Our Roots

 

Idaho's wine industry is growing.

Fading Left Edge Graphic
2-9 million years ago: Ancient Lake Idaho is formed, stretching 200 miles from Weiser to Twin Falls -- 1865: An article dated September 5, 1865 in the Idaho Statesman reported that a vineyard of Royal Muscadine cuttings had been planted early in the spring of the previous year (1864) and it had survived the winter well and was beginning to produce grapes in Lewiston -- 1865-1919: Industry booming -- 1919: Prohibition haults wine industry -- 1933: Prohibition ends -- 1970s: Grapes start to get planted in the Snake River Valley -- 1976: The state's largest winery Ste. Chapelle, opens -- 1984: The Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Producers Commission is formed -- 1999: 656 acres of grapes planted (Idaho Dept. of Ag) -- 2002: There are 11 wineries in Idaho and vineyards are being planted -- 2007: The Snake River Valley American Viticulture Area is approved as a federally designated grape growing region in Southwest Idaho that covers more than 8,000 square miles -- 2008: Boise State University completes economic impact study finding that the Idaho wine industry has a $73 million economic impact -- 2009-May: Governor Butch Otter declares June Idaho Wine Month -- 2009 - June: Savor Idaho is created, featuring all Idaho wine and food at the Idaho Botanical Garden -- 2010: 43 wineries in Idaho and 1600 acres planted --


Idaho Wine History
Vintage Vineyard Photos
© Copyright • Property of the Idaho State Historical Society

Well we better start with the beginning. Idaho is considered, by some, part of the new frontier of grape-growing areas in the United States. The first grapes planted in Idaho were actually grown in Lewiston in 1864.

John H. Thorngate Ph.D., formerly a professor at the University of Idaho, now Applications Chemist, Research & Development, Constellation Wines U.S., says, "in Idaho we're the oft-forgotten 'other' state in the Pacific Northwest. Which is rather ironic, considering that the first wineries in the Pacific Northwest were located in Idaho, and that Idaho had a nationally renowned wine industry until Prohibition, as in other regions, closed the industry down." An article dated September 5, 1865 in the Idaho Statesman reported that a vineyard of Royal Muscadine cuttings had been planted early in the spring of the previous year (1864) and it had survived the winter well and was beginning to produce grapes. Robert Wing , who has a vineyard in Lewiston, ID, researched and authored an article on the "History of Wine in Lewiston" for the Nez Perce Historical Society in 1990. Grapes were introduced into the Clearwater Valley by 1872 and thanks to the pioneering efforts of two French, Louis Desol and Robert Schleicher, and one German immigrant, Jacob Schaefer, the region rapidly became known for its wines. Schleicher was most successful, taking a number of gold medals for his wines at expositions in Omaha, Buffalo, St. Louis and Portland. Thorngate concludes his assessment with, "I think that in a few years people could well be scrambling to find a bottle of wine produced in this 'other' state."

The Frenchmen and the German planted grapes in Idaho before any were planted in Washington or Oregon. They were winning awards around the country before Prohibition took a debilitating toll on the industry and brought production to an absolute halt.

National prohibition, which followed state prohibition in 1919 and lasted until 1933, took its toll on the wine regions, its growers and makers, and it wasn't until 1970 that wine grapes were again planted in Idaho, this time along the Snake River Valley in the southern part of the state where most of the state's wineries are located. It was in the Snake River Valley that that Idaho's first American Viticulture Area (AVA) was approved in April 2007. Southwestern Idaho currently has the highest density of vineyards and wineries and includes the Snake River Valley AVA, which covers over 8,000 square miles with comparable latitudes to many famous wine-growing regions in the world. The immense size is a great advantage, allowing for tremendous growth. The approval of the AVA was a vast undertaking and has truly helped propel the industry, gaining attention around the world.

From a purely geographical standpoint, area vintners insist, southern Idaho offers ideal growing conditions. Vinifera, or wine grapes, actually thrive in this distinctly four-season climate, The characteristic cold winters, which might at first seem a disadvantage, are in fact quite conducive, allowing vines to go dormant, to rest and conserve important carbohydrates for the coming season, while ridding the plants of bugs and discouraging disease. In addition, the region's summer combination of cold nights and warm days serves to balance grape acids and sugars favorably. In the 30*-40* diurnal temperature variations typical of this higher elevation—swings from 1--* to 65* are common—sugars remain high , nurtured during the long day by the abundant sunshine, while acids are maintained at favorable levels by comparatively cool evenings. These natural acids, important for the wine's taste and longevity, can be difficult to maintain in, for example, the warmer California climate. Adequate sugar, on the other hand, is often the obstacle in Oregon, where early rains absorbed by the grapes and vines in the final stages of ripening dilute the fruit's natural levels of the substance. Because such potentially ruinous precipitation is also responsible for assorted other agricultural woes, including mold and rot, the Snake River Valley's lack of rainfall is considered a plus; here, water is one element that can be controlled by the grower through irrigation, according to calculated timing.

The Idaho wine industry has been a steadily growing community for the last 30 years with remarkable growth in the past decade. With 11 wineries in 2002, Idaho is now home to 50, with 1,600 acres of grapes planted. In order to see the impact Idaho wine industry is having, the Idaho Wine Commission worked with Boise State University to create an economic impact story. The results were startling. It was concluded that the Idaho wine industry had a $73 million dollar impact in 2008 and created nearly 625 jobs. This growth led to an increase in visibility, more tourism, an enhanced reputation, and has created tremendous opportunity for expansion.

The industry will continue to grow as national wine consumption increases, as well as Idaho's grape growing potential. Idaho wines have been discovered across the country ranking 22nd in the nation. The Idaho wine industry is just in its infancy and is expected to see remarkable growth in the next 15 years. It is just coming into its own, receiving a great deal of recognition, and winemakers and growers are learning as they go while making great wine along the way.