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Awards and accolades were far from the minds of Hat Ranch Winery owners Tim and Helen Harless when they bought a chunk of dirt in Sunnyslope nearly a decade ago and planted grape vines at this scenic spot in the heart of Idaho’s Snake River Valley wine country. They just wanted to grow grapes and make wine.

So, when Eric Degerman from Wine Press Northwest — the premier wine publication in the region — came calling with big news that their estate winery was chosen by the magazine as the 2019 Idaho Winery of the Year, the Harlesses were caught a little off guard.

“We really didn’t see that coming. It was a big surprise,” said Tim Harless, who handles the head winemaker and general manager responsibilities at the winery.

“It’s based on awards that wineries get at competitions. We recently got four gold medals (at the Cascadia International Wine Competition and Northwest Wine Summit), and that surely had something to do with it.”

Let’s go back a few years. Tim and Helen Harless first met in Texas in 2006, while they both were serving in the U.S. Air Force. You could say their passion for wine brought them together, with a little help from mutual oenophile buddies.

“When we met, it was over wine. Our friends threw a party where everyone brought their favorite bottle of wine,” Helen Harless said.

Thanks to a trip to Italy, Tim, a former Air Force pilot who also flew commercial passenger jets, became so enthralled by vinifera grapes that he took winemaking classes at a junior college in Denison, Texas.

Helen, a dentist with a current practice in Boise, had already been introduced to the world of wine in her earlier years. Prior to joining the Air Force, she held an assistant tasting coordinator position at the prestigious Wine Spectator magazine in the Bay Area.

Eventually, their shared passion turned into a full-blown desire to buy some land out West and start a winery.

“Our goal was to find a more northerly climate (than Texas), like Oregon or Washington,” Helen said. Idaho’s Snake River Valley — with its impeccable fruit and burgeoning wine industries — wasn’t initially on their radar, but after a trip to the Gem State to visit family (Tim has an uncle who lives in Eagle), they were hooked on the terroir of the high-elevation wine country.

“When we traveled through the area we liked many of the wines we tried,” Helen said. “Plus, it’s a gorgeous place to live.”

After purchasing a piece of property in the Sunnyslope area of Caldwell — at the corner of Plum Road and Pear Lane — the couple soon went to work on planting a six-acre vineyard. There, the Harlesses grow Muscat Ottonel (for their award-winning Dry Moscato wine), cabernet franc, tempranillo and sauvignon blanc, a white Bordeaux varietal that has proved to be fickle in the Snake River Valley.

“I’ve had one successful crop of sauvignon blanc in five years. It’s heartbreaking,” Tim said.

In addition to the aforementioned estate wines, Hat Ranch Winery’s lineup includes petit verdot, chardonnay and viognier, to name a few. The winery has also earned an ardent following for its Hat Trick Red and Hat Trick White blended table wines.

To bolster their grape inventory during harvesttime, the Harlesses purchase additional fruit from other local vintners.

“We like to source grapes from several area vineyards, like Williamson and Sawtooth,” Tim said.

In 2014, the already busy couple became a whole lot busier when they bought the Vale Wine Co. from longtime owner John Danielson, adding that highly recognizable label to the fold.

“We knew John was ready to retire, and we really liked his wines,” Tim Harless said.

They produce classic vintages of merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon under the name of Vale Wine Co.

For those wondering about the name Hat Ranch, it pays homage to Tim’s great-grandparents’ sheep and cattle ranch near Riverton, Wyoming, a homestead operation not far from where he grew up. The winery’s logo even features an image of the branding iron (a hat, of course) that his family used to identify livestock back in the day.

Granted, the Harlesses figured out early on in the winemaking process that surrounding themselves with talented people would be one of their keys to success. As is the case at most boutique-level wineries (their operation produces about 3,200 cases a year), multi-tasking is the modus operandi.

“Everybody around here wears several hats (yes, pun intended). I do most of the tractor work,” said Tim, now retired from the world of aviation.

Their assistant winemaker, Will Wetmore, is currently on a winemaking sabbatical in New Zealand, but he’s expected to be back in Idaho soon. Wetmore, a graduate of Washington State University’s enology program, cut his teeth in the Columbia Valley — one of the most dynamic wine regions in the country. Nick Cheatham, who came to Idaho from the fabled Willamette Valley in western Oregon, serves as the vineyard manager and associate winemaker.

The winery’s Sunnyslope spot is where you will find the vineyard and tasting room, which boasts a covered patio with an expansive view of wine country. The actual production facility is at the University of Idaho’s Food and Wine Technology Center in downtown Caldwell (sorry, no tasting room at this site).

As for winning all those awards and accolades, the Harlesses don’t want it to go to their heads and deter them from their true mission.

“We want to win the hearts of our customers. We got into it for the love of wine and the community. That’s important to us,” Helen said.

Idaho Press freelance contributor James Patrick Kelly has written about Idaho’s burgeoning food and wine scenes for more than 15 years. Kelly teaches journalism at Boise State University.

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