Saturday, November 15, 2008

By Jake Putnam

Marsing--The drive from Nampa on Highway 55 south to Sunnyslope winds through onion fields then neat rows of sugar beets and rolling hills under a big sky. When the flat land breaks and falls away you’ve arrived as rows and rows of neat vineyards unfolds just above the mighty Snake River.

The lush vineyards hug the north slopes of the canyon walls and stretch as far east as Buhl; this is Idaho’s wine country and its more Napa than Nampa. At last count more than 15 wineries thrive in Snake River Wine Region with 46 distinct vineyards covering 1,107 acres.

Most vineyards are open to the public and wine tasting rooms offer enthusiasts a taste of wine, picnics not to mention special events such as concerts, wine dinners, and even weddings.

“We have some of the most beautiful vineyards in the in the country and people ask where we’re located and I tell them out near Marsing they haven’t heard of Marsing or how to get here,” said Ron Bitner of Bitner Vineyards.

Idaho Farmers have always known about the unique diversity of Canyon Counties farm land. In fact farmers grow everything from carrots, onions and sugar to mint. According to the Canyon County Farm Bureau there are more different types of crops grown here than any other county in the United States.

That diversity comes from plentiful irrigation water and volcanic soil that gives the land richness unique in the entire world; it transformed this land from desert sage to lush cash crops.

Elevations are 2-to 3-thousand feet higher than California’s famed Napa Valley and this change in elevation combined with the ash laden soils, warm days, cool nights translates into grape sweetness that’s found only south of Nampa.

Idaho’s Wine country is gaining favor with Northwestern travelers and wine connoisseurs but is still undiscovered by Idahoans as close as Boise. Ron Bitner has a message for Ada County residents in search of a fantastic adventure and it’s right next door.

“So my message is that you’re 45 minutes away from having a taste of Tuscany, Southern Germany or Australia,” said Bitner. “I’ve been to all of those places and we have the same view, the same quality of grapes. People need to come out and discover what they have here in Idaho.”

The arid climate adds up to concentrated fruit flavors and naturally high acidity that means greater sweetness in the grape and altitude is a distinct advantage. The lowest winery sits at 1800 ft above sea level the highest topping the 2300 foot mark. A warmer climate the past decade has tempered harsh Idaho winters and the vineyards are thriving on mild winters.

The Snake River Valley is the latest designated American Viticultural Areas, When a US winery wants to tell you the geographic pedigree of its wine, it uses a tag on its label and these areas have become a Mecca for wine tourists seeking different wines, tastes and viticultural experiences. The Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms granted the petition last year and that’s led to a jump in wine tourism.

Idaho entrepreneur Patty Johnson started a company called Snake River Cuisine Tours featuring trips to the wineries by bus. The start-up business is booming because there’s an interest and curiosity in Idaho’s Wine Country.

“It all started when we brought in a bunch of food editors in a few years ago. We wanted to show them a good time and everything we had available, we had Idaho cheeses and food products grown in Idaho and when we got to the vineyards they were surprised and sold, it was a great time. We had people that wanted to continue and it’s worked,” said Johnson.

Johnson says the wine industry is still inventing itself. “Idaho is a new frontier, the wines are coming along, I would compare it more to Walla Walla and it’s a do-able model, more so than Napa.” She says people love to taste wine, socialize and learn as they go.

“I show them wines that are special, that can’t be bought in stores and they like it. They get the background on the wine and the winemaker, its all part of the experience,” said Johnson.

Gina Davis graduated from the University of Idaho a few years ago but already has her own label; she’s the assistant winemaker for Koenig Distillery and Winery and just opened the Davis Creek Cellars tasting room this past summer in downtown Marsing.

Davis says the industry is growing because of diversity within the Snake River viticultural area. She points out that growers use open canopies over the wine, drip irrigation and aggressive pruning that stress the vine, producing fewer but tastier grapes. She says these are all unique factors that add up to future that she wants to be part of.

“We’re seeing more people coming by,” said Davis. “There was a time when you could hit all the wineries in an afternoon, now one has to pick and choose. That means many return trips and more tourism dollars.” To keep up Davis produces six varieties of wine with new releases of handcrafted wines every few months.

From Baker County to Buhl the Snake River Appellation has been known also for its cool nights and unique cool climate wines like Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer.

Now there’s a new diversity and a shift to the red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. What was once barren hillsides are now lush vineyards, and there’s a new ‘Field of Dreams mantra,’ build it and they will come.

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