Why family behind Williamson Orchards closed its fruit stand, embraced future in wine

Siblings Mike and Beverly Williamson and cousin Patrick in front of the Williamson Vineyards tasting room. “Mike and Pat and Beverly are doing the management,” said Roger Williamson, who ran the business with his brother John until these children took over. “We’re providing some of the money.”
Siblings Mike and Beverly Williamson and cousin Patrick in front of the Williamson Vineyards tasting room. “Mike and Pat and Beverly are doing the management,” said Roger Williamson, who ran the business with his brother John until these children took over. “We’re providing some of the money.”

For most of a century, Treasure Valley customers drove out in the fall to Williamson Orchards on Idaho 55 west of Nampa to buy apricots, peaches, apples and cherries. A trip to the Williamson family’s fruit stand offered customers a chance to buy fresh, local, flavorful fruit and perhaps to talk to a member of the Williamson family.

To supplement stand sales, the Willliamsons packed and sold fruit for grocers. Over time, though, grocers opted increasingly for fruit picked green that could travel long distances. As profits dwindled, the need to reinvest in the business loomed.

The family decided a change was needed. They had planted 28 acres of vineyards in 1998 for nearby Ste. Chapelle, Idaho’s oldest and largest winery. Five years ago, they decided to sell their packing house, phase out the tree-fruit business and concentrate on growing wine grapes. Last year, they closed the fruit stand.

Today, Williamson Orchards, one of the Treasure Valley’s most recognizable century farms, has mostly completed the transition across on the Sunnyslope near the Snake River. Control has passed from the third generation, Roger Williamson, 66 and John Williamson, 64, to their three children, Mike, 39, Bev, 36, and Patrick, who just turned 29.

They are becoming leaders in Idaho’s wine industry. On Tuesday, Feb. 14, as the Idaho Wine Commission begins its annual industry meeting in Boise, the Williamson name is recognized both for grapes and wine.

“We had very loyal customers for long time at our fruit stand, but three families can’t eat on what a fruit stand does,” said Roger’s son, Mike, the operations manager at Williamson Orchards and Vineyards. “We can have the wine tasting room open all year around.”

Homesteading the desert

The family’s Sunnyslope roots date to 1909, when Lillian Williamson and her husband, George Gammon, occupied the land under the Homestead Act of 1862. In 1920, after Lake Lowell was finished and irrigation water became available, the couple planted cherry and apple trees.

Over 90 years, the family grew Williamson Orchards to 700 acres of fruit and row crops.

“Five years ago, we had to make a decision,” Beverly Williamson said. “There’s a new style of growing and picking orchard fruit and taking to market that we don’t feel comfortable with. Grocery stores and distributors want the fruit fairly green so they can travel long distances, so there are new guidelines for packing houses that would require a fairly big investment.”

Roger Williamson said, “The stores — they don’t care as much about flavor as they do color and size.”

“As the margins in the fruit business eroded, it became obvious that the family needed to concentrate their efforts on the winery side of the house where they still had some margin to work with,” said Jim Thomssen, vice president of the Caldwell branch of D.L. Evans Bank, a wine industry insider but not the Williamsons’ banker. “It was sad to see an Idaho Century Farm sell nongrape assets, but I understand it.”

The Williamsons now farm 55 acres of wine grapes. They are down to 300 acres of orchards, and most of those are leased out. In 2012, the packing house was sold to a Utah family.

Last month, the Williamson Vineyards 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon won a gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the world’s largest judging of American wine.

Last year, nearby Koenig Vineyards 2014 Botrytis Single Berry Select Late Harvest Riesling won best of show at the Idaho Wine Competition. The grapes came from Williamson Vineyards.

Beverly Williamson, who is Roger Williamson’s daughter, manages sales, marketing and a new 1,100-square-foot tasting room where she sells more than a dozen wines. She is president of the nonprofit Sunnyslope Wine Trail.

John Williamson’s son, Patrick, is the vineyard manager.

