Jan. 02--The fledgling wine industry in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington has earned new bragging rights.
Two wines made entirely with grapes from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley won gold medals in a fall Idaho wine competition at Caldwell conducted by Wine Press Northwest. They were a 2008 merlot from Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston and a cabernet sauvignon malbec from Colter's Creek Winery near Juliaetta.
Wineries in the region have taken home dozens of prizes in recent years, but until now the honors were typically for varietals created with grapes from other places because locally grown fruit was so scarce.
"It points to (how) this area can hold its own and become a great grape-growing area," said Karl Umiker, an owner of Clearwater Canyon Cellars.
For that to happen, the valley will need multiple steady sources of grapes -- something the Umikers have been working on since they planted their vineyard in 2003.
The first grapes they planted have been in the ground for about seven years, which is the time it takes for them to reach full potential.
Their harvest, in combination with what they purchased from Ellis Vineyards in Lewiston and the Arnett Vineyard in Clarkston, created the 100 percent Lewiston-Clarkston Valley merlot. Colter Creek made its cabernet sauvignon malbec with fruit from the Arnett Vineyard.
The grape growers are the ones who deserve the credit for the wins, said Coco Umiker, the winemaker at Clearwater Canyon.
"Truly all a winemaker can do is maintain quality," Umiker said. "You can't add flavor. It's just the grapes. You can't make something happen that's not there."
The Umikers hope the victory helps speed Clearwater Canyon toward its goal of being a winery that makes wines exclusively from grapes grown in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington.
Their first release in 2004 was 100 cases of a red blend with grapes from one of their favorite producers, Phinny Hill Vineyard in central Washington. They figured if they couldn't make fantastic wine from those grapes they needed to rethink their business strategy.
Clearwater Canyon has gradually shifted production to a point where 85 percent of the 750 cases they make comes from grapes cultivated in the valley, Umiker said. "We've always believed in it. We've always known these wines are very good."
The awards are also helping Jim Arnett of Arnett Vineyard grow his business. His interest in wine goes back to when his wife was a waitress at Jonathans in Lewiston. It was part of her job to know about wine and they began touring wineries in their spare time. He learned much of what he knows about raising grapes by chatting with growers on those outings.
Arnett, 60, wants his vineyard to supplement his income when he retires in a year as a union representative for heavy equipment operators.
Clearwater Canyon and Colter's Creek aren't the only wineries that prize local grapes.
Basalt Cellars in Clarkston wants to move in the same direction. It just released Wasem Vineyard Field Blend, a red, that accounts for about 3 percent of Basalt's annual volume, said Rick Wasem, an owner of the winery
"It may be gone before I get it sent in for a rating from someone," he said.
About 30 percent of the grapes in Wawawai Canyon's wine come from their farm on the slopes of the Snake River canyon. Typically they blend their grapes with those from other parts of the state rather than having wines made exclusively from their fruit that's high in tannins, which are responsible for the dry feel in some wines, said Christine Havens, an owner of the winery.
"They're concentrated and they have incredible intensity," she said. "It's less approachable for people who are used to drinking other Washington wines that are softer."
As much promise as the Umikers and others see in local grapes, growers acknowledge some limitations.
Many sites have extremely different types of soil and exposure to sun, which lends itself to a diversity of fruit, but also likely means it will take more time for growers to figure out what grape is ideal for their land, Wasem said.
Sometimes the weather also throws in challenges. Last winter was harsher than normal, resulting in winter damage, said Dan Ellis of Ellis Vineyards
And that is the nature of the business.
"It's farming," Arnett said. "It's the biggest gamble in the world."