“In Idaho, we’re pretty ‘mom and pop’ – we’re family businesses, so the guy who named the place is the guy you’re talking to and making the deal with,” says Michael Williamson, co-owner of Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in Caldwell, Idaho. Williamson, along with his sister and cousin, run their third-generation farm in the burgeoning Sunnyslope Wine Trail of Idaho’s Snake River Valley. “What we love about this area is the relationships – we grow a lot of grapes and the majority of them are sold to other wineries in the area.”
Idaho might be “mom and pop,” it might be a fledgling, new frontier for wine, and it might be best known for potatoes instead of wine grapes. But many of those family farms have been growing grapes for the last 30 years, with the first plantings going into the ground farther north outside of Lewiston in 1864. Fast forward 106 years to 1970 when the first vines were planted in the now-AVA of the Snake River Valley, and today, there are 69 wineries that call Idaho home.
The inaugural AVA, the Snake River Valley encompasses 1,125 acres of vines, overlaying the ancient Lake Idaho, and includes the Eagle Foothills AVA with 67 acres and the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, which boasts the heaviest concentration of wineries in the state.
Williamson was born and raised on the Sunnyslope where his family has been farming for over 100 years. His family was one of several in the area that came to Idaho through the Homestead Act of 1862, settling in the Sunnyslope of Treasure Valley and found that fruit trees grew particularly well in the region.
“We have a sandy loam [soil] which is ideal for growing grapes, and we are high in latitude and altitude,” Williamson adds. “With a name like Sunnyslope, where the ground is west-facing and a long, sunny slope leads down to the Snake River which allows for nice air drainage and protects us from the cold. It all adds to our distinctness.”
He details that significance more in a brief geology lesson of the area. “Ancient Lake Idaho sat right over the Treasure Valley region, which gives it its characteristics of clay-ish particles, and others that are sandy like a beach,” he says. “There are varying soil types from this glacial lake and the volcanic activity that happened here – this activity melted and made the lake, and at the end of the ice age, it washed out and created the whole Snake River Valley, allowing for sandy sediment and clay elements to create our soil.”
In addition to the soil composition, Williamson says the Sunnyslope and greater Snake River Valley also see relatively high heat units that hover around 100 degrees during the summer months, then cool off in the evenings, which lends to an even, balanced ripening of the fruit.
“It’s the cool fall that allows the acid to hang out as [the fruit is] ripening through August and September, so you get the acid with the sugar and the sweet, which makes it nice and balanced, and tends to soften up a red wine that might come off too tannic,” he adds.
Just in time for Idaho Wine Month this June, we rounded up five wines from the Snake River Valley’s Sunnyslope Wine Trail for you to learn and load up.
THE WINE LIST
Bubblegum pink in the glass, this rosé of Merlot and Malbec is fermented and aged in stainless steel for a clean, fruit-forward and off-dry sip. A nose of strawberries and cream melds with roses, while the palate homes in on that ripe red berry fruit, accented with zippy lemon zest and a dusting of mineral. Pair with a salad of spinach, strawberry, chèvre and toasted almonds. | $20
This is a Chenin Blanc for the haters – Sawtooth’s version steers clear of the oily, nutty characteristics that wine drinkers love or loathe in this varietal, and capitalizes on the aromatic, crisp and lively notes that can be harder to find among that textbook texture. Full-bodied and zippy, this wine has heaps of flavor with apricot, honeysuckle, lemongrass, pineapple and lingering acidity. | $24
Sangiovese is a wine with Tuscan heritage, and a wine built to pair with the Italian region’s bold flavors like tomato, vegetables and roasted or grilled meats. Williamson’s 2018 Sangiovese follows in suit with cassis, black cherry, dried figs, herbs and earth on the nose. The palate brings forth a smoky, leathery tone with tart cherry and a medium body that make it a fine match for any dish with BBQ or tomato sauce. | $25
From Scoria’s first planting – Block 1 with 2.5 acres of Petit Verdot – this single-varietal red spent 32 months in new American oak and it shows with spice, cocoa, tobacco and cedar aromatics. Dried plum, blue fruits and violets interlace on the nose, while brambly fruit, all that spice and mineral connect on the medium-bodied, tannic and just-astringent palate. | $32
Benefiting Idaho outdoor nonprofits, this wine is from Indian Creek’s For the Mountains Malbec Series, which features six unique labels showcasing the work of local artists. Expect aromas of ripe marionberry, blueberry, violets and mint, with an oak-spiced, herbal, cocoa-laced palate. Pomegranate, soft acid and easy tannin reveal in the finish. | $24