Saturday, August 27, 2011

A visit to Terra Nativa Vineyards

When I first entered the Nativa Terra subdivision in the East End of Boise, and rounded the bend of the cul de sac, I almost couldn't believe my eyes. There, nestled in the Foothills, surrounded by pricey haciendas that anywhere else in the country would be locked away in a gated community, was the sweetest-looking little vineyard you'd ever hope to find. Protected behind deer screens were straight rows of grapes marching along the hillside, their tendrils glistening in the sun.

A vineyard in a subdivision - who would have guessed?
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I had pre-arranged to meet vineyard owner/winemaker (and developer/landscape architect, in his "real" job) Richard Pavelek, but as I entered the vineyard, there was no sign of him. But then I passed a row and saw evidence of pruning. There was Richard with another guy cutting back a section of Merlot grapes that had unfortunately suffered frost damage during the previous winter.

With his polo shirt, ruggedly handsome sun-tanned face and silvery hair, Richard looked like someone you'd be more apt to find modeling suits in a Dillards catalog than digging the dirt. But I quickly found he's very serious and quite knowledgeable about growing grapes and making wine. On only a few acres of the high-altitude land (at about 3,000 feet above sea level) not far from iconic Table Rock, which his father and father-in-law acquired back in the 1960s, Richard says he can produce about 800-900 cases of wine a year, "which is a pretty good yield for a vineyard this size."

Terra Nativa Vineyard owner Richard Pavelek
Photo by Meg McKenzie
With the help of respected Caldwell winemaker Cheyne Weston, Richard has been producing his boutique wines for the past five or so years. He grows only red grapes -- a lot of Cabernet, Cab Franc, Merlot, a little Syrah and a little Malbec -- and has a finishing cellar full of oak barrels in Meridian. He prefers a more organic wine and doesn't use a lot of sulfites, he said.

Growing up in Oregon, where his father and uncle dabbled in small-batch winemaking, it took Richard awhile, after moving here in 1999, to realize that the hillside below his house would be perfect for growing grapes since for many years it was simply used as grazing land. He had an epiphany one day staring at a random pear tree in the midst of the fields. Finding out there had been orchards there at one time, he discovered that the clay soil could produce some grapes of very intense flavor.
Giving the wine a timeout
Photo by Meg McKenzie

And so it does. Opening a bottle of 2006 Terra Nativa Cabernet Franc, I was bowled over by the aggressiveness of this deep-red wine. This is a grape that is used for blending in many Bordeaux wines, and with good reason. There's a lot of grape there. So I corked it back up and put it in the refrigerator for a little time out. A day later, when I uncorked the bottle and tried another taste, I couldn't believe my taste buds. This Cab Franc was fantastic! The nuances ... the mouth feel ... the plummy, jammy shoe-leather tannins had all conspired to seduce me. I was sorry when the bottle was finished.

This magic of oxygenation, which other winemakers had described to me, was a lesson that I won't soon forget. Moral of the story: Never give up on a wine; with decanting and resting, it might become your lost soulmate. Like Richard Pavelek's 2006 Terra Nativa Cabernet Franc.

Terra Nativa Vineyards
100 N. Bene Posto
Boise, ID
(208) 345-2421;

A view of the vineyards as you enter the subdivision
Photo by Meg McKenzie
☻☻☻ Terra Nativa doesn't keep regular hours, but I'll bet if you give Richard Pavelek a call, he'll be happy to show you around and sell you a bottle of his estate wine. His vineyard, in the eastern Foothills of Boise, is the last stop on the Boise Party Bus Tour, which also visits the Periple, Cinder and Fraser wineries in Boise. His 2006 Cabernet Franc is a brazen hussy of a wine -- temperamental and gorgeous, but if you give her a few hours (or better yet, a day in the refrigerator, recorked) to settle down, she'll deliver more than you ever expected. As for the tasting room? What tasting room? We walked up to Richard's million-dollar home to fetch a bottle of wine, but there was no nickel tour, other than of the vineyards. (Maybe it's in his garage.)

