekend

Many Snake River Valley wineries are open special hours over the long holiday weekend and offer tastings, food, tours, entertainment and discounts. More information and details about participating wineries and their events will be on the Idaho Wine Commission’s website,, closer to the holiday.