Idaho’s history of commercial wine production began in 1875 along the Clearwater River near Lewiston. Thanks to the skilled vintners at Clearwater Canyon Cellars and Colter’s Creek Winery, the region is back on the wine map.
Prohibition cast a pall over Idaho earlier and far longer than anywhere else in the Northwest as the entire state went dry Jan. 1, 1916 – four years before the 18th Amendment took effect. A century later, on April 20, 2016, Clearwater Canyon and Colter’s Creek toasted the success of their petition to the federal government, which established the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area.
Being able to use an AVA on a label helps wineries market their wines by giving the consumer a better sense of where the grapes were grown. It also will allow Karl and Coco Umiker at Clearwater Canyon in Lewiston and Mike Pearson and Melissa Sanborn of Colter’s Creek in Juliaetta to better explain to visitors why this agriculturally rich region could have enjoyed a thriving wine industry older than anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest.
At about 1,200 feet above sea level, the Lewis-Clark Valley is the lowest-elevation growing region in Idaho and a “banana belt” because its winter temperatures tend to be warmer than the Columbia Valley’s. In terms of growing degree days, it compares with the Walla Walla Valley.
“It’s interesting that most people tend to think that it’s cooler here,” Pearson says, pointing to successful blocks of cabernet sauvignon, grenache and zinfandel as examples.
In each case, it’s the wife from Washington State University who makes the wine with the husband growing the grapes, and estate fruit contributes more to their programs each year.
At Clearwater Canyon, the Umikers are committed to producing wines with fruit off their farm in the Lewiston Orchards and other vineyards in the Lewis-Clark Valley.
Colter’s Creek is in Juliaetta, 15 minutes northeast of Lewiston, along the banks of the Potlatch River. The original 13 acres were planted in the 1970s but neglected until Sanborn and Pearson spotted those vines beyond a “for sale” sign during a leisurely drive in 2007. They received encouragement from the Umikers, friends from their days in WSU, and launched Colter’s Creek a year later.
The environmental approach Pearson takes with his vineyards, which now stand at 35 acres, is intense. And yet, he still finds time to head up the kitchen for Colter’s Creek tasting room in tiny Juliaetta.
“It’s just a fun, uplifting place to go on a Friday or Saturday night that didn’t exist in this valley community, and people come from Moscow-Pullman, Lewiston-Clarkston to this quaint little town,” Pearson says.
Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2014 Renaissance Red, Lewis-Clark Valley, $23: Cabernet franc leads this proprietary blend from a vintage that marked the 10th anniversary of the Umikers’ brand. The nose of black currant, cola, nutmeg and herbal notes leads to flavors of cassis and raspberry along with a touch of oregano. Strawberry seed tannins and juicy acidity make ideal matches with lean meats and tomato-based dishes.
Clearwater Canyon Cellars 2013 Selway Red Wine, Lewis-Clark Valley, $38: A merlot-based mix named for a tributary of the Clearwater River, it draws in some syrah, which has helped it bring home a number of gold medals this year. Aromas of dark plum, cherry cola, Milk Duds and horehound are mirrored on the tongue. The plummy midpalate from the syrah is met by suave tannins, red currant acidity and a chocolaty finish that’s backed by allspice and vanilla. Enjoy with a hearty stew.
Colter’s Creek Winery 2013 Arrow Rim Red, Idaho, $30: Rhône-style blends of grenache, syrah and mourvedre are rising in popularity in the Northwest, and this ranks among the best. Its theme of blackberry, plums, pomegranate and black pepper swirls among smooth tannins.
Colter’s Creek Winery 2014 Koos-Koos-Kia Red, Lewis-Clark Valley, $24: This classic blend of Bordeaux varieties carries aromas of sweet cherries, Hostess berry pie, sweet cherries and ginger spice, backed by a delicious structure of black currant and blueberry. Well-managed tannins allow for a finish of cherry juice and warm toffee.
Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com.