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

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A visit to Thousand Springs Winery

Welcome to Thousand Springs Winery in Hagerman
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Attention, wine lovers: Vineyard for sale! (Included: 10 acres plus winery and awesome house with boat dock on the Snake River.) Paul Monahan, the ER physician who started Thousand Springs Winery a decade ago, wants out. He's had it, up to here, with the wine industry. You can see it in his tired face. You can hear it in his flat voice. The good news is: You can't taste it in his beautiful 2008 Chardonnay. (So get it before it's gone because he's not making anymore).

Thousand Springs Winery is in the village of Hagerman just east of Glenns Ferry. You have to make an appointment to visit, and Paul is very good with directions, so I'll spare you the details of getting there. Let's just say, it's ridiculously easy from I-84, and gosh darn scenic, too (especially if you like waterfalls spilling over cliffs into a wide, lazy river).

The gates (and vineyard)
Photo by Meg McKenzie
After going through the decorative iron gates (and gaping at the for-sale sign attached to the winery sign), I parked, and Paul came zipping up on an ATV. He let me into the cool, attractive tasting room, which has sort of a Southwestern by way of Provence and Tuscany sort of vibe, and we chatted as he set up some bottles for tasting.

Sadly, Paul had lost his Syrah crop to the great freeze of 2011, and he was all sold out of his luscious-sounding Merlot (though the Boise Coop and area wine shops may still have some), but he did offer me tastes of his dry rose and Chardonnay. As you may have read elsewhere on my blog, although dry wine is my preference, I have a problem with dry rose, as my taste buds automatically get set up for that sweet Zinfandel assault. I'm sure the dry rose is very good, but like Tempranillo, it's just not my thing.

Winemaker/owner Paul Monahan
Photo by Meg McKenzie
But Paul's Chard (which, a little bird told me, was tweaked by wine consultant extraordinaire Melanie Krause of Boise's Cinder) is seriously wonderful -- soulful, mellow, full of expensive notes that the cheap Chards from Columbia Valley just don't bring. He said his '06 Chard won gold at the Idaho Wine Festival, and it was easy to see why.

So, visiting Paul (who flies to work in ERs around the country in his own plane, by the way) turned out to be the ultimate personal winemaker experience -- one on one. He's a little dry (just like his rose!), but that's just the way you'd want a doctor who's about to stitch you up to be, now wouldn't you?

P.S. If the thought of owning Thousand Springs Winery and its assorted amenities tempts you, please email Realtor Mark Bolduc at I spoke with him, and he said Paul is a very motivated seller, and that the property is, indeed, amazing. Just like the Chardonnay. (If you're interested, or just curious, take a virtual tour by going to and navigate to the featured listings. Paul's is about the fifth one down. There's a slide show and video, the whole nine yards.)
Winery for sale! (Along with house on 10 acres)
Photo by Meg McKenzie

 Thousand Springs Winery
18854 U.S. Highway 30
Hagerman, ID 83332
(208) 837-4557 or (208) 420-2198,

Owner/winemaker: Paul Monahan

☻☻☻ If you're making the Eastern Idaho wine circuit (Carmela, Holesinsky, Cold Springs, Snyder, etc.), Thousand Springs is a pleasant sojourn off the expressway. Owner Paul Monahan is getting out of the wine biz, and selling off his property and his wines, so don't expect an upbeat experience. DO expect some excellent (!) wine at a good price. And a snapshot into the life of one more unique Idaho winemaker. Quick! Before he's gone!

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

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Coming Up: A Special Wine Weekend

I am departing from my normal reviews of Idaho wineries to write about two upcoming (amazing-sounding) events that will be happening on the same weekend -- one on Friday, Sept. 16, and one on Saturday, Sept. 17, so if you have the time, the money and the stamina, you could go to both! (Wish I could, but I have to work at my other, non-Idaho Wine Girl-related job to pay the rent).

