The first vineyards in the Pacific Northwest were planted in Lewiston in the 1860s and, although Idaho viticulture has had its ups and downs, the region is pumping out loads of delicious wine. All people have to do is get out and give some a try.
“Idaho certainly has wine for everyone and their upcoming adventures,” wrote Idaho Wine Commission Industry Relations Manager Ashlee Struble. “From enjoying a bottle of Tempranillo on the patio or Idaho canned wine for a camping trip—there’s an Idaho wine for every taste and every adventure!”
Taking a tour of the Idaho wine country can be done in a variety of ways. People could spend a day or more visiting local wineries and some are even located in Garden City making a tour of Idaho wines possible for anyone who wants to try some out. All of the wineries have ample space for social distancing, are mostly run by Idaho families, and many allow dogs and kids.
Currently there are 62 wineries in Idaho and, according to the Idaho Wine Commission, viticulture is among the state’s fastest-growing industries. Idaho has three American Viticulture Areas, or AVAs, which are designated wine grape-growing regions. A wine labeled with a specific AVA means that the wine must be made from at least 85% of the grapes grown in that region and be finished in that state.
The three AVAs in Idaho are the Snake River Valley AVA, approved in 2007; the Eagle Foothills AVA, a designated sub-AVA approved in 2015; and the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA, approved in 2016. These three AVAs are then separated into four wine regions: the Northern region, which incorporates the Lewis-Clark Valley; the Southwestern region, which includes the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, the Eagle Foothills AVA and the Snake River Valley AVA; the South Central region, located close to Craters of the Moon; and the Southwestern Urban region in Boise, where the city wineries are located.
Taking a tour of all 62 wineries would take a bit of time and planning. One option is to take a wine tour—and Idaho Wine Tours and Sunshine Wine Tours can eliminate some of the hassle. For folks who want to go on their own, here are a few easy day trips from Boise and some wineries in Garden City for those that would rather have an urban experience.
Three Horse Ranch Vineyards
Owners Gary and Martha Cunningham planted their first grapes in 2005, and the winery has since continued expanding. The winery is located on 16,000 acres, situated in a unique growing landscape, and it grows almost all the grapes used in its wines.
“Twenty-nineteen was a record harvest for us, and 2018 was, too; and you can bet 2020 will beat the socks off that,” said Gary. “A lot of wines don’t get ripe here in Idaho and it’s a challenge, but once you find a site that works, you’re good.”
Three Horse Ranch Vineyards is a picturesque drive just shy of an hour outside of Boise and a great start to a wine tour. The winery sells red and white wine varieties by the bottle priced at $16-$49, and hosts a wine club, has plenty of snacks, and schedules many events and tours—all of which are now conducted taking precautions for COVID-19. The tasting room sits right next to the vineyards in a lovely area that the Cunninghams have put a lot of work into.
Martha said she got it into her head in 2013 that this location should be an AVA, and led the efforts that established the Eagle Foothills District as a sub-AVA. The area has soil perfectly suited to grapes, and the Cunninghams have made use of the foothills, planting their grapes in strategic ways, paying close attention to the slope, sun, soil, drainage and water.
“The AVA is a federal designation just like Napa Valley,” said Martha. “Having the recognition really helps the area. We wanted this so badly and Gary has been a workhorse.”
The Cunninghams said the result of their location is that they’re able to leave the fruit on the vine for longer, thereby maximizing the grapes’ sugar content and potential for flavor.
Three Horse Ranch is also rapidly expanding its operation. The vineyard will begin bottling on location this year, and is in the midst of building a huge new facility that will house a wedding venue with ponds and waterfalls. The Cunninghams also made terraced vineyards at the top of the winery, a first in Idaho.
“We are proving to the world that you can take foothills and turn sagebrush into great ground, and get a superior product,” said Gary. 3horseranchvineyards.com
Huston winery is located out on Chicken Dinner Road in Caldwell, near the historic town of Huston. The Alger family owns the vineyard and maintains it as a family experience.
“One of the big things we did is that this is about the farm and it should be kid-friendly,” said Owner Gregg Alger. “What we do here is create a friendly, relaxing, calm place. People can come out and escape the city and get back home in a day; it’s not a long drive.”
The winery makes two sets of wines, the Huston line, which is more upscale, costing from $19-$55 and made from 100% Snake River Valley AVA grapes, and the Chicken Dinner Wine Series. A table wine that has a lower price point of $16-$19. Huston offers tastings and has a wine club. Alger said the winery has something for everybody and, being just a half-hour drive away from Boise, is a great place for people to dip into Idaho’s Sunnyslope Wine Tour.
