Friday, July 29, 2011

A visit to Davis Creek Cellars

Talk about a 3G network! Gina Davis, along with parents George and Gayle Davis, comprise Davis Creek Cellars, based in the quaint little one-horse city of Marsing. 

Tasting room, downtown Marsing
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Remember that movie “The Last Picture Show,” that showed a town where tumbleweeds tumble down the street? Well, Marsing sort of reminded me of that place – but in a good way, let me hasten to add. Once again, I was decompressing from a visit to Ste. Chapelle, and in need of small, unique and low-key. And excellent vino. I found much of that and more at Gina Davis’ homey yet kind of sophisticated little storefront.

It’s not far off the Sunny Slope wine loop of Caldwell. Simply continue down Route 55 (or Sunny Slope Road, as it’s called in the vineyard-heavy area around Lizard Butte) till you come to the river. After going over the bridge, look for the US Bank on the right.Then slow down and look to your left. Otherwise, you might miss Davis Creek Cellars, which is in an antique building next to the teeny-tiny City Hall.
Davis Creek: A little bit homey, a little bit elegant
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Despite its surroundings, Davis Creek is far from decrepit. In fact, when I stepped inside Gina’s cute little tasting room, it almost felt like I was in someone’s home – someone with excellent taste. There’s even a loungy area with a couch and coffee table, along with the bar and high stools for sipping and socialization.

Speaking of which, a trio of wine club members were in mid-flight when I bumbled in, but they easily absorbed me into their midst (I even snagged an invite to the Treasure Valley Welcome Club!). The winemaker herself provided a studied contrast to the convivial group. Appearing somewhat shy and reserved, the dark-haired young woman began pouring me tastes of her Viognier and Chardonnay without extracting a dime from my pocket. While a sign clearly proclaimed there is a tasting fee, I had marched right past it. But because her pours were so generous, I actually instigated the transaction, pressing a five-dollar bill into her hand.

Winemaker Gina Davis with some discerning customers
Photo by Meg McKenzie
But, perhaps because of the soda-pop sweetness of the Ste. Chapelle Soft White I had just imbibed, or maybe it was the handfuls of salted nuts I had crammed into my mouth on the way to Marsing. Whatever the reason, the first few sips of Gina’s white wine struck me as a bit dry – OK, let me be frank: crazy dry. However, as my palate adjusted, things improved. Gina, a University of Idaho grad whose first wines were harvested in 2007 (she sources her grapes from Sawtooth, Skyline, Williamson and Windy Ridge, south of Meridian), is one of only a few local winemakers to tackle a Tempranillo (Indian Creek is another), a wine made from a Spanish grape that I have yet to come to terms with. (I just can’t get past that smoky cigar aroma, or maybe it’s that cabbage-y aftertaste). Whatever, I quickly made room in my glass for the next pour, which was a 2009 Portuguese-style wine called Touriga Nacional. Wowza. It alone was worth the five bucks (especially as a bottle goes for $29). The grapes for this vintage came from the Red Mountain AVA of Washington state I am forced to divulge. All the same, it was pretty amazing.

Gina's parents, George and Gayle
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Gina does not ship her wines ($16-$29) directly to customers, but according to her website, Ericson’s Fine Wines in Nampa does. You can also get a bottle at the Davis Creek booth at Capitol City farmers market Saturdays in downtown Boise – and meet her adorable parents.

Davis Creek Cellars
429 Main Street, Suite 101
P.O. Box 442, Marsing, ID 83639
(208) 794-2848;
Owner/winemaker: Gina Davis

Interior of the Davis Creek shop in Marsing
Photo by Meg McKenzie
☻☻☻☻ A short way off the Caldwell wine loop, Davis Creek Cellars is a solid four-grape experience. While I found the whites kind of hot and dry, the reds were mellow and flavorful. I also love what Gina Davis has done with the place: still completely authentic Old Idaho on the exterior, modern and cozy and eclectic inside – and her lab/Weimaraner-mix puppy, who greets you at the door with a blue chew toy, is too cute for words. There is a tasting fee, but just this once I didn’t feel shaken down but proferred it gladly. I think the whole woman-winemaker thing had me at hello. Plus the fact that her parents are in on the journey also pumped up my feelings of goodwill – and that Touriga wine of hers will blow your mind. Tasting room is open Friday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

My ratings run from one grape (poor) to five (excellent) and are based on accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

A visit to St. Chapelle Winery

Vineyards (above) and tasting room
Photos by Meg McKenzie

My first visit to Ste. Chapelle was back in June. My expectations were high: “Have you been out to Ste. Chapelle?” new acquaintances would invariably ask me when I told them I was a bit of a grape head. And this, after all, was the winery that put Idaho on the wine map (it's not the first in Canyon County but puts out the largest number of cases per year, topping 150,000). Thus it was with mounting excitement that I turned at the sign that said “Ste. Chapelle, ½ mile” and, in my usual fashion, found myself in somebody’s backyard on the edge of a field. Duh, I realized too late: The sign meant it was ½ mile straight ahead, not to the right. So I took the scenic route, bumping along through rutted orchard roads to come in through the back door, so to speak.