 An Evening On the Bayou

The interior of Snyder Winery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
The first event, on Friday the 16th, is called "An Evening On The Bayou," and no, it isn't in the Big Easy. It's at the (gorgeous) Snyder Winery in Buhl, and (for whatever reason) from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., the winery is hosting a celebration of Cajun cuisine, music and dancing. The menu will include fresh seafood (prawns, oysters, crawfish, clams and mussels) and traditional Cajun delicacies like jambalaya and andouille sausage, as well as a Creole dessert buffet). There will be Zydeco music and dancing by the fire pit, and of course some new wine releases from the winery, including their Soft Merlot.
Snyder's Winery in Buhl
Photo by Meg Mckenzie

Tickets are $45, and you can get them by calling Russ and Claudia Snyder at (208) 543-6938. The winery is located at 4060 N. 1200 E., in Buhl. (Go to for more info, such as directions). I just visited Snyder, along with some other Twin Falls area wineries. Look for my review to be posted within the next several weeks, but in the meantime, I can attest to the quality of their wines -- and the loveliness of their site.

Eagle Food & Wine Festival
The other event, on Saturday, the 17th, is the Eagle Food & Wine Festival. Now in its fifth year, it will be held at the BanBury Golf Club off of Eagle Road between Chinden Boulevard and State Street (just northwest of Boise), and will feature a whole bunch of Idaho wines, which will be paired with tastes from different area restaurants.

Mary May, the chairwoman of the event, has put a great deal of effort into selecting just the right food-and-drink combinations, and there will be live jazz from Alone Together, so it should be a lot of fun. The fest takes place Saturday, Sept. 17, from 6 to 9 p.m.

Tickets are $40 and available at BanBury, Syringa Winery, The Porterhouse Restaurant, and at 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards. A portion of the proceeds will go to the Eagle Food Bank and Idaho Domestic Bird Rescue & Sanctuary.

The invited wineries are: 3 Horse Ranch, Cold Springs Winery, Fraser Vineyard, Huston Vineyards, Indian Creek Winery, Periple, Syringa Winery, Vale Wine Co., Williamson Orchards & Vineyards and Wood River Cellars.

The restaurants include Bardenay, Bella Aquila, Ono Hawaiian Cafe, The Porterhouse, Murphy's, River Rock and Willowcreek Grill. For tickets and info, go to

Monday, August 22, 2011

A visit to Parma Ridge Vineyards

Winemaker Dick Dickstein
Photo by Meg McKenzie
If Caldwell, with its family farms, historic little downtown and cluster of small vineyards is the pastoral face of Canyon County, you might say Parma, where Dick Dickstein's hilltop winery happens to be located, is at the "business end." Because State Road 19 (alias Simplot Boulevard) is basically a charmless stretch of cement factories and potato processing plants, broken up by a couple of railroad crossings and teeny little whistle stops like Greenleaf and Wilder.

As I neared Parma from the east, I began noticing some strange-looking vine crops (and they weren't grapes). After turning right on State Road 95 and exiting to the right off Bluff Lane, I found Rudd Road, and some signage, which led me to Parma Ridge Vineyard.

When I got there, I found Dick examining his grapevines, as a team of laborers worked industriously to groom them. After we got inside his winery, I asked him about the strange crops I'd seen as I entered Parma. What were they? "Hops," he told me. At which I had to laugh, at the idea of wine and beer crops coexisting out in the hinterlands of Idaho. (Which didn't surprise me, actually, since Boise is becoming well-known as a hotbed of world-class craft breweries.)

Driving up Rudd Road to Parma Ridge
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Dick took me on a tour of his winemaking facilities -- stainless and poly tanks in one building, and oak casks in another. A short, compact guy, he filled me in on his past life as an American Airlines pilot for 32 years. A native of Burbank, Calif., he said he'd nurtured a dream of owning a vineyard for many decades, but it wasn't until he and his wife (who's from Walla Walla, Wash., another burgeoning wine region) came to Canyon County for a wedding that they seized the opportunity to make that dream a reality. They now own about 9 acres in Parma, adding to the original 3 acres they bought in 1998.

