Put the potatoes aside and pass the grapes!

The Great Bonneville Flood not only sculpted the towering basalt walls of the Snake River Canyon, but the event – which took place some 15,000 years ago – developed a sandy loam soil perfect for wine grape growing in Idaho.

Photo © Jason Lugo

Grape vines at Snyder Winery in Buhl.

The many grapes tended right here in Idaho are making a name for themselves not only among local wine aficionados, but pleasing palates around the globe.

“We have very good soil and the right conditions for growing a variety of grapes,” said Wine Producer’s Commission Marketing Coordinator Melissa Witt. “People are really starting to take notice.”

Boosting Idaho’s burgeoning industries was the American Viticultural Area designation bestowed upon the Snake River Valley by the U.S. Treasury in April 2007. The Snake River Valley AVA boundary mirrors that of the historic Lake Idaho, including some 8,263 square miles extending from southwest Idaho to Oregon. The AVA provides certain geographic locations across the country credibility and recognition as a proven, quality growing region.

Since 2002, the industry has grown from 11 wineries to 41 wineries and some 50 vineyards today, making a $73 million impact on the state’s economy, according to an economic impact study completed by Boise State University. That same study projects that Idaho will have 75 wineries by 2015 with a $79 million economic impact.

“While Idaho does have a couple corporate-owned wineries, the majority are definitely small, family-owned and operated,” Witt said.

Snake River Valley doesn’t hasn’t reached the status held by California’s Napa Valley AVA, but local growers are confident that wine is one of Idaho’s best-kept secrets.

Southern Idaho Living talked with several local producers to find out how they began and where they’re going.

Photo © Jason Lugo

Carmela Vineyards during harvest.

As one of the oldest and most recognizable Gem State vineyards, Carmela Vineyards knew long ago the potential of the Snake River Valley. Situated west of I-84 in Glenns Ferry, Carmela is a sprawling property consisting of 43 acres of grapes, a nine-hole golf course, RV Park, restaurant, lounge and gift shop.

Owned by Idaho native Rover L. Jones, Carmela has a 60,000-gallon capacity in its growing wine cellar and produces 10,000 cases of wine, in 12 varietals and 16 separate labels annually. The current selection includes Chardonnay, Johannisburg Riesling, Rivers Mist, Semillon, Zen White, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet-Franc, Cabernet-Merlot, Bodacious Red Meritage and Zen Red.

With current double gold, gold and silver medals from wine competitions throughout the country, Carmela is gaining national appeal as a maker of fine wine.

Photo © Jason Lugo

A harvest worker tosses grapes into a bucket at Carmela Vineyards during.

Bookkeeper and longtime employee Yvonne Decker said this year’s harvest will be in line with previous years’ but is a few weeks behind schedule, given an unseasonably cool spring and early summer.

“It’s getting close; we’ll be harvesting in (September),” Decker said. “We’ll have a crew of 22 pickers that will work three weeks. The pickers, mostly migrant workers, come back year after year.”

Decker said Idaho’s appeal to those wanting to get into the wine business is boosted by the growers’ sense of community. Carmela has long been called upon by newbies needing help and confidence that with Idaho’s soil and climate good wine is just a few seasons away.

“We all help each other. The industry is still small enough that we encourage or give assistance to one of our own,” Decker said. “As the industry grows that will probably change, but for now, it’s great to be a part of this community.”

Cheaper land and lower business costs gives Idaho an attractive edge as well.

Vintners Paul and Susan Monahan credit, according to their website, “Our love of food, wine and travels abroad to France, Italy and Spain,” as inspiration in turning 10 acres along the Snake River into Thousand Springs Winery.

An initial planting of 300 Chardonnay vines weren’t enough. Three years later, 1,300 Syrah vines, an additional 400 Chardonnay vines and 100 Merlot vines were planted.

Photo © Jason Lugo

Thousand Springs wines

Monahan started as a grower in 1994 but didn’t have a market for the grapes. Instead of walking away from his 10-acre vineyard along the Snake River, Monahan decided he would create his own wines.

At first, the wines missed the mark. Monahan, “just didn’t like it,” so a few years ago he hired a consultant, who “worked magic and totally transformed our wines.” Thousand Springs claimed a gold and bronze medals during a 2006 state wine contest.

For the whole industry to make positive gains every winery in the state will have to play a part, Monahan said.

“Everyone needs to step up and make sure their wines are of the highest caliber,” he said.

Other vintners, like James Holesinsky entered the scene with a splash. He is co-owner of Holesinsky’s Winery in Buhl, the first USDA certified organic vineyard in Idaho. Holesinsky loves the nature tucked into his vines.

“Stand and listen and you’ll hear crickets and see birds and it’s wonderful,” he said.