Be prepared for a bit of a wait (and this was a slow day!)
Photo by Meg McKenzie
The arched iron sign was a welcome sight indeed – and very grand, as was the large, octagonal building at the top of the hill. A gurgling waterfall next to the entrance, which was decorated with an arbor loaded with grapevines, were two nice touches. Inside it was high-ceilinged, cool and dim, with the chapel theme apparent from the stained glass windows and rather hushed atmosphere.

But the tasting bar was crowded about three deep, and once I elbowed my way in, it was hard to flag down a pourer to give her my five bucks so I could get my keepsake wineglass and start the tasting. After I had established a rapport with one of the three ladies behind the bar, however, she came by pretty regularly.  

I kept to my regimen of dry whites moving down to Cabernet. Problem was: Ste Chapelle’s wines were so sweet and oaky (at least the ones I was tasting) it was hard to clear my palate for the next pour. I finally asked if they had any crackers, and a bowl of pretzels was produced, which the other tasters descended upon eagerly. I will say this: At around $7-$9 a bottle (depending upon whether you’re a wine club member), the wines are fairly priced. But, chapel theme aside: A divine wine experience? Not really.

A mellow crowd enjoys a Sunday concert at Ste. Chapelle
Photo by Meg McKenzie

Deciding to give Ste. Chapelle another shot, I returned on a Sunday to see whether the concerts I’d been promoting in the Events section of my blog were any good. The music runs from 1 to 4 p.m., and I got there around 3. I paid the $10 admission at the iron gate and got a tasting menu worth $5 at the winery. At the top of the hill, the huge parking lot was full to bursting. The band was taking a break but some rock music played from the speakers on stage, and the large crowd seemed mellow and having a good time. It was about 100 degrees on this hot, sunny July afternoon, but the large trees shading the natural outdoor amphitheater on the side of the hill did a good job of cooling things off. I took my tasting menu over to a busy concession stand that was selling beer, soda and wine, but learned that to get my free tastes, I’d have to climb further up the hill to the main building. 

"Going to the chapel..."
By Meg McKenzie
Which I did. It was packed inside, five deep this time. I waited to get up to the bar while chatting with a cute young couple from Boise who had obviously tasted a lot of wine already. When it was my turn I realized, again, that most of the wines were too sweet for me. But lots of people were buying bottles, so I guess I was in the minority. Afterward, I went back down to watch folks dancing to the soft rock that a local oldies band was playing, but I felt no need to stay after the song ended.

Ste. Chapelle Winery
19348 Lowell Road
Caldwell, ID 83607

Owner: Ascentia
Winemaker: Maurine Johnson

View from the winery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
☻☻☻ Ste. Chapelle is the biggest and best-known winery in Idaho, selling 160,000 cases a year. Its prices are the lowest in town and the quality is predictable. Not to say that their vineyard isn’t beautiful, but the ownership by Ascentia in California/Washington seems to imbue a certain, shall we say, lack of intimacy to the proceedings. The Sunday concerts are probably a lot of fun if you go with a friend, a lover, or a large family gathering (and a designated driver!). A picnic lunch can be purchased onsite for $8. Also for sale: Coors in the can ($2), bottles of microbrew ($3) and glasses of wine ($7). You can bring your own food but not alcohol (though the guy sitting in the lawn chair at the gate didn’t exactly search the car). Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. You can book a tour of the cellars by appointment.

September update: Seems Ste. Chapelle is shaking things up, with the (late-August '11) exit of longtime winemaker Chuck Devlin and ascent (no pun intended) of longtime assistant winemaker Maurine Johnson. Looking forward to what happens next at this granddaddy of all Idaho wineries!

Ratings go from one grape (poor) to five (excellent) and are based on accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A visit to Sawtooth Winery

Up rustic Surrey Lane to Sawtooth
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Ah, Nampa. I’d been putting off visiting the Nampa and Kuna wineries for a while because, judging by the map, it seems as though they are far apart and out in the middle of nowhere. And you know what? This time, the map did not lie.

Of course, I managed to get kind of lost several times in my quest to reach Sawtooth Winery. After exiting off I-84 at Garrity Boulevard, and blundering down Nampa’s quaint cowtown-like main street (2nd Street), I headed south for many miles, which reminded me of my marathon journey to 3 Horse Ranch, except in the opposite direction, and instead of acres and acres of hills, there was acre upon acre of farmland (though at least there were no vultures circling this time). 

