When Camas Prairie Winery owner Jeremy Ritter needed grapes for a batch of Riesling this year, he didn’t turn to the Tri-Cities vineyards he usually buys from. Instead, the Moscow winemaker bought two tons of fruit from Colter’s Creek Vineyards just 30 miles away in Juliaetta.
This is the first year that Camas Prairie has made wine from grapes grown in northern Idaho. Ritter said he believes in nearby businesses helping each other out, and he thinks the “local” label will help sell his wine.
“When people come through the door, they want to buy the most local product they can,” he said.
Camas Prairie is among a handful of wineries and vineyards in and around the Clearwater River Valley. The area is not well known for its grapes or wines, but local business owners are working together to make the valley a wine destination.
Melissa Sanborn – who co-owns Colter’s Creek Vineyards and Winery with her husband, Mike Pearson – said about 10 vineyards in the area are producing grapes that are being made into wine. She compared that with 500 Washington vineyards, and said the Clearwater Valley’s obscurity can work to its advantage.
“You’re selling wine from a region that’s small and pretty unknown, and people like that,” she said.
She and Pearson travel to wine events around Washington and Idaho and have submitted wines to competitions and reviewers in an effort to draw attention to the valley.
“It’s hard; you do have to sell it to people,” she said. “Idaho doesn’t have the best reputation for wines in the past … but once (customers) try it, I think they’re impressed.”
Local growers recently submitted a petition to have the valley designated an American Viticultural Area. The AVA will encompass a number of Idaho vineyards, as well as a few over the Washington state line. Sanborn said they should receive a response to the petition in 2013 or 2014.
Ritter said the AVA designation will benefit Clearwater Valley wine sales and will make the area more of a tourist destination. He also hopes it will attract more local people to the grape-growing business.
“Having a distinctive AVA in (north-central) Idaho, it’s a win for everybody,” he said.
Idaho Wine Commission Executive Director Moya Dolsby said an AVA designation draws media attention and respect from wine-industry peers. The ability to label wines as being made within an AVA brings further recognition to the area.
The designation “puts you on the map, and it gets you credibility,” Dolsby said.
Idaho’s first AVA, the Snake River Valley AVA, was established in 2007. Dolsby said the designation has helped boost the wine business in the area. In the past four years, she’s seen the number of wineries in the Snake River Valley increase from 32 to 49.
Dale Jeffers, manager of Skyline Vineyard in Nampa, said the Snake River Valley AVA designation has led to more wineries wanting grapes from the area, which should eventually drive up grape prices and benefit local vineyards.
Being named an AVA “definitely has been a benefit for the whole industry,” he said. “It makes us somebody. It makes us recognizable.”
Clearwater Valley vintners put emphasis on the area’s rich history to appeal to wine lovers. Vineyard owner and winemaker Coco Umiker said the valley is similar in soil and climate to the Walla Walla area, but ultimately predates it as a wine region.
“One hundred years ago, this was the center of the wine industry” in the Northwest, she said. “If you were going to drink Northwest wine, this was the region.”
Clearwater Valley wines won top honors at the World’s Fair, she said, and people from France and California toured the region. Prohibition derailed the valley’s wine industry, which only came back to life in the past decade.
Umiker co-owns Clearwater Canyon Cellars and Umiker Vineyard in Lewiston with her husband, Karl. She said the valley offers variety in soil types, elevations and aspects of the sun, allowing a range of grapes to thrive. The Umiker Vineyard has silt loam soil, sits at about 1,300 feet elevation and has a slow, even growing season.
“We’re able to get all of our varietals ripe, and also maintain a decent acidity, because we have the cool nights in the summer,” Umiker said.
The vineyard’s grapes, including chardonnay, viognier, syrah, cabernet franc and merlot, ripen gradually over time, which “really develops intense, complex flavors in wine,” Umiker said.
Sanborn said the climate at Colter’s Creek is too hot for pinot noir or pinot gris, but the vineyard has been “dabbling” in Bordeaux, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
They’ve also been growing Spanish grape varieties such as tempranillo and Grenache. “We’re finding that they work well with the climate,” she said.
Umiker said Clearwater Canyon is focusing right now on marketing its wines to locals, as well as spreading north to Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint and branching out into Boise.
“Getting out there and talking to people is one of the best ways we’ve found” to get customers interested in Clearwater Valley wines, she said.
The enthusiasm and experience of the valley’s winemakers is another selling point. Umiker has a Ph.D. in food science, and the other business owners at Clearwater Canyon and Colter’s Creek have degrees in chemistry, biology and soil science.
“I think we’ve got amongst the players in the valley … the educational background and the drive,” Umiker said. “We’ve got a lot of winemaking ahead of us to really do this.”