The vineyard started with 1,000 Chardonnay vines in 2001, followed by 3,000 Syrah, 2,000 Merlot and 200 Port vines 2002. In 2006, 1,000 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1,000 Riesling were added, followed by Muscat in 2007.

Photo © Jason LugoSuccess has grown right along with the vineyard.

In 2006 his 2005 Riesling earned a silver medal and was named People’s Choice during the Idaho Wine Festival. Holesinsky’s 2006 Riesling took the People’s Choice award again in 2007. His wine was applauded at the 2009 IWF: the 2008 Rose took double gold, the 2008 Riesling was ranked in the silver category and the 2007 Medley and 2007 Syrah varietals brought back bronze awards.

In June, at the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, Holesinsky’s 2009 Rose Antoinette took home the Critic’s Gold Medal.

“When someone tastes my wine I want them to know that this is what wine is supposed to taste like,” Holesinsky said. He credits an unyielding passion supported by his parents, Barbara and Frank Holesinsky, who taught him to pursue what he loved.

Lucky for those who enjoy ending a summer day with a chilled Riesling in hand, Holesinsky has pursued a perfectly structured old-world wine with no additives, filtering or processing. His passion starts in the soil of his vineyard, just north of Buhl, which is rich in the volcanic soil that sets the Snake River Valley AVA apart from all others.

“You’ve got be passionate about the process from the soil your grapes are planted in to wiping the dust off the bottle,” Holesinsky said.

Photo © Jason Lugo

Cold Springs owner Bill Ringert and winemaker Jamie Martin.

Just like the now-defunct belief that Idaho wouldn’t grow grapes above 2,700 feet, Holesinsky loves pushing the limits and stretching what wines are viable for production. His belief led to the state’s first sparkling Moscato, a wine originating in rural Asti of Northwest Italy. This year he introduced his 2009 Moscato d’Buhl.

Bill and Bing Ringert of Cold Springs Winery have believed in Idaho’s fertile ground and production capabilities for decades. After retirement the couple moved to Hammett where they planted their first vines in 1998. Of their 200-plus acres of productive farmland, 33 are now in vine.

By 2003 they were bottling, said Bing Ringert.

“I really enjoy meeting people and selling and introducing our wine,” she said. “When we introduce our wine we are typically introducing a customer to Idaho wine as well.”

Photo © Jason Lugo

Cold Springs workers and winemaker Jamie Martin are bottling their 2009 chardonnay

Bill Ringert, a retired attorney, became interested in wine in the 1970s. After learning about the growing conditions needed to produce quality wine grapes, Ringert knew Idaho could pull its weight in the wine world. His knowledge in geologic and hydrologic features, honed in part from his career as a water rights attorney, helped him pick the right property for his grapes: a plot on the eastern Snake River Plain, complete with spring water from the Lost River Aquifer running along the northern corner of the property.

“Our terrier is similar to vineyards we saw in Europe,” Ringert said. “It seemed to me that the soil conditions were suitable for grape growing. We had water available and the ground is easy to work with.”

Just like many of the wineries dotting the meandering Snake River Valley, Cold Springs Winery said the future of Idaho’s wine industry will be, in part, tied to tourism. Cold Springs is one of the few wineries easily visible from the interstate and works at being a destination.

“We have events periodically. We have a nice picnic area, sprawling lawn, pond and patio that is great for socializing,” Ringert said. “In November we’ll have an event with 10 or so artisans and craftsmen people can shop, live music and tastings. We unveil new releases during our June event.”

Whether it’s a special event or quiet evening at home, the award-winning wines sprawling the state are reason enough to visit your local winery.

Scroll down for a photo gallery of over 35 images!

Glenns Ferry Hammett Hagerman
Carmela Vineyards
(Daily 9 to 9 – Summer)
795 W. Madison
Glenns Ferry, ID 83623
Cold Springs Winery
(Sat – Sun: 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm
Mon – Fri: By appointment only)
7853 W. Ringert Lane
Hammett, ID 83627
Thousand Springs Winery
(By appointment only)
18852 Hwy 30
Hagerman, ID 83332
Twin Falls Buhl Buhl
Hegy’s South Hills Winery
(By appointment only)
3099 E. 3400 N.
Twin Falls, ID 83301
Holesinsky Vines
(By appointment only)
4477A Valley Steppe Road
Buhl, ID 83316
Snyder Winery
(Formerly Blue Rock)
(By appointment Only)
4060 North 1200 East
Buhl, ID 83316
Frenchman’s Gulch Winery
(Sat, 1 – 5 pm)
Otherwise by appointment)
360 9th Street # 9
Ketchum, ID 83340
Galena Summit Winery
(Wed – Sat, 3 – 5 p.m.)
336 Lewis Street #6
Ketchum, Idaho 83340
800 228 8626
Phantom Hill
270 Northwood Way, Unit 15
Ketchum, ID 83340