It wasn’t necessarily a Catch-22 along Idaho 55 for Martin Fujishin, but his fans cherished his Sunnyslope Wine District wines a bit too much.
“We heard from a lot of customers who were coming in and telling us, ‘We really love your wines, but we don’t want to open them up on a Tuesday night,’ ” Fujishin said. “That got us thinking that we really should launch something that gives them a weeknight wine.”
So the owner/winemaker of Fujishin Family Cellars and Lost West Winery in Caldwell invested in taps and kegs to enter the growler business.
“Because of the interest in craft beer in Idaho, people already were well educated in how to care for a growler, and they were excited to have a new option for that when it came to wine,” Fujishin said.
Initial investment in a Fujishin Flagon is $24.95, which covers the 0.95-liter growler bottle and the first fill.
Each refill is $13.95, regardless of the wine. That scales to nearly 1 1/3 bottles of wine.
“We want it to be accessible and simple, which has made it fun for people,” Fujishin said. “And with us changing out the varieties, people seem excited to try something new and not have to worry about the price. Wine club members get a discount, so it works out to $12.57 a refill, and that’s really reasonable for them.”
And he can take pride in what Fujishin Family Cellars has accomplished environmentally.
“That’s 165 cases of glass that we’ve kept out of the landfill,” he said. “And, especially in Idaho, where we don’t have a glass recycling program (in most cities), that’s a big thing.”
Some of his customers own more than a few growlers.
“The funniest comment I’ve heard so far is that we need to come up with an electronic message that tells people, ‘Remember to take your flagon with you,’ ” he said. “People show up and they’ve forgotten their flagon at home. I know several customers who have four or five of them just so they always have one or two in their car.”
Fujishin said the profile of the growler bottle hits close to home.
“They are short and a kind of fat, which I definitely equate to myself,” Fujishin said with some of his normal self-deprecating humor.
Some may wonder if these growler wines are vin ordinare, but Fujishin’s approach to the flagon project does not fit that profile.
“It’s really freeing to have that program,” he said. “There’s the misconception that keg and growler wines are end of the run, but we can come up with small-lot batches that we’re not able to with our other wines.”
Depending upon where he’s at in terms of inventory, Fujishin offers his Sunnyslope White — a blend of Chardonnay and Viognier — or his Rioja blend of Tempranillo and Syrah.
“Those are really popular, but right now we’re offering a straight Merlot and we’re running low on that,” he said.
“In May, we’re going to go up to four taps. We’ll probably add the Old Shed Red and another run at the Rioja-style blend.”
Growler use is growing
Fujishin launched the flagon program during the 2014 Thanksgiving weekend, but he’s no pioneer with refillable bottles. Ironically, the concept in the Pacific Northwest took off in 2009 in the Panhandle with Stephen Meyer’s Think Green, Drink Red program at Pend d’Oreille Winery in Sandpoint. Their successful campaign features a magnum — a 1.5-liter bottle rather than a growler.
“We looked at their program in a lot of ways,” Fujishin said.
Five years ago, Melanie Krause and Joe Schnerr of Cinder Wines in Garden City began to use keg wines to help dominate by-the-glass pours in restaurants throughout the state. This year, they are poised to offer growlers for the first time.
“With Telaya and Coiled relocating to their new winery, we have just begun a remodel of our tasting room,” Schnerr said via email. “We are expanding the bar, installing a draft system — six Cinder wines on tap, a local cider and two local beers — plus we will be offering small plates (assorted cheeses, meats and chocolates) to enhance the tasting experience.
“We plan on offering refillable wine carafes as well in the near future for a nice discount,” Schnerr added. “We’ve had a lot of interest in this from our customers, so I think it will be a perfect addition. It made total sense to us since we were installing the draft system so we could pour more efficiently, with less waste during our large events (concerts, weddings, etc.) and even during our tasting room hours. You’ll still see the bottles getting popped now and then, but we are already enjoying showing off the new tap system.”
Huston Vineyards in Caldwell, which is owned by Gregg and Mary Alger, features the popular Chicken Dinner Red in its growlers.
“The product was a huge success,” Gregg Alger said via email. “Our vendor told us we were their largest partner in 2015, but I was a little shocked while walking through the trade show at Unified (in Sacramento) to see our Chicken Dinner growler front and center in our vendor’s booth.”
Ste. Chapelle and Split Rail Winery also offer refillable bottles, and Fujishin said fans of growlers in Idaho may want to thank Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who defended his state Legislature’s 2013 law after it came under scrutiny from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
“We really owe the ability to do growlers in Idaho to Ron Wyden,” Fujishin said. “Oregon first started doing the wine growlers and then the TTB shut them down, but Oregonians really like their wine growlers.”
Why is it called a flagon?
And Fujishin credits his fiancee, Teresa Moye, for dubbing the growler program as flagon.