At first Dick started out growing grapes for neighboring wine giant Ste. Chapelle, but then he got the itch to make his own wines. His first vintage was in 2001, and he now grows eight different varieties of grapes. It's a small production vineyard, normally producing about 1,500 cases a year (that's 18,000 750ml bottles).  Dick's fertile imagination has also been at work creating some ingenious half-size bottles that are cute little versions of the full size, corks and all. He wants to market them to restaurants so that couples who are split between red and white won't have to commit to a full bottle of either.

Welcome to the winery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
The winery is open mainly by appointment, but if you do make the call, you get to meet the winemaker himself. He does an open house the third week in April to introduce new wines, and also has a pre-harvest sale at the end of September. But if you can't make it out to Parma, Dick's delicious wines are available at area wine shops like the Boise Coop, and Erickson's and A New Vintage in Eagle.

Did you notice I said Dick's wines are delicious? They certainly are -- at least the ones I tried, which included his Merlot, his Gewurtraminer and his unoaked Chardonnay (which he bottles under the Mills Run label). Don't let his rather plain-looking labels (at least on the older vintages) put you off. Make the call (and the drive). You will be glad you did.

Mini-bottles of wine in a four-pack
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Parma Ridge Vineyards
24509 Rudd Road, Parma ID 83660
(208) 722-6885;

Owner/winemaker: Dick Dickstein

☻☻☻☻ You can get to Parma either via I-84, or by getting off the expressway at Caldwell and taking Simplot Boulevard (which cuts about 20 minutes off the journey). If you're in the area, or are in the mood for a drive, it's definitely worth a visit. Winemaker/grower Dick Dickstein is innately charming (don't let the gruff exterior fool you -- when he smiles, his whole face lights up) and has been at this wine thing a long time. His tasting room is exquisitely cool in the heat of summer (it's set 55 degrees year-round). And his wines are uniformly good.

Note: My ratings go from one grape (poor) to five (excellent) and are based on accessibility, ambiance, overall experiene and, of course, the wines

Monday, August 15, 2011

A visit to Koenig Vineyards

Koenig has a lot going for it. For one thing, the location is right across from Lowell (read Ste. Chapelle) Road on Route 55 in Caldwell. That means that when the concert is over on Sunday afternoon, the vineyard/distillery about a half-mile away down Grape Lane is where a lot of thirsty Idahoans head, since the tasting room is open until 5 p.m. on weekends, and guess what, gang: No tasting fee!
I really enjoyed the short ride past actual farms and the Snake River, up a little hill and past peach and apricot trees with ripe fruit hanging off them to the tasting room/distillery. The building itself is a big, boxy rectangle with a little balcony hanging off the second floor and some grape processing equipment down front. There’s a big circular parking lot with usually a half-dozen visitors’ cars parked there and a picturesque stack of fruit crates in the background. And that’s about it.

The distillery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
But inside is a different story. There’s a cool little ante-room at the bottom of the curving staircase, with a view of the crazy-genius-looking copper distillery for the potato vodka the Koenig brothers produce along with their wines. But you’re here for the vino, so up, up the steps you climb toward the sound of laughter that greets you in the second-floor tasting room. 

OK, so it looks like every other tasting room you’ve visited in Canyon County: the bottles adorned with medals, the shelves of wine, books about wine, glassware and logo-adorned clothing, at 30 percent off. But Koenig has several amenities that gives their tasting room a leg up. There’s that little table off to the side, with Carr’s crackers and a chunk of Jarlsberg cheese: Help yourself and munch between tastes. It really does clear the palate, and with that lineup of reds waiting for you, it can help you distinguish between the Merlot and the CSPV (Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot blend). 