I missed the left turn for Missouri but found my way back, and soon the orange-and-white sign beckoned for Sawtooth down Skyranch and then Surrey Lane, which is a dirt road going up a hill with vegetables and then grapevines lining it. As I bemoaned the wash and wax my car had recently enjoyed, I did thrill to the sight not only of the onions and carrots of the tenant farmers, but also of tiny green grapelets forming on the vines. There are a lot of grapes here; I had already learned that Sawtooth (and its associated vineyard, Skyline) produces grapes for a lot of area wineries, including the big dog Ste. Chapelle, and while started in the '80s by local legend Brad Pintler, it is now owned by Seattle's Precept Brands.

Tiffany assists a guest at Sawtooth Winery in Nampa
Photo by Meg McKenzie
The winery building was reminiscent of Koenig, a few miles to the north, with its balcony of chatting guests, sign-in table and stairway to heaven, so to speak. At the top, a granite tasting bar confronted me, along with Angie and Tiffany, two of the sweetest gals I have ever met. The room itself is decorated with Sawtooth merch, and has a view, to the south, of the surrounding fields; to the north, of the fermenting tanks; to the east, a barn and machinery; and to the west, the wedding venue, with its attractive gazebo, rose garden and antique streetlamp. It must be a popular setting, as several engaged couples trooped through for tours while I was there. Though I must add I was there a lot longer than I planned to be – simply because it was so pleasant.

I was in a chatty mood, so when she could shut me up, Tiffany presented me with a double-sided menu: the $3 “mainline” tasting, and on the back, the $8 “reserve.” Of course, I went for the mainline wines, reasoning that these were the bottles I would be able to afford in the supermarket – and I had already established that Sawtooth wines (named for a nearby mountain range) were available at Albertsons, the chain that dominates Boise.

Entrance to the Sawtooth "chateau"
Photo by Meg McKenzie
After I paid my three bucks, the wines started coming, and kept coming! In all, there were eight tastes of wines that ranged from $8 to $13 a bottle (the reserve range is $15-25). Of course the tasting price is refundable with a purchase. My favorite of the whites was a fruity Muscat Blanc, which had huge citrus aromas and was as sweetly refreshing as lemonade. And of the reds, the 2008 Cabernet hit all the right fruity, spicy notes (though of course it was the last wine I tasted and I was feeling pretty good by then). The accompanying bowls of herbed popcorn helped with palate- and head-clearing.

Though he wasn't there to talk to, the current winemaker (since 2009) is Bill Murray (not the actor, Tiffany hastened to say). It was so sunny and relaxed on the Saturday I visited, I ended up chatting at the bar with a couple from Eagle who sprang for the Reserve menu and seemed to be doing a wine tour that day. I learned a little more than I needed to about her impending first grandchild and his feelings on the subject, but it also spiced up the day. As I left, Tiffany (who though hailing from Texas seems to know a lot about Idaho wines) invited me to wander around the vineyards and take as many pictures as I wanted. Which I did.

The rose garden
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Sawtooth Winery
13750 Surrey Lane
Nampa, ID 83686; 208-467-1200

Founder: Brad Pintler
Owner: Precept Brands of Seattle
Winemaker: Bill Murray

☻☻☻☻ If only I didn’t take so long to get there, I’d award Sawtooth the full 5 grapes. The pourers were excellent -- Angie was busy leading tours for the wedding customers, but both young ladies were warm and welcoming. The wines were uniformly good, and at $3 for eight pours, and with gently priced bottles, are a bargain. Though owned by a big conglomerate, it doesn't read "commercial vineyard." Wandering through the orderly rows of grapes was, for me, like going to Disney World -- I got to see what Chardonnay and Merlot look like in their infancy. Set at the top of a hill, the winery looks like a fun place for a wedding, though the dirt road is a bit of a serious bummer if you've just washed your car. Open Tuesday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

Ratings go from one grape (poor) to five (excellent) and are based on a winery's accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Zillah Fruit Loop Detour

Janeen welcomes you to Piety Flats Winery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Last week, I drove to Bellingham, Washington, and on the way back I took a quick tour of some Yakima wineries, both to see how the Rattlesnake Hills Wine Trail stacks up against the Snake River variety, and also because it was 3 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon: Time for some wine!

Unfortunately, it being in the middle of the week, there weren't a whole lot open. However, I got to sample at three very different, but quite nice, tasting rooms, which I'll combine into one posting.

My first stop was right off Route 82 at Exit 44. The Piety Flats Winery beckoned since it was within shouting distance of the interstate. Inside, there was a whole lot going on: General store with doodads and geegaws, gift shop with dolls and ribbony things, and the wine room. Janeen, the pourer, didn't know a whole lot of details about the winemaker and/or vineyard, but she was down-to-earth and friendly, and didn't charge a dime for some generous pours of 2010 Pinot Grigio, 2008 Syrah and some red blends that included varying proportions of Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Tempranillo and Cab Franc. My favorite was the NV Junkyard Red, which retails at about $14.
That's a windmill, not a cell tower, at Hyatt Vineyards
Photo by Meg McKenzie
But my hourlong detour was only beginning. From there, I headed east on Yakima Valley Highway and followed the signs up farmy Bella Terra Road to Gilbert Road, where I found the entrance to Hyatt Vineyards, which were set off by some pretty impressive topiary. Inside, the lovely Janet, who had the whitest teeth I have ever seen, greeted me behind a long bar. Although there was a $5 tasting fee, I got to sample some Reserve Riesling Ice Wine that was so sweet and concentrated, I almost hit the floor. Hyatt has won lots of awards, deservedly. Their 2008 Merlot was my favorite.
Rachel offers a sampling of Two Mountain wines
Photo by Meg McKenzie
With a lot of tasting rooms closed, including Bonair, Masset and Tanjuli, I was prepared to simply hit the road, when the sign for Two Mountain (named for Mount Rainier and Mount Adams) caught my eye. Frankly, their rustic corrugated barn was more my style than the upscale Hyatt edifice, and INXS was blasting from the radio as I entered. Matt Rawn, owner/winemaker, was pumping wine into barrels from tanks, and pourer Rachel quickly appeared to turn down the radio and offer me some (free!) tastes of their very pleasant Riesling, Syrah and Merlot. Of the three, the straightforward notes of the Syrah stayed with me almost all the way to Boise.

Piety Flats Winery
2560 Donald-Wapato Road
Wapato, WA 98951
(509) 877-3115;

☻☻☻ Points for having a cute, friendly pourer, though the owners need to fill Janeen in on some more details about their wines and operation. Also it's easy on, easy off the highway.

Hyatt Vineyards
2020 Gilbert Road
Zillah, WA 98953
(509) 829-6333;

☻☻☻☻It takes a good 10-15 minutes to get up to Hyatt Vineyards, and they seemed a little big and impersonal for my taste, and charged a tasting fee. But Janet was adorable, gave huge pours, seemed very knowledgeable, and the tasting room was cool and comfortable. Plus the wine was excellent. Plus it was open when others were not.

Two Mountain Winery
2151 Cheyne Road
Zillah, WA 98953
(509) 829-3900;

The outside of Two Mountain Winery near Yakima
Photo by Meg McKenzie

☻☻☻☻Out of the three wineries I visited in Yakima Valley, this was my favorite. Rachel was sweet and accommodating, and she seemed to know a lot about wine. Matt, the winemaker, was a little bit unfriendly, though; he lurked over the barrels in the background and never looked up or said hello, even as Rachel and I talked about what he was doing. 

But with the big yellow dog in the yard, the cool graphics on the barn, the short distance to the interstate, and the excellent wine -- with no fee -- I still left with a warm glow and a happy smile.

Ratings go from one grape for poor, five for excellent and are based on accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and, of course, the wines.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

A visit to Fujishin Family Cellars

Fruit and wine for sale at Fujishin's
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I visited Fujishin Family Cellars – OK, some big-city snobs MIGHT mistake it for a fruit stand, but they’d be foolish to zoom by on Sunny Slope Road (aka Route 55) in their haste to get to Ste. Chapelle. 

Entering the produce stand, which is owned by Robison Fruit Ranch, you dodge crates of peaches and pears to get to the counter along the back, which is manned by Martin Fujishin and his girlfriend Teresa’s daughter, who’s helping out for the day. Through an open door, you spy farm machinery in the barn adjoining the 65-year-old building. It’s all so quaint and, well, basic: Can the wine be any good?

Martin Fujishin, high-tech and Old School at the same time
Photo by Meg McKenzie
As Rachael Ray would say: Yum-oh! Martin fills you in on his background as you swoon your way through a pour of his 2008 Reserve Merlot (retailing for about $22). Unlike the Algers down the road, who lucked into starting Huston's Vineyard by scoring big in the real estate boom, Martin’s story truly is a Horatio Alger one.

As his countenance suggests, he’s a blend of heritages: of Japanese, German, French and Norwegian stock. After farming for six years, the Oregon native seems to have done it all in the local wine world: being tasting room manager at nearby Koenig Winery and Distillery for three years, running the harvest crews at Williamson’s and helping out at Bitner Vineyards up the road. He says his tasting room experience taught him what sells, and working in the fields educated his palate and his eye. Now he can choose grapes for his own label, which he started in 2009, as he directs the hand-picking for other wineries.

Fujishin/Robison's front porch
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Like most knowledgeable vintners, he took viticulture and enology classes through UC-Davis (he also has a degree in business from the College of Idaho), and now teaches others at Treasure Valley Community College, which recently celebrated its first student to get his AA in viticulture (the program also offers a 1-year certificate).  

