Saturday, October 29, 2011

A visit to Hell's Canyon Winery

Jocelyn at Swallow's Wine Bar at Hell's Canyon Winery
Photo by Meg McKenzie
There aren't many signs to get to Hell's Canyon, up on top of the hill overlooking Ste. Chapelle, Williamson and most of the other vineyards in Canyon County, Idaho. You either have to have a map or know where you're going. So for this reason my visits to this intriguing winery came pretty late in the summer. Intersperse a road trip to Oregon and Walla Walla, the Idaho Wine Competition, and other distractions, and you'll get why my review is coming so late in the season. But better late than never.

The best way to get to Hell's Canyon is to go left on Chicken Dinner Road off Route 55 going toward Marsing. You'll pass apricot and peach trees, and various and sundry farms and failed housing developments. Finally, you'll come to Symms Road. Take a left, go half a mile, and there's the cute little sign (and cute little winery) overlooking a lovely display of grapevines.

The patio at Swallow's Wine Bar
Photo by Meg McKenzie
One thing you'll notice as you enter Hell's Canyon -- I mean, Swallows Wine Bar -- is that this vineyard tasting room isn't the usual tasting room, where you pay a $5 tasting fee -- or hopefully, nothing -- to sample an array of their best wines. No, here it's more like having a prix-fixe dinner at a fancy restaurant. They have a menu of wines they're pouring that day, a set price, and what they pour is what you get. The flight is served, I'll hasten to say, on a cute tray with coasters that give the provenance and tasting highlights of each wine, just in case you need help discerning the top notes. They also have a menu of some wonderful munchies that go great with each wine -- bread, pesto, cheeses, olives, etc. Although the wine bar itself is tiny, the patio is the draw here: in summer, the six tables on the terrace under the shady trees and overlooking the peaceful vineyard is a pretty sweet place to set a spell. And though I've only been during the afternoon, I would imagine the sunsets there are magnificent.

 A display inside the wine bar
Photo by Meg McKenzie
But let me backtrack a little and tell you something about the owners of Hell's Canyon/Zhoo Zhoo/Swallows. The Robertson clan are among the founders of the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, Steve Robertson having staked his claim to some perfect grape-growing terroir back in the 1970s. Now, his daughters have joined in the family business, thus explaining the separate brands. Daughter Bijou went out on her own and created the Zhoo Zhoo brand, with its colorful, artistic and rather risque labels. Other daughters Jocelyn and Hadley man the winebar and help out in other ways, no doubt. It's a small outfit, only 2,500 cases a year, but you can find their wines at Fred Meyer, the Boise Co-op, A New Vintage Wine Shop and Ericksons. Their most popular? Retriever Red and Bird Dog White. They recently won three bronzes at the Idaho Wine Competition.

The menu at Swallow's Wine Bar
Photo by Meg McKenzie
Inside the bar/shop is a counter where one of the girls takes your order. You then wait outside for your drinks/eats to arrive. The day I went, back in August, I chose the red flight, and only got to taste the Zhoo Zhoo (three small pours for $7). The middle one was just called Brunette -- 56 percent Merlot, 24 percent Cab Franc and 20 percent Cab Sauvignon. At $10 a bottle it’s the cheapest. My favorite was the first wine I tasted, the $19-a-bottle ’03 Claret, which was 70 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cab Sauv and 10 percent Cab Franc. The final wine was a ’06 Syrah. After a while, though, from going back and forth between the three, I found I was creating my own blend (good thing I took notes!). I didn't feel like ordering an entire plate of munchies, but luckily I got to chatting with a friendly couple from Kuna at the next table. Chris and Diann generously shared tastes of their crackers and chorizo ($7) and pesto and French bread (also $7) with me -- both were really, really good and complemented the red wine nicely.

Hell's Canyon Winery/Zhoo Zhoo Wines
18835 Symms Road
Caldwell, ID 83607
(208) 454-3300;,

Winemakers: The Robertson Family

 ☻☻☻ - Hell's Canyon/Swallows has a charming setting overlooking 40 acres of wine grapes, and the Robertson clan are friendly and sweet. Not a conventional tasting room, but a wine bar with a prix-fixe pouring menu, so I never got to taste the Hell's Canyon label, only the Zhoo Zhoo on the day I visited (and I didn't get to mix and match the reds and the whites). Signage to find the winery doesn't come into play until you're almost on top of the winery, but the wine commission map should aid you in your quest. The appetizers ($5-$7) I tasted were delicious.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment