At this time of year, most Pacific Northwest winemakers are spending vacation time with their families in advance of the crush of harvest.
Greg Koenig didn’t have the luxury of much relaxation this summer, yet it’s been perhaps the most satisfying time of his winemaking career. The graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s famed architecture program has been applying the finishing touches to the 20-year-old dream of an Italy-influenced tasting room and terrace for Koenig Vineyards.
“It will be nice to have it all on campus — the winery, the barrel room, the tasting room and really be able to promote it as Koenig Vineyards,” he said. “When people come here, they will be able see the vines, look at the dirt, see the climate and enjoy the view. And 99 percent of the grapes we use will be within view.”
The Sunnyslope Wine District is a 45-minute drive west of Boise, but the atmosphere created at Koenig Vineyards may transport some visitors well beyond their impressions of Idaho wine country. The 7,000-square-foot addition includes a catering kitchen, stone courtyard with outdoor seating and a limestone fountain. A three-story tower offers guests a view of Greg Koenig’s 7 acres of vineyard, the Sunnyslope Wine District and the Snake River Valley.
Club members will have access to an area that will be roped off from the public.
“Koenig’s new tasting room will be another great way to experience Idaho wine country,” said Moya Dolsby, executive director for the Idaho Wine Commission. “The passion he and his team have put into the building and wine will be wonderful to experience firsthand.”
From Grape Lane to Hoskins Road
There will be an adjustment period for longtime fans of Greg Koenig. His wines have been poured as part of Koenig Distillery and Winery, the space on Grape Lane he’s shared from the beginning with his brother, Andy. There are nearly two decades of memories in the building that two young architects loosely designed within a modern Italian hilltown industrial theme.
“Hopefully, we will not disappoint too many people, but I’m sure there will be some who will like the old place better,” Greg said with a chuckle.
That building now will operate solely as the production showpiece for Andy’s distillery.
“I designed that with my best friend in architecture school, David Colgan, who went on to become a pretty successful architect in Atlanta,” Greg said. “At the time, it was so unique for Idaho to have ‘that crazy distillery thing,’ and it was fun to show people there was a new side to Idaho wine when we opened that in ’99. My mom and dad loaned us a lot of money to build that, but it gave us some credibility among people from out of the state, and it set the table for people’s expectations for what Idaho wine could be.”
Four years later, Martin Fujishin, another product of the Snake River Valley farming industry, began working for Greg. It took more than a decade until visions for a winery-only tasting room started to come into focus early in 2015.
“Back when I first started there were drawings on the wall — hints and schematics of what this would look like,” Fujishin said. “It’s taken longer than we’d hoped, but Greg really wants to make sure everything is done right and that it lasts well into the next generation.”
There’s no looking back as the dream has come true for Greg and his wife, Kristen.
“I never regret not having gone on to become an architect. I love being a winemaker,” Greg said. “It’s been 20 years now, and I still love it — the agriculture, the marketing, the science. It requires a little bit of everything.
“Besides, the fun part of architecture is only about 5 percent of the job — the design part,” he added. “The other 95 percent is drudgery, dealing with all the codes and being inside the office all day.”
And yet, much of what Koenig has created on Hoskins Road is based on his experiences as a college student.
“It’s a tradition going through the program at Notre Dame that you spend a year in Italy, so I took some of those lessons in urbanism and applied them to this,” Greg said. “The detail is modern and clean, and I also wanted to create a nice outdoor space.”
From a business standpoint, the timing is just right for Koenig Vineyards.
“I didn’t need a tasting room like this 20 years ago, but this has been fun, especially with all these years of waiting and designing something with ideas that I’ve always wanted to build,” Greg said. “Some of the elements that have gone into this have been on the drafting table since a couple of years after college, but it required the space, the time and money to do it right.
“And when you are the client, you get to do it your way,” he added. “At the same time, I’ve had to be budget-minded. It’s not like someone coming from some California tech company who is starting a winery in their spare time.”
Homegrown kid keeps it local
Greg, an Idaho native, grew up in Sun Valley, where his parents owned and operated the Knob Hill Inn. He and his brother fondly look back on childhood time spent near Kuna, where their mother was raised on a dairy farm. Those roots, combined with memories of the distilleries and wineries in their father’s hometown in Austria, continue to inspire them. Both brothers remain committed to Idaho fruit for their craft beverages.
“I’ve always admired Greg’s commitment to keep things local and not doing something just to propel his own winery forward,” Fujishin said. “If one of us does well, we all do well. It’s important for all of us in Idaho to make the best wine we can, and the Sunnyslope Wine District — where we are in — is the heart of Idaho’s wine industry.”
Across the Sunnyslope from Koenig Vineyards is Ste. Chapelle, the Gem State’s largest winery by far, at 125,000 cases. But aside from Sawtooth winemaker Meredith Smith, recently promoted by Seattle-based Precept Wine to take over at Ste. Chapelle, no one in Idaho makes more wine than Greg Koenig.
Not only is he in charge of his eponymous brand, but Koenig also teams with Fujishin to produce wine for Bitner Vineyards, Williamson Vineyards, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards and yet-to-be-released Scoria Vineyards and Winery.
Fujishin Family Cellars operates a tasting room a couple of minutes away along Idaho 55, but those wines, while made under Fujishin’s direction, also are vinified at Koenig’s production facility.