Martin’s easygoing, knowledgeable manner suggests he’s probably a popular teacher. It also has helped him to forge important alliances in the insular wine world of southwest Idaho. He belongs to a group of Sunny Slope winemakers, which meets for breakfast once a week to figure out how to promote their vineyards. Festa, the September event that I heard about from Ron Bitner and Beverly Williamson, is one fruit of their brainstorming. And for the past two years, he's been managing the stand for Robison's, affording him an ideal venue with which to reach potential wine customers. 

Martin’s wines include Viognier, Syrah, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer and range in price from around $14 up to $21.95 for the reserve labels.
 Fujishin's award-winning wines
Photo by Meg McKenzie

Fujishin Family Cellars
15593 Sunnyslope Road
Caldwell, ID 83607
(208) 649-5389
Owner/Winemaker: Martin Fujishin
A rustic low-key atmosphere, which is welcome after the high-pressure temple of the grape up at Ste. Chapelle. But as he shares the space with Robison’s farm stand, Martin Fujishin’s open-air business doesn’t encourage much dallying (there’s nowhere to sit except out on the porch). But Fujishin’s approachable manner – and his equally approachable wines – make up for that lack. Open Tuesday-Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer. No tasting fee.

Ratings are from 1 grape (poor) to five (excellent) based on accessibility of vineyard, ambiance, and of course the wines. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

A visit to Syringa Winery

Welcome to Syringa
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Why does this Sauvignon Blanc have to be so gosh-darn good? The 2008 vintage took a bronze in the state competition, and you can see why: it’s light, flowery and downright tasty. But why does Wine Girl seem so grumpy about this fact? Because of her visit to the Garden City tasting room, that’s why! 

The whole Syringa experience is a bit of a paradox: Named for the beautiful state flower, the tasting room sits on an ugly stretch of Chinden Boulevard among the used car lots and convenience stores just west of Boise. So it’s close and convenient to downtown, with ample parking. But loaded with vineyard ambiance and charm? Not so much.
Owner/winemaker Mike Crowley
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I stopped by on a Thursday afternoon about an hour after the tasting room opened, and walked in on owner Mike and his retail manager, Ina, having lunch with a friend at one of the tables out front. Oops. They hastily reconnoitered behind the counter, and then we all dealt with the fact that I had come unprepared with a five-dollar bill to pay for the tasting. I smoothed over the awkwardness by agreeing to buy a bottle – because, in fact, after tasting the Sauvignon, I wanted some more. At $16, it wasn’t cheap, but not crazy expensive, either.
The Chinden Blvd. ambience
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Mike told me the grapes were sourced from the Snake River Valley, but wasn’t much more forthcoming than that. In fact, I felt like I was keeping him from checking his iPhone messages, which he did the whole time I wasn’t trying to converse with him. 

Mike gave me a sample of the Fume Blanc, which tasted kind of sour after the sweet notes of the Sauvignon (though the wine course tells you they are the same wine, apparently they're not). I guess since I had already committed to buying a bottle of white, it wasn’t deemed practical to open a bottle of red for me. So I can’t report on Mike's Cab, his Merlot or any of his other red blends. 

According to his website, Mike has a degree in enology and viticulture and makes the wines himself. Syringa, it says, was conceived out of his love “for wine, for winemaking and the winemaker lifestyle,” whatever that is. Ina said the tasting room has been open about a year. You can find Syringa wines at some local grocery stores, including Fred Meyer and the Albertsons on ParkCenter.

Owner/winemaker: Mike Crowley
Retail manager: Ina R. De Boer 

Syringa Winery
3500 Chinden Blvd.
Garden City, ID 83714

☻☻☻ Syringa gets points for being close to town and for having a nice Sauvignon Blanc. But I didn’t get a good warm feeling from my tasting room experience – in fact, I felt like I was bothering the owner and store manager after I interrupted their lunch. I was offered tastes of only two wines, both white, even after I bought a bottle. I wanted to tell Mike, “Dude, you’re representing the Idaho wine industry here!” Open Thursday and Friday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 7 p.m. $5 tasting fee.

Ratings range from 1 grape (poor) to five (excellent) based on accessibility, ambiance, tasting room experience and, of course, the wines.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

A visit to Huston Vineyards

The tasting room at Huston Vineyards
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Driving up to the tasting room at Huston's takes you down the lovely country roads of Caldwell, where in summer the scent from the mint fields is intoxicating. Signage brings you down the improbably named Chicken Dinner Road to a 1920s farmhouse and a windowless corrugated tin shed, which at first did freak me out a little.

"Watch your step," Mary Alger called out as my eyes took a minute to adjust from the bright sunlight to the dim, air-conditioned coolness of the wine room and I stepped over a raised sill.