Belly up to the bar -- don't be shy!
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Then there are the gals who pour the wines – pleasantly, eagerly, without fuss, able to talk knowledgeably about the wines, but also to shoot the shit with patrons in a friendly way. Kelly and Caroline were there one afternoon. I got to swap stories about children with Caroline, who moved here from England with her husband, an American.

The last thing is that lineup of bottles. There are at least eight different wines to sample. I started with the Viognier – light and fruity, a real crowd-pleaser. Then I switched to the reds: the Sangiovese – what Americans used to know as Chianti. Koenig’s was dry, really dry. I moved on to the CSPV, which had a great nose, but was also a little dry for me, flavorwise. After some crackers and cheese, I moved on to the Merlot, which was smooth, high-alcohol and pretty good. 

Exterior of the tasting room
Photo by Meg McKenzie
But something was missing. You guessed it: the winemaker. Greg Koenig – who also makes wines for his neighbors, the Bitners. “Does he ever show up in his tasting room?” I asked Caroline, who shook her head and volunteered that she herself had only seen the maestro once. Dang it! Making my way down the winding staircase, I reflected once again how much an AWOL owner subtracts  from the vineyard experience. Not that chatting with Caroline and enjoying a free smorgasbord of wine wasn’t awesome. But I guess I would liken it to going to a dinner party without a host. You feel kind of cheated.

Koenig Vineyards
20928 Grape Lane
Caldwell, ID 83607

Owners: The Koenig brothers
Winemaker: Greg Koenig

Cheese and crackers, baby not included
Photo by Meg McKenzie
☻☻☻☻ The Koenig tasting room, which I've visited a couple times, is light and airy with a convivial atmosphere. There always seems to be folks standing around chatting and swirling their wineglasses. It's located conveniently off Sunny Slope, and is open Friday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. There's no tasting fee, and a lineup of wines that includes sparkling vintages and cordials. But the busy winemaker doesn't have time to hang out at his winery. Bummer.

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

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A visit to Indian Creek Winery

The Stowe family's vineyard is one of the oldest in Canyon County, after Ste. Chapelle and Hell's Canyon, going all the way back to 1982. Tucked away in Kuna a bit east of the Sunny Slope wine trail, it's actually one of the closest established vineyards to downtown Boise (take the Meridian Road exit (Exit 44) off I-84, and then find your way south to the corner of McDermott and Avalon Road).

The entrance to Indian Creek is hard to miss!
Photo by Meg McKenzie

But don't go looking for a giant temple of the vine, such as you might find at Ste. Chapelle (which has grown from its humble beginnings in 1979 and is now owned by the gigundo California Ascentia Wine Estates and pumps out hundreds of thousands of cases a year). No, Bill and Mui Stowe's Indian Creek is more on the intimate, hitch-up-a-chair-and-pour-a-glass type of place. And it's now run day-to-day by their daughter Tammy and son-in-law Mike.

In fact, after locating the two signs that point you to Indian Creek (one's old and time-worn, the other new and creative), I felt like I had just pulled in to an old friend's driveway. The building itself is a no-frills shed-type structure. But some folks were enjoying the bucolic setting at a picnic table to the west of the winery as I strolled around searching for the elusive entrance to the tasting room. Luckily, a mind-reading black puppy led me straight to the cutely decorated green door on the side of the building.

Mike McClure mans the down-home tasting room
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Inside, I was greeted with a friendly smile by winemaker/official son-in-law Mike McClure, who was hosting some customers and/or old friends at the bar. I'm telling you, it's hard to make the distinction here. Very low-key and nice. The cozy tasting room itself was the usual mix of product displays, wine bottles bearing their red-white-and-blue ribbons and wine competition medals, and the bar.

But Indian Creek distinguishes itself from the rest of the Snake River AVA pack by producing one of the few Pinot Noirs to come out of the region, as well as whites like Riesling, Chardonnay and Viognier (which took gold at the 2010 Northwest Wine Summit), a rose and small batches of Merlot, Cabernet and even a Port. And in my travels around Boise I've found quite a slew of restaurants and wine bars actively pushing Indian Creek wines. Cool!

