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.


  1. Less than a month after this posting, Chuck Devlin is no longer the winemaker and General Manager of Ste. Chapelle Winery. He was fired on August 24, 2011, escorted from his office and banned from Ste Chapelle properties. The new winemaker is Maurine Johnson. Congrats to her, she deserves it.

  2. Thanks for the tip! I updated my posting to reflect Maurine's new status as head winemaker. I'm psyched to taste Ste. Chapelle's next release! And I urge all you Idaho grapeheads to come out the Ste. Chapelle vineyard noon-5 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11, for the big Festa grand finale party. It's sponsored by the wine commission, and all the Sunnyslope vintners will be there. Should be a load of fun (and great wine).

  3. Congratulations, indeed, Maurine...a mainstay at Ste. Chapelle for many years! How shocking, that a piece of hearsay from "Unknown" regarding Chuck Devlin's stepping away from the helm at Ste. Chapelle was published. Anyone who knows the Idaho wine scene knows that Chuck is an extremely talented winemaker, who was limited to making 'popular' wines because of corporate demands and changes in ownership. A very intelligent person...like many a winemaker, not always winner of the Mr. Personality contest (neither are some of his Idaho winemaker fellows, which I might say, were I as snarky as "Unknown").

  4. Children, children, let's play nice! I did call Ascentia, which confirmed the "rumor" that Mr. Devlin and the company had parted ways. Yes, he was no doubt forced to make popular (i.e., sweet) wines. I hope Ascentia rethinks its strategy in that direction. I wish Chuck Devlin all the best.

  5. Chuck Devlin is a passionate and talented wine maker and an asset to Idaho emerging wine industry. Idaho is a great secret in the wine world, because when anyone mentions Idaho, NO ONE thinks wine! When I was employed there, I saw him work closely with the University viticulture research and other wine makers to create quality products representative of Idaho's potential.
    The initial comments made about the his departure was not necessary. I am no longer an Idaho resident, but those comments is representative of some of the small-minded people that pollute Idaho's image. Trust me, Idaho is not that petty and small. ...and the wine is good!

    Maurine has been with the company for a long time has impeccable taste and is well aware of the 'taste' that appeals to the locals. I had a chance to work with Maurine and she will be a great winemaker. I wish her all the best.