Once I acclimated myself, though, I found myself in great company, drinking some nice, bright wines and having a conversation with Mary as though we'd known each other for years. With her porcelain doll features and friendly manner, she's a lovely host.

Huston Vineyards owner Mary Alger
Photo by Meg McKenzie
She told me the amazing story of how she and her husband, Gregg, and their two kids came to live out on the Huston farm (Huston being a tiny hamlet in Canyon County). Mary and Gregg are both from Meridian and grew up on farms. But they were helped into wine growing by the real estate boom. As Mary tells it, one day a man knocked on their door in Boise, where they lived on 6 acres, and made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. It allowed them to live their dream of working the land and giving their sons Jacob and Joshua the rural childhood they had wanted for them. 

They own 32 acres. Gregg attended viticulture classes remotely from OSU at Treasure Valley Community College. 

Unbelievably, their first vintage of 100 cases of Private Reserve Red, which came out last year, won a double gold at a Wine Press Northwest competition. Which attests to the skills of their winemaker, Cinder's Melanie Krause.

Entrance to Huston's
Photo by Meg McKenzie
They grow Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. They source the white grapes for their Chicken Dinner White from Skyline, one of the biggest vineyards in the area. Their barrels are new oak, new American and new French.

I tried their Chicken Dinner White ($16, excellent), Chicken Dinner Red ($18, a blend of the Cab, Merlot and Syrah) and Reserve Merlot ($27, outstanding). Mary explained that the youngness of the vine creates the thinness of the wine. And I've gotta say, that Chicken Dinner Red is pretty thin -- what some might term an entry-level wine.
They age their Merlot in New American oak. The grape loves the hot days, and gives it a big fruity jam, Mary said, and the tannins develop during the cool nights. The grapes in that wine are 30 percent grapes from the nearby Skyline, Sawtooth and Williamson vineyards.

Huston Vineyards
16473 Chicken Dinner Road
Huston, ID 83630
(208) 861-8511

Owners: Gregg and Mary Alger
Winemaker: Melanie Krause

Easy to find, Mary is fabulous, and the wines are good. The tasting room is cool and comfortable. A boutique experience, not high-volume. Take your time getting across the tire-crunching gravel parking area. Limited hours, open only Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 5. No tasting fee.

Rating system goes from 1 grape (poor) to five (excellent) based on accessibility of vineyard, ambience, and of course the wines.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A visit to 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards

Are we there yet?
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Getting to 3 Horse Ranch is quite an adventure. Though you can take Chapparal Road from U.S. 16, I was coming from the west. Eagle Road starts out as a pleasant, tree-shaded suburban street, then turns into farmland. Then desert. Once it gets into the hills, the houses drop away, and it becomes the winding Willow Creek Road. Then the paved road ends, and the dirt road begins – and you feel like you're out in the the middle of freaking nowhere. When a vulture literally started circling overhead, I actually turned back before consulting the map again, and decided I’d come too far to stop now. After all, I’d only invested 40 minutes of my life and at least a gallon of gas. 

“This wine better be worth it,” I found myself muttering. But there, just after entering Gem County – another county! -- came the sign with an arrow beckoning me on: 3 Horse Ranch, straight ahead. But of course it wasn’t. The road wound and curved in a configuration that looked nothing like the map I’d been using. At the top of a hill, however, I looked down and spotted a most welcome sight: the orderly rows of what had to be vines in the midst of tumbleweed-strewn desert. And -- yes! -- three horses munching contentedly on grass in a fenced-in pasture.

A welcome sign at 3 Horse
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I turned left at Pearl Road. A Mercedes kicked up dust coming the other way, and I knew I was on the right track. Pulling in next to a small house, I saw a chalkboard sign that read: Tasting today.
Inside, the room is set up in what looks like Martha Cunningham’s cozy yellow kitchen – if a kitchen were decorated with wine bottles, that is. Some visitors from Ohio sat at the counter contentedly downing bread and cheese as they tasted wines, and Tess, a lovably non-threatening dog, came over and gave my ankles the sniff of approval. Though it was a warm day, fans kept the air circulating pretty well, as Martha Cunningham, looking like she had just come in from working the land in her homey straw hat, manned the counter.

Martha gave me some generous pours of the vineyard’s 2010 Reserve Rose, 2009 Estate Chardonnay and 2008 Cabernet. I can report that all justified the dusty ride to get to the farmhouse, as well as the $5 tasting fee. And trust me, I was prepared to be a rather harsh critic.

Martha Cunningham in her tasting room
Photo by Meg McKenzie
It turned out that I had walked in on a high-level purchase of an assorted case of wine, so I gave them some privacy, and strolled around the quaint, farmy tasting room, munching on sourdough bread and cheese before leaving to make the long ride back into town.