I tried some of their yummy white Pinot Noir (which actually looks like a rose and drinks like a white Zin). It was fruity and refreshing, and would go perfectly with barbecue or spicy food like tacos.

Just before I left, Tammy Stowe-McClure came in, and visited. She was very perky, nice, and like her husband, down to earth.

The funky entrance to the tasting room
Photo by Meg McKenzie
As my new dog friend led me back out to my car, I assessed my impressions. They were distinctly warm and nurturing -- yes, Indian Creek gives off kind of a lost-decade, bell-bottom, fringe suede hippie vibe. But hey, what's wrong with that? Good wine, good friends, good karma.

Indian Creek Winery
1000 N. McDermott Road
Kuna, ID 83634
(208) 922-4791;

Owners: The Stowe Family
Winemaker: Mike McClure

☻☻☻ Indian Creek is not hard to find and has a friendly, low-key atmosphere. It's nice to see one of the original wine-making families in Caldwell County still cranking out damn drinkable vintages. The grounds are tree-shaded and attractive, and the tasting room welcoming. The wines are good, too. Plus: No tasting fee! Open weekends from noon to 5 p.m. 

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

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Visit to Bitner Vineyards

The Bitners' terrace
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Bitner Vineyards has the loveliest setting in Canyon County. Period. Every time I come over that hill on Plum Road (and I’ve done so several times on my way to various other wineries in Caldwell, such as Koenig and Huston), and look over at the Bitners’ winery and patio perched on the sun-drenched hillside with their acres of grapes marching in neat rows below, I’m, like, ahhhhhhhh.

I responded as well to their unprepossessing signage and the leisurely drive up that amazing hill, among the vines, up, up, up to the winery. It’s something, I feel, that every winemaker would give his or her left arm for. Though, of course, the experience ultimately depends on what awaits at the top of the hill.

Ron Bitner, right, with Walt Varnes and Silvia Marroquin
Photo by Meg McKenzie
In this case, I was anxiously hoping vineyard owners Ron and Mary Bitner would be there. At various vineyards the previous week, I kept hearing that the world-traveling Bitners were out of town, visiting vineyards in Spain, so I was taking a risk that they would be there. (Is it just me, or does a missing winemaker remove a big part of the equation, especially when visiting a small, boutique winery?)

Pulling into the shaded parking area next to the tasting room, I spied a tired-looking man watering the flowers in the garden. Acting on a hunch, I asked, “Mr. Bitner?” It was! He greeted me warmly, if a little wanly, volunteering that he and his wife had just got back from Spain. I know! I wanted to shout. I also knew from his website that he's an entomologist (bug scientist) by trade, has been growing grapes for 30 years and has been enthusiastically pushing the Idaho wine industry for the past 10 -- he even testified before Congress!

Mary Bitner, at the winery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I eagerly took him up on his invitation to check out the tasting room and some of the Bitner/Koenig offerings (the Bitners grow the grapes while winemaker/neighbor Greg Koenig crafts the vintages). Though the view from their terrace was sublime, it was a brutally hot afternoon, so the cool confines of the tasting room suited me just fine. Behind the wooden bar, pourers Walt Varnes and Silvia Marroquin were pleasant and knowledgeable -- Walt even showed me how to "chew" the wine as you taste it, though he admitted that you make some pretty weird faces (and noises) doing so. Silvia urged me to try Mary's new addition to the Bitner lineup, the 2008 Menopause Merlot, but I guess I couldn't get past the name. But I liked the Bitners' Cabernet very much (their 2005 vintage got a gold medal at the 2008 Idaho Wine Festival) and enjoyed the pleasant, low-key companionship of the two amiable pourers. As I was leaving, I met the sweet-faced Mary, who also runs a bed-and-breakfast property, and although she grimaced ("I haven't had a chance to get my hair done since I got back!") she graciously consented to having her picture taken.

