The Fastest Growing Wine Region in United States: Idaho Wine

The back of the winery facing the vineyards with two musicians playing. The windows reflect the blue clouded skies
A stunning escape, with exceptional wine. Idaho Wine!

It's Not Where You Think.

The intrigue of the fastest growing wine region in the United States led me on a journey to learn more about Idaho Wine. I left Napa on a very hot Friday afternoon to fly to the land of the unknown. I’d never traveled to Idaho but was inspired to learn it was the fastest-growing wine region in the United States. Pretty compelling stuff, particularly when you consider wine today is made in every state in the union.  

The flight from Sacramento to Boise was easy. One hour. I’d had no idea it was that close to Northern California.  In fact, its proximity to Oregon is 45 minutes by car.  This alone makes it a compelling destination. Add into that the vast amount of outdoor activities and you’ve got the perfect vacation locale. It’s also an idyllic place to dip your toes into the world of Idaho wine.

Boise is the capital of Idaho. It alone has an incredible amount of history surrounding it.  French trappers named it boisé which means “wooded”. This tree-lined river was a place to rest for travelers crossing the vast Snake River plain.

Boise is located in Treasure Valley. There are six rivers in the Valley (PayetteBoiseWeiserMalheur, Owyhee, and Burnt rivers) drain into the Snake River the largest tributary (1,078 miles) in the Pacific Northwest region.

In 1862 it was Boise Basin that was at the center of the biggest gold rush the United States would ever see. More gold was removed from this region than anywhere in the country.

With the Gold Rush came the Basque (about 15,000 of them) and the farmers. The region was a beneficiary of the Owyhee irrigation project which rerouted water for farming purposes.

The location of this region is remarkable.  Particularly because of the dynamics of wine surrounding it. They are in the best of company being located at the 43 parallel north. Famous neighbors in the same parallel from Camina de Santiago de Compostela to Tuscany, Languedoc-Rousillon, Provence, and many more. This makes it a great region for wine-growing with views benefitting from their short, hot, and very arid summers, to the cold overcast snowy winters. 

It’s also been a hotbed for modern-day relocations during today’s “Great Resignation”. While I don’t know the exact numbers, in my personal experience talking to people who live and work in Boise, I found that 4 out of 5 people I met had been in Boise less than 2 years. What drew them here?  The cost of living, wide-open areas, wilderness, and vibrancy of Downtown Boise, perhaps the attractive future in the world of Idaho wine.

It looks like a Tuscan villa, but this watch tower overlooking the vineyards is far from Italy. This is Idaho Wine Country!
A Tuscan Villa in Idaho?

Fast Facts On Idaho Wine Country

  • Varieties Grown: Syrah, Merlot, Riesling, Chardonnay, Tempranillo & Malbec
  • Elevation: 600 – 3,000 feet
  • Acres Planted: 1,300
  • 70 Wineries in Idaho
  • 2,118 Tons of Grapes Harvested (2019)
  • 160,000 cases produced annually.
  • There are five AVA’s in Idaho: Snake River AVA in the Southwestern Idaho Region (crosses into Oregon), Lewis-Clark Valley in the Northern Idaho Region (and part of Washington) and Eagle Foothills AVA (a sub-AVA of Snake River) which is the only AVA completely within Idaho.  
A map showing the Snake River AVA and its proximity to Oregon
Map of Snake River AVA in Idaho

Where to go, stay and dine in Boise…

You might be asking why would I go to Downtown Boise? I see this first as one of the safest, most personable, and well-laid out downtown areas I’ve been to. Traffic on Saturday morning was virtually nil. It’s full of progressive and fun restaurants, bars, historic spots, great trails, and the Boise River you can fish in!