Combined, they make about 20,000 cases. By creating a 3,000-square-foot barrel room and 4,000-square-foot retail space, it will give Greg Koenig and Fujishin more room to work on all those brands. Koenig Vineyards production stands at about 4,800 cases annually. He plans on growing to as much to 6,000 cases.
“You definitely have to reach ahead to get ahead,” Greg said. “We’re going to have a sizable mortgage for the next 10 years, but based on the models of how the industry has been the last seven to 10 years and where it’s going, this should be a good investment.”
A foundation for the next generation
Throughout the design and the construction, Greg has kept in mind that his new tasting room is being built for the long haul.
“Dad taught me and my brother to learn how to do this type of work,” Greg said. “It’s given me the opportunity to dust off some of my old skills. It’s kind of frightening how it all is coming back, using the concrete drill and the mortar mixer. Some of it is déjà vu and a flashback to the construction company I worked for in Sun Valley while I was in college.”
This project also has allowed him to pass along some of those craftsman skills to his son, Alden.
“He’s only 14, and you can’t find a summer job at that age much beyond baby-sitting or working at an ice cream shop, so I’ve put him to work,” Greg said. “This summer, he’s worked almost every day that he’s not in basketball camp. I’ve always hoped that he would be interested in working at the winery, and he literally grew 8 inches in the last nine months, so he’s strong, tall and quite capable now. There are 2,000 individual beams and boards that we have in the new tasting room, and he painted every one. The terrace has 5,000 square feet of pavers, and he’s moved every one of those, too.”
There’s hope Alden someday will make Koenig Vineyards an Idaho winery with three generations of winemaking in its history. Greg’s maternal great grandfather made a bit of wine in the Snake River Valley for personal consumption during Prohibition.
At this point, though, Alden’s work experience is limited to construction and finishing work.
“He’s learning some lessons, and four summers from now, he’ll be off to college,” Greg said.
The Koenigs’ daughter, Amelia, also has become more involved in the family business.
Fujishin said, “It’s nice to see how proud Greg is to have his kids involved and for both he and Kristen to see that this is actually happening.”
Special features for new tasting room
Visitors will be able to gauge the location of the new Koenig Vineyards tasting room from a distance because of the three-story tower that overlooks the grounds. After parking and walking across the stone terrace, they will enter a 2,000-square-foot tasting room. Their first impression may well be the stately beams of Douglas fir. Some are 32 feet long, and they all come from Specialty Beams in Montana.
“Everyone is going to think they are fake because you don’t see that anymore,” Greg said.
Those touches of the Pacific Northwest incorporated into the neo-Italian construction are intended to make for a heightened experience for visitors.
“We’re going to try to be open daily, as that seems to have worked well for (Garden City winery) Cinder,” Greg said. “I have a good tasting room staff of seven, including a full-time tasting room manager, and I’d like to hang on to them. A lot of customers have Monday and Tuesday off or want to avoid the crowds on the weekends. Every time I go over to Ste. Chapelle, their tasting room is busy, no matter what time or day of the week it is.”
And thanks to the new kitchen, Kelli Paddock, Koenig’s tasting room manager, will enjoy an expanded role as professional chef/owner of Prepared Catering.
“We’re looking to tap into her talent a bit more and use her to create some real nice experiences for wine club members,” Greg said.
And for a two-week period, club members will be the only folks to experience the new tasting room at Koenig Vineyards.
“The original tasting room will stay open during that time,” Greg said.
Koenig’s version of Idaho wine
Koenig Distillery will continue to operate on Grape Lane. Andy’s acclaimed vodka, brandy, bourbon and rye whiskey will be sold in Greg’s new tasting room at the winery; however, they will not be poured or sampled at Koenig Vineyards.
“There are five or six wineries out here, and then if you add spirits to their tasting, there’s the liability and danger issue,” Greg Koenig said.
Ultimately, Greg hopes his new tasting room, kitchen, courtyard with fountain and tower will create an informative and memorable experience for guests. They will be able to sample special wines such as the Cuvée Alden Red Wine, Cuvée Amelia Reserve Syrah, his new Fraser Vineyard Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, his traditional Riesling ice wines and perhaps 2012 The Devil’s Bedstead Zinfandel — the No. 12 wine on Great Northwest Wine’s Top 100 wines of 2015.
“I want visitors to be able to spend a couple of hours here and talk to somebody,” Greg said. “They might be able to see the winemaker drive by on the tractor, who was able to stop in the tasting room and took the time to talk to them.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Koenig brothers planting vines near the Grape Lane facility. Visitors to the new Hoskins Road tasting room will drive between some of Greg’s younger 7 acres of vineyard. A stone’s throw away are some of the Williamson family’s vines. And on the slope just above the tasting room is the new J Victor Vineyard, a 32-acre planting the Koenig brothers are orchestrating for Micron executive Jay Hawkins.
“I’m not very good at modern marketing, and I’m very bad at spin, but when I get the chance to host groups at my winery, I’m more in my element,” Greg said with a chuckle. “Here, surrounded by the vineyards, giving tours of the barrel room and with the lovely smells of fermentation during harvest, with the catering kitchen and the terrace and the tower, I’m able to show people my version of what Idaho wine is about.”
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.
The new tasting room is at 21452 Hoskins Road, Caldwell, ID, 83607, koenigvineyards.com, 208-455-8386. Look for a September public opening.