The Sunnyslope Wine area is home to a vast amount of Idaho vineyards and a trip to the region enables people to check out multiple wineries in a day. There are about 15 wineries in the area that share the same terroir properties. “Terroir” is a French term that describes the environment where the wine is grown.
“The label tells you everything,” said Alger. “Wine is about a time, a place and a capture of a moment.”
Alger said the label tells more about the wine than just the brand. When reading it, people can learn the grape type, the year of harvest and the growing soil. Huston’s tasting room and outdoor patio are close to the vineyards, but due to COVID-19, all tastings have been relocated outside and people must make reservations on the website. hustonvineyards.com
Indian Creek Winery
This winery, planted in 1982, is one of the most-established in Idaho. The founder, Bill Stowe, has been called the godfather of the Idaho wine industry.
“My dad was born in Twin Falls and was in the Air-Force when he met my mom, and he just kept trying to get back and start a farm,” said Winery Manager, Events Planner and Label Designer Tammy Stowe McClure. “He got bit by the wine-making bug in Germany and my parents came to Kuna so my dad could start his dream.”
Indian Creek Winery had to replant three different times in order to establish roots, but all the hard work paid off, and in 1987, out of 900 wines, the winery won best Pinot Noir at the San Diego Wine Competition. Now, it makes 15-20 wines a year, priced from $16-$32, as well as running a wine club, providing a stage and wedding venue, and having 5 acres of gardens next to the vineyards open to visitors.
The winery is family affair, with Tammy acting as general manager, her mother landscaping the gardens and her husband making the wine. She said they have great soil for growing grapes that work well in cooler climates and some of their most popular wines are the Pinot Noir and the White Pinot Noir. Currently, Tammy says her favorite wine is the Viognier and the Pinot Noir, which can be slightly chilled making it a great summer wine.
Indian Creek is only about 30 minutes from Boise, and the gardens are worth the drive. The space is so expansive that people won’t have any problem maintaining distance. The grounds are kid- and dog-friendly.
“We’re about putting our personal touch on everything we grow, bottle and design,” said Stowe McClure. “We are still very small and personal and we like to enjoy the process and have fun.”
Located in Garden City, Telaya Winery is a name derived from The Tetons and la playa, the Spanish term for “beach,” because these are the owner’s, Earl and Carrie Sullivan’s, favorite places. They wanted to start a business where they would feel intellectually stimulated and be able to spend more time with their family.
“As an urban winery our benefit is more accessibility,” said Earl. “We’re right on the Greenbelt, we have our production space here and people can tour the facility. We focus on high-end product and hospitality.”
Telaya has a lot to offer an urban wine enthusiast (“oenophile”). The winery has tastings and tours called the “Telaya Experience,” where people can try wines with a guide. Due to COVID-19, Telaya is now hosting “micro-events,” small events with wine and food pairings that teach people about wine and incorporate another business in the community.
The winery currently sells around 13 wines with some only available to club members. Earl and Carrie take a scientific approach to wine, and Earl said it’s all about chemistry. They blend the best grapes they can find in Idaho, and as their operation has grown, even designating plots in other vineyards for their winery.
During the shutdown, the winery also expanded its conference room to allow for business events, and has found a way to offer the “Telaya Experience” virtually. For this, the winery bottles up mini versions of the wine people can pick up or have delivered, and set up the tasting virtually through Zoom.
“We want to make wine accessible and approachable,” said Earl. “It’s not a white collar thing; there’s a wine and a price point for everyone on earth, and Idaho wines can stand up to the rest of the world.”
Established in 2006 with just two barrels of Syrah, Cinder is among Idaho’s largest urban wineries. The name honors the volcanic ash soil in Idaho, and tasting room Manager Kiah Jones said that Cinder has built itself around expanding relationships with growers and customers.
“We shut our doors for about a month when the pandemic hit,” said Jones. “When we re-opened we really started honing in on the customer’s experience and it’s been so great, we don’t think we’ll go back to the way things were.”
Cinder is a big winery and comes out with nine new wines twice a year that run from $19-$80 but, because of COVID-19, the winery has rethought its business model and has moved to a smaller and socially distanced, but somehow more intimate, experience.
By reservation, visitors can schedule a wine tour where they can taste all of the current wines. Cinder minimized seating in the tasting room and patio and incorporated weekly virtual tastings as a Wednesday night Facebook live event. Each week, the pairing has a different theme of a varietal, topic or person.
The winery also has a large wine club and a new release scheduled for August. Jones said the club offers an incredible value, with full-time employees dedicated to its purpose. Her favorite wine right now is Cinder’s Vioginer, a light wine she said goes with everything summer.
“Our customers have been loving the new experience they’re receiving,” said Jones. “Whether people want to learn, enjoy or just relax, we can do it. It’s about giving people options and interacting with customers is the best part of our job.”