Check into Hotel 43, a nod to Boise’s location on the northern parallel, in the center of Downtown Boise. It has lush green views of the square below and the rooms are well-appointed and spacious. There is also a world-class restaurant adjacent to the lobby, Chandler’s. It is known for its exceptional wine list (recognized by Wine Spectator), its vivacious vibe, and the one and only 10-minute Martinis that will take your breath away. Their menu specialties range from Wagyu to dry-aged beef and ultra-fresh seafood flown in from Alaska and Hawaii daily. Owned by Rex Chandler who ran multiple restaurants and nightclubs in Honolulu back in the day. Loved making that Hawaii connection.  My favorite dishes are the fresh Pacific oysters, Tower of Tuna, and the plumpest juiciest Halibut I’ve ever tasted. 

Two sesame crackers with a tuna guacamole cylindrical stack
Chandler's Tuna Stack

The next morning I went for a walk to get my bearings on the location and see a bit of downtown before grabbing a bite.  I stopped into ā cafe for their super fresh and delicious bacon egg and cheese omelet and caught a bit of the local vibe.  Believe me, when I say, you will need some sustenance before you adventure out onto the Idaho Wine Trail.  

The Idaho Wine Trail can take many forms.  You need a trustworthy guide to get you there and to chose enough places so everyone gets a great taste of the region.  We explored the Snake River Valley wine region in Caldwell. My journey would begin with  Snake River Wine Tours owner, Samantha Maxey.  I was part of an 8-person tour that would tackle 4 wineries in the Sunnyslope wine region . This tour has received national recognition as a top wine tour company from USA Today. It’s easy to see why. Maxey is a pro at putting people at ease and providing insightful information on the way. The time flew by.

A group of fabulous ladies having a reunion on the wine tour
Such a great group of ladies celebrating a surprise birthday reunion.

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The Fastest Growing Wine Region in United States: Idaho Wine

Located just 40 minutes outside of Boise, our first destination was Scoria Vineyards. Contemporary in design and understated in appearance, the fields contained bee apiaries. Walking in was a breath of fresh air. Lots of room to sit, ponder and sip. The bar where the wine was poured showcases the varied rocks, behind steel mesh, located on the property. The particular red volcanic rock is known as “scoria” where the winery gets its name.  They are located on an extinct volcanic vent with the dirt made up of scoria and sand.

Scoria grows red. Fitting as is its name. Malbec, Syrah comprise the majority of vineyard acreage, along with Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot,  Grenache and Mouvedre.

The entrance to Scoria Winery with tables and seating. Also an iron cut out framing the doorway with the Scoria name on it.
Scoria Winery entrance in Caldwell, Idaho.

The next visit would be our lunchtime visit to Koenig Vineyards. Koenig was founded in 1995 by Greg Koenig . Their terrain is both alluvial and volcanic soil and they benefit from the cool nights and high altitude of the Sunny Slope District.  The goal in winemaking is minimal intervention and the new owners, James and Sydney Nederend are champions of the style.  

They produce Viognier, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Riesling, Sangiovese, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay and the occasional ice wine.

Tastings are available on their expansive terrace, picnic lawn, and at the tasting and barrel rooms. Reservations are recommended.

Visit: koenigvineyards.com for more information.

The barrel room at Koenig with barrels stacked in rows to ceiling.

Our next stop was Sawtooth Winery.  Founded in 1987  it is known as one of the largest producers in Snake River Valley. Seattle-based Corus Brands owns it today. Their steep southern sloping hillsides give winemaker Meredith Smith a great palate of varietals to work with including Riesling, Pinot Gris, Syrah, Merlot, and Tempranillo. Their Sawtooth and Skyline vineyards enjoy the highest elevations in the region at 3,500 feet. 

Skyline vineyards are the largest in Idaho with over 400 acres varying degrees of micro climates and 2,500 feet elevation. Estate-grown grapes are part of the Sawtooth legacy at 70 acres work well for Bordeaux varietals. This is next-level fun. A lively vibe and definitely a more party-oriented scene.  

I observed goat yoga taking place with some visitors down the hill, sparkling wine shooters being enjoyed, and a sabering with an ax-wielding server.  If unexpected fun and frolicking is your game this is definitely the place to go.Visit Sawtoothwinery.com for more.