From cherry commission to wine commission

Beverly’s brother Mike Williamson is a member of the Idaho Wine Commission. Before that, he served on the Idaho Cherry Commission.

He misses the orchard business.

“With all of our fruit, we’ve always prided ourselves on quality,” Mike Williamson said. “People at our fruit stand would appreciate it. Guys from the East Coast would send us letters thanking us. ‘You guys know how to grow peaches and do apples.’ It pulls at the heartstrings to leave that, you know?

“But now there’s a greater appreciation coming from the person who is actually consuming,” he said. “In this case it is a winemaker, a restaurant or a customer in our tasting room. We’re talking to them versus a guy sitting in an office buying truckloads of peaches every day.”

Orchards to vineyards stems from 1996

The transition began not long after Ste. Chapelle was purchased in 1997 by Corus Brands and Puget Sound businessman Dan Baty.

“Corus had taken over and they were wanting more grapes,” Roger said. “They approached us, and there were cherries and apricots that had been on that ground since the 1940s. Corus came in with a good contract, and it was a little cheaper than going into more apples.”

They started with white Riesling and red Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, planting five acres thanks to cuttings from nearby Symms Vineyard.

The red grapes went into Ste. Chapelle’s Soft Red, an inexpensive, sweet red wine. It was Greg Koenig, a neighbor and winemaker, who envisioned the grapes’ potential.

“I used to walk my dogs past their vines, and that first year the grapes were so beautiful,” Koenig recalls. “They were all contracted out, but I told Roger, ‘Please let me make a barrel of Cabernet and a barrel of Syrah. Let’s ferment it and see what it will do.’ And it was ‘Wow!’ ”

So the brothers entered an arrangement in 2001 to have Koenig make their wines, and that first vintage of Cabernet topped the inaugural Idaho Wine Competition.

The Williamsons now sell grapes to some of the best wineries in the Pacific Northwest, including Cinder in Garden City, Colter’s Creek in the Lewis-Clark Valley and Koenig Vineyards.

“We have people asking every year to get on our list,” Mike said. “It’s all contracted at this point. It’s nice to be wanted.”

The family keeps enough to produce about 1,500 cases of Williamson Vineyards wine, and they sell 85 percent of those bottles directly to customers.

Mike and Pat estimate Williamson Vineyards could reach 2,500 cases of annual production soon and 5,000 within a decade. Their new tasting room is between the Snake River and Ste. Chapelle, which recently announced plans for a 5,000-seat amphitheater.

“They are keeping their focus on what the next generation loves and on a product line that is geographically unique,” Thomssen said.

A bittersweet end for some customers

The Williamsons lost some cherished relationships and generations of visitors when they closed the stand next to a landmark windmill. It opened in the early 1960s and grew to represent about 30 percent of the family’s fruit sales.

“I literally grew up in that fruit stand,” Beverly Williamson said. “You get to know people. These were friends.”

The Williamsons still farm or lease out apples, apricots, peaches, cherries, nectarines and row crops. But last year, the family and the nearby Orchard House Restaurant referred Williamson fruit-stand customers to Lakeview Produce on Karcher Road just north of Lake Lowell.

“As long as the customer has a place to go, they don’t get angry, and I think that has helped a lot with the transition,” Roger Williamson said.

Caldwell educator Elsje Taggart, 36, will miss the Williamsons’ Sierra Rich peaches that she had bought at the stand for nearly a decade.

“At the same time, I really like their wine,” Taggart said. “The Williamsons have been growing fruit for so long and doing it so well that I think it shows up in their wines.”

Taggart said she has 50 pounds of Williamson cherries in her freezer and several cases of Williamson wine.

Some of Beverly Williamson’s favorite fruit customers still see her now that they are members of the family’s wine club.

The Williamsons continue to sell a few cherries in season.

“My husband and I go U-pick cherries with our kids, have a picnic and enjoy a bottle of great wine without having to pay Napa Valley prices,” Taggart said. “It’s the best of both worlds.”