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Idaho Wine Industry Readies for Growth

After two years of unusual growing seasons, harvest looks promising and the state's second AVA is on the horizon

by Peter Mitham
bitner vineyards idaho
Ron Bitner expects that harvest for Chardonnay will begin mid-September at Bitner Vineyards in Caldwell, Idaho.
Caldwell, Idaho—Like many grapegrowers across the Northwest, Ron Bitner is grateful for a normal growing season after two years of difficult weather and late harvests. Gazing out on his 15 acres of vineyard above the Snake River, Bitner says the grapes appear to be about a week or 10 days ahead of schedule.

“We’ve had a pretty warm summer, and even the reds everything’s gone through veraison, and we’ve color-thinned already,” he told Wines & Vines this week.

He expects to begin harvesting Chardonnay at Bitner Vineyards mid-September and move through the property’s six other varieties, finishing with Petit Verdot in late October. Based on the weather to date, Bitner expects a long finish to the season, giving the grapes ample time on the vine.

Interest in Idaho

The near-perfect conditions, complete with low disease and insect pressure, are one reason why (during a regular season) Idaho has been attracting increasing interest from growers. There are now approximately 1,600 acres of vines planted in the state, and a three-year mapping project led by Greg Jones of Southern Oregon University concluded this spring that upwards of 74,100 acres in the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) are suitable for winegrape production.

It’s still a fraction of the 5.1 million acres—or 8,000 square miles—encompassed by the AVA, which includes areas of southwestern Idaho and eastern Oregon, but Bitner considers the planted acreage a significant increase since he planted his vines in 1981.

“People are wanting to put more vineyards in here in Idaho,” Bitner said. “We don’t have a lot of acreage here yet, but I think in the past 10 years we’ve really laid the groundwork for people to come in and take a look.”

The challenge—and the impetus for the mapping project—is the size of the Snake River Valley AVA, which gives prospective growers a lot of choice in terms of location but little guidance in terms of the most viable areas.

“There’s places where you can grow grapes, but you’d better understand the temperatures, and you’d better understand the varieties,” Bitner said.

He believes many people risk planting vines in the wrong places, something he considers himself lucky not to have done 30 years ago, when the industry was in its infancy.

An influential neighbor
It was the winemaker at neighboring Ste. Chapelle Winery who alerted Bitner to the opportunities of his site, which he originally purchased for sentimental rather than viticultural reasons.

“I bought it for the view and because my cousins grew up in this valley, but as it turned out I wouldn’t trade this spot for anywhere in the country,” Bitner said.

When Ste. Chapelle relocated to Caldwell from Emmett in 1979 and began planting vines, its winemaker told Bitner he should be taking advantage of his location.

“I was complaining about the steep hillside and all the weeds,” he said, adding that Ste. Chapelle’s winemaker told him, “‘Bitner, you have a world-class site for Chardonnay.’”

The steep slopes allow for good air drainage, and hot summer days are followed by cool nights that the ripening fruit loves.

Bitner says his purchase of the site was serendipitous, but the mapping study combined with variety trials at the USDA research station at Parma, a half-hour drive north, are giving growers the information they need to thrive.

Numbers climbing
Idaho now boasts 45 wineries, up from 11 in 2002, and the industry contributes more than $73 million annually to the state’s economy.

Moya Shatz Dolsby, who worked with wineries in Washington state prior to becoming executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission in 2008, said grapes are in short supply as the industry grows.

“The current wineries are getting bigger,” she said. “We definitely don’t have the grapes to support it.”

Precept Wine Brands’ purchase of Ste. Chapelle earlier this year is a case in point (see “Precept Wine Buys Ste. Chapelle.”)

Between Sawtooth Winery and Ste. Chapelle, Precept Wine is the biggest wine producer in Idaho at 145,000 cases. But in order to support its growth, the company intends to “significantly increase production” by channeling more fruit from its vineyards and contract growers to its Idaho wineries in the years ahead, according to Heidi Witherspoon, the winery’s communications director.

Lewis Clark Valley
Plans for a second AVA in the state as early as next year also promise to boost plantings and wine production, Dolsby said. Proponents submitted a petition for the Lewis Clark Valley AVA in June 2011. The proposed AVA surrounds the cities of Lewiston and Clarkston and is home to about 20 vineyards and five wineries. It also neighbors Washington state, and federal regulators returned the petition for revision this spring with a request that petitioners address an overlap with the Columbia Valley AVA.

In the meantime, the industry is focusing on implementing a 10-year strategic plan, drafted in 2009 with the help of Steve Burns, former executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, and updated annually. The plan’s goals include undertaking an economic impact study, developing a marketing and promotions strategy and focussing on growing local support for Idaho wineries.

“Before you can conquer the world, you really have to have the people in your own backyard convinced,” Dolsby said.

Plans for the inaugural Sunnyslope Food and Wine Festival to be held Sept. 14-16 will offer people a taste of what the state’s wineries have to offer.

Bitner said the event has sold 1,000 tickets to date, and he expects the event to ultimately draw more than 1,500 people to Idaho wine country. It builds on the following Idaho wineries have garnered at Savor Idaho, which takes place each June in Boise.

“Savor Idaho’s been in Boise, because that’s where the population is, but people like to get out and have a glass of wine in the vineyard and listen to the music,” he said.

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