The winery is at the top of the hill.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Bitner Vineyards
16645 Plum Road

Caldwell, ID 83607
(208) 455-1870,

Owners: Ronnie and Mary Bitner
Winemaker: Greg Koenig

☻☻☻ That view! OMG, even if the wines tasted like vinegar (which they definitely do not), I think I'd still award the Bitners five grapes just because their winery looks exactly as you would want a winery to look. But their wines were uniformly good. And the hilltop paradise is easy to find and get to (just turn left down Plum Road, heading west on Homedale). The winery is comfortable and cute. And though tired from a recent journey abroad, the owners were present and accounted for when I visited -- and gracious, to boot. No tasting fee. Open Friday-Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

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


Saturday, August 6, 2011

A visit to St. Rule winery

St. Rule's tasting room is off the beaten track in Weiser
Photo by Meg McKenzie
St Rule … St. Regulus … Seventh Son … Fiddlers Three … I look at the variety of labels on the bottles lined up on the bar in Judy Rule’s compact but comfortable tasting room far off the beaten track in Weiser, and wonder which wine I should try, as Judy’s corkscrew hovers nearby. 

I decide to go with this year’s model, a 2009 Syrah with an impressive-looking neo-Gothic St. Rule winery label. It’s a great choice, it turns out. Fruity, bold, with some kick to it … in fact, I might even go so far as to say it's the best Syrah I’ve ever had. Not that I've had that many: It’s a varietal that has always struck me as the shy half-sister to the big, deep Cabernet. In less-assured hands, it’s a grape that, dare I say, seems almost weeny. But this wine, I love. 

The Rules – Judy and husband, Dave, have run the winery in Weiser, a good hour’s drive northwest of Boise, for the past three years – don’t grow their own grapes, though St. Rule sits in the middle of farming country. Instead, they use the time-tested product of the Snake River vineyards of Caldwell and Nampa. And they don’t use oak barrels. As Judy generously shows me around their property, I stare at the  huge, white, cylindrical objects. What are they? 

Judy Rule with her lineup of wines
Photo by Meg McKenzie
  “These are our patented fermenters,” Judy tells me. As we pass through the enormous shed, several workers are retrofitting a tank for a customer. Judy seems more relaxed showing me the molds, the tanks and various machines they use in their business, than she had in the tasting room. Like most winemakers in southwestern Idaho, the Rules have a second -- "real" -- job. Creating the stainless/polyethylene tanks with patented refrigeration process in the plant behind the tiny tasting room pay the bills that the wines don't. And chances are, if you drop in unannounced -- or even if you call ahead -- you'll find a handwritten note on the door telling you to call Judy "and I'll be there in 2 minutes." In fact, she was there in under one. But don't expect to drop by on a weekend. Judy's only nearby when St. Regulus Fermenting is open during the week.

Exterior of the tasting room
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Another problem is the lack of signage. Though the Rules are less than a mile off U.S. 95, the main north-south highway in Idaho, regulations don't let them erect a sign unless it's on their own land, Judy says. In addition, the map provided by the Idaho Wine Commission has you getting off at the wrong exit,
leading you on a time-consuming detour through the farms of Payette and Fruitland. Judy talks about putting up sandwich boards out by the highway, "but the county keeps removing them."

And about all those labels? Judy said that the Fiddlers one was created to sell wines at the big bluegrass fiddle festival that basically put Weiser on the map. The St. Regulus one was an early, homemade effort that effectively kept the Rules' wine off state liquor store shelves -- "I guess they thought it didn't look professional enough," Judy says. 7th Son was a collaboration with a local winemaker who went out of business. And the St. Rule label occurred just as the Rules were preparing to sell the winery -- a sale that fell through at the last minute. 