A few weeks later, I stopped by 3 Horse’s booth at the Capitol City Market, manned by Jeff Herman, who was extremely polite, charming (and quite easy on the eyes). In addition to some pours that ratified my positive feelings toward the wine, he gave me some basic facts: The vineyard was planted in 2003. First pressing was in 2008. When Gary and Martha came from California and bought it, it was a horse ranch. They have 40 acres planted with 12 different varieties of grapes. Their winemaker is Greg Koenig, a name I’ve been hearing a lot in my travels around the Snake River AVA, since he also turns out award-winning wines for Williamson and his own winery.
3 Horse's Jeff Herman
Photo by Meg McKenzie

Owners: Gary and Martha Cunningham
Winemaker: Greg Koenig

3 Horse Ranch Vineyard
5900 Pearl Road
Eagle, ID 83616
(208) 722-4025,

☻☻☻☻ - 3 Horse Ranch makes organic, award-winning wine. The experience feels authentic, like going to the Rhone Valley, even if it feels like you’ve just driven all the way to France. But the vineyard also has a booth at Capitol City Market in downtown Boise each Saturday. In addition, 3 Horse wines are available at Costco, Fred Meyer and Albertsons. The Eagle tasting room is open Wed-Sun, 11-6. There is a $5 tasting fee (aw, c'mon!) that is applied to the purchase of a bottle, with prices ranging from about $14 to about $25, with end-of-vintage deals on some cases.

My ratings go from 1 grape (poor) to 5 grapes (excellent) and are based on my overall experience at the winery, the ambience and, of course, the wines.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A visit to Woodriver Cellars

Woodriver's tasting room on Rte 16
Photo by Meg McKenzie
The tasting room is conveniently located on Route 16, the road between Emmett and Boise. Coming from the south, I thought the production building was the tasting room. After blundering around, I was saved by a vineyard employee who pointed me to a fancy building that was delightfully air-conditioned on a hot July day. A U-shaped bar wraps around a huge flat-screen tuned to the Food Network, and a paneled corking room. The view is of a rose garden, bocce court and big tent set up for a wedding.

Ryan, my pourer,
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Ryan was new on the job but was pleasant and quite knowledgeable about the wines. He told me all the grapes used in the wines are from a 30-acre vineyard in Wilder, plus 6 acres the head winemaker, Neil Glancey, owns near Glenn's Ferry; that the wines are aged in French oak barrels; and they are sold in local wine stores and available at some area restaurants. Unfortunately, although I was the only guest in the tasting room, Ryan's attention was divided between me and the demands of his manager, who was tutoring him on learning a task at the cash register. Then a guy and his kids came in to pick up a case of the sweet white the wife had ordered at the Capitol City Market the weekend before – and my fifth choice from the "5 tastes for $5" list went unchosen as Ryan set about locating and prepping the case.

My picks? Being more of a dry girl, I detoured away from the sweet pink and white. I tried the 2009 Chardonnay, the Meritage -- a new release the winery was preparing to celebrate the following weekend with bocce ball, appetizers, 20 percent off the new wine and a raffle -- the Blue Franc and the Cab Franc. The Meritage is a blend of 30 percent Cabernet, 30 percent Merlot, 30 percent Malbec and 10 percent Cab Franc. Of the wines I tried, the 2008 Cabernet Franc was by far my favorite, though the fact that all of the wines were served room temperature didn’t help their cause.
Rod De Armond in Boise
Photo by Meg McKenzie
On a recent Saturday, I also visited Woodriver’s booth at the Capitol City Market. There, sales director Rod De Armond, joined by winemaker Neil Glancey's dad, poured some sips of the sweet pink and white. He told me the vineyard used to be known as Eagle Knoll and that new owner Dave Buich bought it in 2006.

Woodriver Cellars
3705 N. Highway 16
Eagle ID 83616
(208) 286-9463

☻☻☻ - Woodriver picks up points for having an easily accessible tasting room and for being at Capitol City Market in downtown Boise each Saturday. There’s a $5 tasting fee at the winery. Prices range from $9 a bottle for the Sweet White to $30 a bottle for the Sparkling Chardonnay (which they were not offering the day of my visit)
My tasting room scale? From 1 grape (poor) to 5 grapes (excellent) based on accessibility, ambiance, my overall experience and, of course, the wines. 

Owner: Dave Buich
Winemaker: Neil Glancey
Sales Manager: Rod De Armond

Monday, July 11, 2011

A visit to Williamson Vineyards

Williamson is unique in the AVA, in that it grows grapes for its own wines but also supplies them to 11 other wineries, in addition to growing cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, nectarines and apples. Though they have hundreds of acres of orchards, 42 acres are devoted just to grapes:Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese (Italian, used for Chianti), Mourvedres (a red grape used in blending, mainly in Australia and New Zealand), Petite Syrah, Riesling and Viognier.