WOman with ball cap sabering a bottle of sparkling wine at Sawtooth Winery with an Ax!
Axe sabering at Sawtooth Winery

Each winery had something to offer wine enthusiasts. With many different options for both the under thirty crowd and the more mature-minded this is a wine region with a very bright future ahead of it. I’d enjoyed each and every wineries experiences and wine, the Kerry Hill Winery made an impact both to the senses and on my palate in the most beautiful way. Both with experiences, wine, and the property itself. It was also LIVE certified sustainable. A sustainable in the Pacific Northwest with international accreditation. 

It also had a unique feature I’d never seen at any other winery in my wine tasting days in the United States and abroad.  It was started by Mindy Mayer, an entrepreneur with many firsts in her life.

Mindy was the first women franchise owner of McDonald’s in Oregon. Today, together with business partners Jared Ray and Randi Ray she co-owns 13 McDonald’s Restaurants in North Willamette Oregon.  Could it be in Willamette where she was bitten by the wine bug?

Her life changed tragically in 2008 when she lost five members of her family in an Alaska plane crash. She was the sole surviving family member along with her three year old granddaughter whom she pulled from the burning plane. Later while she was still recovering, she would also lose the very granddaughter she saved. Kerry Hill is a one of a kind winery. It’s not a replica of anything known. It clearly stands on its own with a substantial one of a kind identity.  The first thing you notice as you pull up to the property is the sheep. Indeed, the sheep are at the very root of the name “Kerry Hill”. 

But the sheep weren’t first. It was Shep, her Border Collie she got to help her through some of the tough aspects of recovering. Now her partner in crime needed something to keep him busy and what better way, than to add some sheep he could herd to the mix.

Kerry Hill sheep date back to 1809,  are magnificent creatures who originate from the small town of Kerry on Welsh/English borders. Their outstanding characteristics include a black nose, ears and eyes, with dense high quality white wool on their fleece.

Mindy was quite taken with the sheep and saw an opportunity once she bought the property in Wilder, ID that would become Kerry Hill Winery. The sheep were added to the property to thin the leaves and fertilize the soil. 

A collage with Kerry Hill Rosé Mindy Mayer and Kelly Mitchell, the Kerry Hill Sheep and the Tasting Room
A beautiful tasting room, lovely Rosé, the Kerry Hill sheep and Kerry Hill founder Mindy Mayer with The Wine Siren.

She chose her winemaking team with the same passion and good sense she enlisted when choosing her property.  Tim Harless who also owns Hat Ranch Winery with his wife Dr. Helen Harless. Their winery was awarded Winery of the Year.

Isabelle Dutartre is a Bourgogne University graduate in winemaking, working first with Joseph Drouhin in Beaune, Burgundy. She later began commuting between France and Oregon in the name of wine and is currently making wine at De Ponte in Willamette Valley.

The winemaking team has done exceptional work in short order with this outstanding winery.

 

The back of the winery facing the vineyards with two musicians playing. The windows reflect the blue clouded skies
A stunning escape, with exceptional wine. Idaho Wine!

There were many surprises I encountered in the land of the fastest growing wine region in the United States. Below are a few of the must visit, taste or calls you should add to your list when visiting this fascinating new wine region. Stop in Boise first!  Check out Chandler’s Boise for steak, fresh fish, live music and an incredible wine list. Hotel 43 and bonus: room service from Chandler’s, for convenient proximity to everything in Boise. Diablo & Son’s Saloon for their must taste ribeye steak and mashed crispy skinned Idaho potatoes, craft cocktails and Idaho wine. Janjou Patisserie, an incredible bakery in downtown Boise and The Fork for a Idaho wine tasting list and great salads! Finally, a great cafe for breakfast ā café boise. Now get yourself to Boise and explore the fastest growing wine region in the United States! Taste the sparkling at 3100 cellars, I truly enjoyed it.  Also the red wine blend I sipped from Hat Ranch Winery was lovely. And mark your calendars, Savor Idaho held at the Boise Botanical Gardens kicks off every June and it is well worth the visit to taste the wine from many of the Idaho wineries. 

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