It's something you can tell knocked the wind out of Judy and Dave Rule's sails. Asked if her wines are available elsewhere, Judy says she's not sure. It's a shame. At $16 a bottle, that big, earthy Syrah is a revelation.
St. Rule Winery
407 River Dock Road
Weiser, ID 83672

(208) 549-8040, (208) 739-0231

Just look for the big white tanks
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Owners: Judy and Dave Rule
Winemaker: Dave Rule
☻☻☻☻  It's a long haul to get to Weiser from Boise (about an hour), but since the St. Rule winery is right off U.S. 95, it's convenient if you're coming back from parts north. Just remember to take a right off Airport Road (going south), because there isn't a sign to guide you, thanks to weird federal laws, apparently. The tasting room is tiny with zero atmosphere, but is nice and cool thanks to a cranking air-conditioner, and Judy Rule is a sweetheart, enthusiastically opening bottles for you to try. The wines are good, too. Open Monday-Friday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Ratings are based on one grape for poor to five (excellent), and are awarded for accessibility, ambiance, overall experience and of course, the wines.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

A visit to Cinder

Welcome to Cinder
Photo by Meg McKenzie
I was pumped about visiting Cinder. Despite its somewhat off-putting name, I had heard many tales of wonder about winemaker Melanie Krause, who makes award-winning wine for Huston Vineyards as well as her own label. I knew that she was a chemist and had been described as "very shy" but that her outgoing husband Joe had personality enough for two.

Naturally, according to the unwritten rules of my wine quest (so far), by the time I got to the unprepossessing warehouse off Chinden Boulevard, Cinder was closed. In fact, after driving around back to scope things out, I almost spent the night there, since a woman (Angie Reff from Periple, the adjacent winery at the front of the building, it turned out) was just locking the gates.

The following weekend I returned, just in time to see a big black party bus roll up. Great, I thought grouchily, not looking forward to an elbowing shoving match a la the ever-popular Ste. Chapelle tasting room. But luck (sort of) was on my side this time, as the party bussers trooped in to Periple first, leaving me with the lovely Cinder tasting room all to my little self.

Don't let the industrial vibe fool you.
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Let me say this: It's one of the most compelling tasting rooms I have ever been in. Beautifully and dramatically lit, it had a soaring ceiling and a concrete-y SoHo gallery kind of feel, but with rustic French oak barrels, wine racks and workers' galoshes lining the walls instead of avant-garde artwork. Two attractive, blonde pourer-people, Kristen Laurence and Adele Nyqvist, welcomed me with friendly smiles and talked knowledgeably about the various wines that Melanie had crafted. Alas, however, neither Melanie nor Joe was there, which bummed me out. But the delicious wine almost made up for it. I wasn't feeling the dry rose, but immediately warmed to the dry Viognier, which is aged in steel tanks, as opposed to the off-dry Viognier, which is aged in new French oak.

While I was tasting, we chatted. Melanie, Kristen told me, attended Washington State University and had worked at Ste. Michelle, the ne plus ultra winery of Washington state. I also tried her Cabernet Merlot blend, which has won a bunch of awards and was very good but up there in price (for poverty-stricken types like myself) at $27 a bottle.

Not the winemaker, but friendly pourer Kristen Laurence
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Next-door, I could hear the party bus people being herded out for their attack on Cinder, so Adele took the opportunity to show me around the wine-making room, which was enormous and very interesting. I felt like I was being taken backstage, which was a very nice feeling indeed.

107 E. 44th St.
Garden City, ID 83714; (208) 407-4347

Owners: Melanie Krause and Joe Schnerr
Winemaker: Melanie Krause

The party bus has arrived!
Photo by Meg McKenzie
☻☻☻☻- Located a stone's throw from downtown Boise, down a tree-lined lane (East 44th Street) just off the mishmash of commerce that is Garden City, Cinder Winery appears to be a shabby, weird warehouse on its face. But once you climb up the metal steps and step into the tasting room, it's like entering another world. Beautiful! Even though the winemaker was MIA, the pourers were so charming and affable, it almost made up for my disappointment. Plus the wines are really very good. No tasting fee. Open Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. (One grape deducted for absence of winemaker/owner and for having extremely limited hours; otherwise, it's a full-on five-grape experience).