“She’s the creative force behind the winery,” he said. “We knew we needed to have a name for this project, and she devoted an entire weekend to the research. We liked the medieval and historical reference, which can apply to any vessel of wine and has been fairly widely used over the ages.
“We haven’t gotten a nastygram yet, but it’s such a broadly used term that I think it would be tough for someone to get a trademark on it,” Fujishin added. “I don’t know why they would give us a trademark on it, but it might be worth a shot.”
The growler concept, however, goes beyond the catchy name and the environmental savings for Fujishin.
“It’s been a fun project,” Fujishin said. “It’s really liberating for me, and it’s allowed me to start looking forward to working with these smaller vineyards in Idaho, especially in the Sunnyslope area. They approach us to buy grapes, but it’s tough if the lot works out to less than a 100 cases.”
Fujishin’s tap system uses the standard 15.5-gallon stainless steel beer brewing keg, which allows him flexibility.
“Now, I’m toying with ideas of picking up those grapes because I’m able to make, say, 50 gallons of this,” he said. “It’s not economical for 25 cases of bottles, but if I put it in a keg and put them in growlers, it benefits everybody.”
There’s also some extra science to the winemaking side when the delivery is from a keg rather than pouring from a bottle.
“You have to find the right gas to put over the top of the wine, otherwise it will rip the CO2 out of the wine, which can affect the mouth feel,” Fujishin said.
“Or you might end up with sparkling wine,” he added with a chuckle.
Fujishin, a native of Adrian, Ore., and graduate of the College of Idaho, taught viticulture and enology at Treasure Valley Community College. The former row crop farmer said he believes so strongly in the flagon concept that he ignored those columns in his accounting ledger.
“I made a deal with myself that I wouldn’t look at the numbers for a year,” he said. “With the startup costs associated with the kegs and taps, I was worried that I would nix it. At this point now, we haven’t made a lot of money. In fact, we’re almost about to break even.”
And it’s also making wine a daily feature on his customers’ dining tables. “It’s definitely helped us,” Fujishin said. “People who already were customers of ours, it’s bringing them through the door more often, so it’s been more of a benefit to the locals, who come in once a week and fill their flagon.”
Fujishin’s tasting room, formerly the Robison Fruit Ranch Packing Shed, sees an uptick on NFL Sundays.
“Sunday people come racing in and tell us, ‘We need to get our flagon filled before the game starts,’ ” he said with a chuckle.
“The people from out of town are looking for more of a finished package — and more confidence that it’s not going to open up in their suitcase,” he chuckled.
Taste is critical
However, the quality is the same, regardless of the format.
“It’s a growler program with the same level of quality as the rest of our wines,” he said. “The other misconception is that people assume that it’s a much less expensive program than bottling, but the startup costs are much more expensive than you would normally think. It’s not until year three or four when you start to break even.
“So yeah, this has been a major investment for us, but we’ve put our best foot forward so that people don’t think of this as a boxed wine program,” he added. “These aren’t dribs and drabs.”
Fujishin, whose primary job is facilities manager/assistant winemaker for Koenig Vineyards, continues to target an annual production of 2,000 cases for Fujishin Family Cellars/Lost West Winery — that is if the Snake River Valley can avoid the killing freeze that robbed many vineyards of fruit for the 2015 vintage.
“We’re hoping there will be more local grapes this year so we can bump up that number a little,” he said. “There’s more demand for Idaho wines, and all of a sudden there’s more interest from the wholesale-side than ever before.
“We’re hearing from restaurants and stores who want to carry Idaho wines, and I give credit to the craft beer industry in Idaho for that. They’ve made Idaho cool,” he continued. “And now people are looking for Idaho wines on store shelves and wine shops. I just wish there was more wine in our cellar and more grapes in the field.”
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 GreatNorthwestWine.com.
Visit Fujishin Family Cellars
The tasting room is at 15593 Sunnyslope Road near Caldwell (www.ffcwine.com or 208-649-5389). The tasting room’s winter hours (through May) are noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Area wine events
▪ Most area wineries hold regular tastings and events. Visit winery websites or the Idaho Wine Commission’s site at IdahoWines.org for more information.
▪ Saturday, March 12: Sunnyslope Wine Trail Luck O’ the Leprechaun Poker Run. Visit participating wineries to put together a hand of cards with the Luck of the Irish Passport. Details: sunnyslopewinetrail.com.
▪ 6 p.m. Saturday, April 16: Celebrate World Malbec Day at Huston Vineyards, 16473 Chicken Dinner Road in Caldwell. Huston’s award-winning Malbec specially paired with food by Horsewood Catering. Details: Email email@example.com.
▪ Sunday, June 12: Savor Idaho, hosted by the Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Producers Commission at the Idaho Botanical Garden. $45; $65 VIP. Ticket sales start March 1. SavorIdaho.org.