Eagle Foothills winery’s ambitious expansion could allow you to bottle your own

Ready to bottle your own wine? You’ll have the opportunity once a $4 million expansion at a Gem County winery is completed this fall.

3 Horse Ranch Vineyards is building a crushing plant that will allow the company to create its wines for the first time on its 1,600-acre ranch on Pearl Road, six miles north of Firebird Raceway off North Eagle Road. And it will have extra capacity to serve other winemakers, including small ones.

“The whole idea is to create a production facility for people who want to make wine in Idaho,” said Gary Cunningham, the winery’s co-owner. “This will open the gate valve for people that want to come in and make small quantities of wine and want to start their own brand.”

The new plant, which is scheduled to open Sept. 1, should give consumers access to more Idaho-produced wine. Right now, Cunningham said, only 3 percent of the wine consumed in Idaho is made in the state.

Having the crushing plant at the ranch will eliminate trucking grapes 34 miles to Koenig Vineyards in Caldwell, where 3 Horse Ranch wines are now produced. The grapes will get crushed much sooner after they’re picked, and they’ll suffer less bruising, he said. The result: higher quality wine.

The project is an ambitious undertaking for a winery that had been listed for sale only a few months ago.

Idaho’s first underground barrel room

Cunningham said he really was looking for investors, but that didn’t pan out. So he and his wife and partner, Martha, decided to move ahead with the expansion project on their own.

Excavation work has begun on an underground barrel room — the first in Idaho — that when finished will have 20-foot-high walls and enough space to store 2,500 barrels for aging.

A temporary production room in the cellar will allow the Cunninghams to create up to 25,000 cases of wine a year for their own label and others.

Currently, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards — the state’s largest family-owned winery, in business since 2002 — produces about 8,000 cases annually. It offers such wines as Malbec, Merlot Cabernet Franc, Riesling and its signature Beau Geste, a red blend combining Cabernet, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.

Prices range from $16.50 a bottle for a 2016 Riesling to $27 for a 2014 Beau Geste to $44.75 for a magnum of 2014 Malbec.

A planned second-phase expansion that could be ready by September 2020 would double production to 50,000 cases.

3 Horse Ranch has become popular among wine enthusiasts, a champion for Idaho winemakers and integral in creating the Eagle Foothills American Viticultural Area, a federally recognized regional wine origin designation. Darin Oswald

Event, entertainment center planned

Cunningham expects his production to stay about the same for the first year in the new processing plant but to increase over time. The winery uses 14 varieties of grapes grown on 70 acres of terraced hills on the ranch and is developing seven other vineyards elsewhere in the Eagle foothills.

While 3 Horse Ranch has previously sold its wine in retail stores, it has cut back because demand at the winery’s tasting room has increased to the point there’s not enough to serve both markets. Five premium wines, priced at between $30 and $45, are carried in the Broadway Avenue Albertsons and the Albertsons Market Street store in Meridian.

“We sell just about every bottle of wine as soon as it’s bottled,” Cunningham said, pointing to the need for greater capacity.

Initially, the winery will be able to produce 17,000 cases for other small producers. Operating under the name Eagle Wine Co., also owned by the Cunninghams, the production room will offer winemakers a cafeteria-style list of services, from crushing grapes to producing the wine to aging, bottling and storing cases of wine.

Cunningham said he has spoken to companies interested in considering bottling wine there but won’t be able to seek contracts until he decides how to price the services.

The Cunninghams also plan other improvements to make 3 Horse Ranch an event and entertainment center to accommodate up to 1,500 people for weddings and other events. There will be a new tasting room, a commercial kitchen, outdoor amphitheater and event center and a series of ponds and waterfalls to entertain visitors. The tasting room and event center are scheduled to open Oct. 1.

Goodbye to Koenig

Currently, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards wine is produced by winemaker Greg Koenig at Koenig Vineyards in Caldwell. The Cunninghams have hired their own winemaker, Corey Sprott, most recently director of winery operations for The Wine Group.

The Livermore, California, company, which includes brands such as Benziger Family Winery, Almaden Vineyards and 7 Deadly Zins, was named the second-largest winery by volume earlier this year by Wine Business Monthly.

Koenig said he’s proud of his association with 3 Horse Ranch and, while he’s sad to lose them as a client, it will give him extra capacity to take on additional clients. He produces wine for his Koenig Vineyards in Caldwell and for several other producers.

He said it’s good for the industry to have another custom crushing plant in Southern Idaho.

“There’s quite a few small brands that want to open but they don’t have the room or they don’t fit our profile here,” Koenig said by phone. “We could use another facility and open up and do what we’re doing. It’s not healthy for the industry to have only one spot.”

Ste. Chapelle, Idaho’s oldest and largest winery, began in Emmett in 1976 before relocating to Caldwell. There are now 56 wineries statewide, according to the Idaho Wine Commission. In 2016, they produced 156,686 cases of wine.

Gary Cunningham walks along Pearl Road where he and his wife, Martha, started 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards in 2002. More changes are coming to the area with the addition of the Eagle Wine Co. to operate a new grape-crushing plant, a reception building with expanded space for wine tasting, and an amphitheater for events. Darin Oswald

Getting Idahoans to drink more Idaho wine

In January, VinePair announced that Idaho residents drank the most wine per capita in the United States. Idahoans consumed 1.19 gallons per person, compared with 0.59 gallons for California residents.

Cunningham wants to see more home-grown wine. Having a second processing plant will encourage growers to plant more grapes and create more wine, he said.

“We needed the new production just for ourselves,” Cunningham. “But it seemed silly to build a new production facility just for ourselves.”

3 Horse Ranch Vineyards is located within the Eagle Foothills American Viticultural Area, one of three designated wine-grape growing regions in the state but the only one wholly contained within Idaho. The designations are used to identify the origins of wines. Under federal law, wines identified by an AVA must contain at least 85 percent of grapes grown in that area.

This fall, wine production at 3 Horse Ranch will take place in the barrel room. The second phase will create an above-ground processing plant, with the barrel room below.

Gravity flow for better wines

“The whole point is to be able to create a gravity-flow winemaking system so we’re not constantly pumping the wine out of barrels and tanks and bruising or affecting that wine’s quality,” Cunningham said. “Being able to just open up a valve and allow that to go from the second story down to the bottling facility down at the bottom story is pretty significant in the quality of the wines.”

Having the processing plant and underground barrel room at 3 Horse Ranch will increase the quality of the wines produced there, Cunningham said. Wine will get aged and stored at a temperature between 55 and 60 degrees. When kept above ground, where temperatures are higher, the wine inside the oak aging barrels suffers from evaporation and degradation, he said.

Quality also suffers when there’s a lag between the time grapes are picked until they are crushed.

“For us, it’s super significant to have the ability to harvest our grapes and have them in that production building across the road within minutes of harvest,” Cunningham said. “Your travel time and expense taking grapes to another town are pretty significant. Those affect the quality of your wine.”

Reporter John Sowell has worked for the Statesman since 2013. He covers business and growth issues. He grew up in Emmett and graduated from the University of Oregon.If you like seeing stories like this, please consider supporting our work with a digital subscription to the Idaho Statesman.