When I visited, I chatted with tasting room manager Beverly Williamson. Friendly, candid and down-to-earth, she was very generous with her time.
Beverly Williamson, co-owner of Williamson Vineyards.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
"Idaho," she said, "became known for Riesling, a varietal from the Rhone Valley, because the wine industry grew up in the Seventies, when that was a popular wine. The new favorite is Viognier, for which the Snake River AVA has the perfect growing temperatures. I would call it 'the new Chardonnay.' Skyline also grows it, as do the Koenigs and us."
According to Beverly, the member wineries of the Snake River AVA (which was approved only in 2007, work together, sometimes even trading grapes and services. The Williamsons own one of the few grape harvesters in the region, and the Koenigs one of the few de-stemmers and crushers.

Entrance to the tasting room.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Beverly explained that one reason Idaho wines may be relatively unknown is because of the taxes and fees that other states charge, starting in the 1990s, to sell wine there. The hardest states to crack? Kentucky (the bourbon lobby) and New Jersey, for some imaginable reason. She said Williamson has been trying to sneak into the Ketchum/Sun Valley area, and has had some success in the Coeur D’Alene/Sandpoint lake district 400 miles to the north.
In addition to making and selling wine, the Williamsons broker their fruit all over the world. One surprising customer is in Thailand: The white-flesh peaches are popular there during their local moon festival -- "I guess because they look like moons," Beverly said.
An Idaho tradition
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Beverly is a fourth-generation Williamson. She graduated from the University of Idaho with a marketing and graphic arts degree and designed the labels. Her brother Mike went to horticulture school and manages the vineyard.

Of the wines I tasted at Williamson, the 2009 Viognier ($15 a bottle) was my favorite.
Williamson Orchards & Vineyards
19692 Williamson Lane, Caldwell, ID 83607
(208) 459-7333

Owners: Roger, John, Mike, Beverly Williamson
Winemaker: Greg Koenig

☻☻☻☻☻ Points for a nice wine-tasting experience, the good wine, the winery's accessibility (right off Route 55 (Sunny Slope Road, going toward Marsing) and its plentiful hours. No tasting fee. Gently priced wines. Closed Sunday, open pretty much every other day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (till 4 p.m. on Saturday). Visiting Williamson’s is literally like going down on the farm – the look is rustic, turn-of-the-century barnyard, and you have to dodge Lexuses coming at you on the one-lane road to the tasting room/fruit stand. But it’s definitely worth a visit. Located in a narrow space inside an actual working barn (watch out for that forklift!) and across from the tree-shaded produce stand, the tasting room is nevertheless cool and comfortable with high-top tables, a granite pouring bar and soothing green-painted walls. If you’re lucky, the manager, Beverly, will be there.   
My ratings are on a scale of one grape (poor) to five grapes (excellent) and based on my overall experience, the winery's accessibility and the wines.

Here's to you!

Ste. Chapelle Vineyards
Photo by Meg McKenzie
A barrel at Fraser Winery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Idaho Wine Girl is a new blog devoted to the vineyards and winemakers of the Snake River AVA in the southwest corner of the 43rd state.

I'm no sommelier, snooty "connoisseur" or Roberta Parker Jr. -- just a writer and wine aficionado who knows a good thing when she sees one! And, judging by the hundreds of wine blogs, newsletters and even iPod apps, I'm not alone in my appreciation of the grape.

Unlike some other wine bloggers, however, I'm not affiliated with any business, shop, distributor, organization or agenda other than to highlight some great people and products of the (quite under-appreciated, I think) Idaho wine country. There are numerous awesome vineyards and tasting rooms here, very different from their brethren in Walla Walla, Yakima and other neighboring AVAs, but just as good -- and the product they are putting out is, on the whole, outstanding. Full disclosure: I do accept ads on my blog, since I have a kid in college and bills to pay, but I am in no way beholden to any special interests.

A pour of the good stuff, at Koenig
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Along with promoting Idaho winemakers, my goal is also to provide the wine aficionado with an honest appraisal of my (unannounced) visits to the tasting rooms of Idaho, and give you an idea of whether it might be worth your time. My unofficial rating system --☻☻☻☻☻-- is from one grape (poor) to five (excellent) based on accessibility (hours from your home/hotel room, or just around the block?), ambiance (the Walmart of wineries or a cozy vineyard setting?), my overall experience (warm and welcoming, or cold and cynical?) and, of course, the little stars of the show, the wines themselves (and trust me, they run the gamut).

So far, I've visited more than a local dozen wineries, plus shops and wine bars, and am posting my impressions on almost a daily basis, with some award-winning photos, too!

I'll also be posting local wine events as they come along. (If you know of any, please email me at, and share any comments, too! I'd love to hear from you!)

So ... cheers! And welcome!

Meg McKenzie
Boise, Idaho
July 2011