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Idaho Business Out Loud interview: Moya Shatz Dolsby, Executive Director of the Idaho Wine Commission

Moya Shatz Dolsby

Spreading the message “Drink local” is one of Moya Shatz Dolsby’s missions.

As the executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission, she works to provide support and education to local wine growers, secure funding and market Idaho wines.

Idaho’s wine industry has a $209 million dollar economic impact and the industry is only growing. With so much land to offer and a great climate to grow grapes in, our state is attracting new wineries and growers every year.

Shatz Dolsby recently sat down with the Idaho Business Out Loud podcast to discuss Idaho’s wine industry. The full episode is available on iTunes, Spotify and SoundCloud. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you start off by telling us a little bit about what you do and your background?

I’m the executive director of the Grape Growers & Wine Producers Commission. We’re a self-governing state agency, so we focus on marketing and promoting all Idaho grapes and wine. And it’s definitely an agriculture focus. It’s pretty great helping these vineyards and wineries succeed. I came from the Washington Wine Commission. I was there for almost five years, based in Seattle, and then got recruited to come here and I’ve been in Idaho 11 years and I love it. I tell everybody that it’s all about your friends, your family and your dog. And it’s pretty awesome.

What kind of reputation do Idaho wines have? Are we known for a particular variety?

We don’t really hang our hat on one variety. We do a lot of things well. We have amazing rieslings, we have amazing Shiraz, amazing Chardonnay… The reason why I’m hesitant to hang my hat on one thing is like, when you think of Oregon, what do you think about? Oregon Pinot Noir, right? Well, Oregon does a lot of amazing other things. When you think of Napa, you think of Cabernet, right? Well, they also do grow other great things. And so why limit yourself?

So Idaho recently got its own wine growing region.

Yeah. It’s great for marketing is great for differentiating yourself. We actually have three. The first one was approved in April of 2008 and then we have the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA, which is in Lewiston. And the Eagle Foothills AVA, which is within the Snake River Valley AVA. So just for like conversation, the Snake River Valley Ava is 8,000 square miles and we’re sitting in it right now. It’s huge. There’s so much potential that it’s kind of mind-boggling.

Courtesy of the Idaho Wine Commission. (Click to enlarge.)

So we’ve got to talk stats and financials. How much money does Idaho’s wine industry bring in and in what specific categories?

We just took an economic impact study and it was just released. It goes back a couple of years and it found that we had a $209 million economic impact, which is pretty impressive for a relatively small region. And there was $120 million in tourism. What I say too is that people aren’t necessarily coming here just to drink wine, right? But they’re coming here. When your parents come to visit they’re going out to eat there. Then they’re going to say, “Oh, what else can we do? Let’s go to a winery.” So all of that is encompassing.

When a conference comes in, they’re looking for other things to do. “Oh, we can go wine tasting after our conference.” And this all adds to the growth and impact and success of the wine industry.

What are some opportunities for Idaho’s wine industry that we haven’t really taken advantage of yet?

I think what we really need is more grapes in the ground. We need more funding. We have to have signage. I need to be to find a way to tell you how to get to the wineries. I mean there’s lots of little things. We need more restaurants to carry Idaho wine and support local.

So you work on marketing and getting the Idaho wines out there. What are some of the other focuses that you work on?

Wine producers chat with attendees at the 2019 Savor Idaho event. Photo by Deb Christison, courtesy of Idaho Wine Commission

So we do a lot of marketing. We do a lot of putting on big events: Savor Idaho, Sippin’ in the City. We started a consumer bootcamp. It’s called Camp Vino because people wanted to experience it. They wanted to learn more, like “How do we go wine tasting? How do we learn about the vineyards? How do people prune?”

Then we do definitely focus on education. We do industry bootcamps because what we’ve found is when you go into a restaurant or a wine buyer, they haven’t been out to wine country. So we have two days where we do that in September and it’s pretty awesome.

During harvest we do media missions. We’ll bring in journalists from around the country and we’ll tour them around wine country. We’ll go to markets. I just went to New York and it’s time intensive, but it’s really great to go to the journalists and get them excited and then they want to come out here and visit us.

Now there’s definitely legislation of cleaning up rules and securing funding, trying to make operations better for the vineyards and wineries. It’s definitely across the board. We have our big annual meeting that takes a lot of time. We bring in education, bring in speakers to help the wineries and vineyards perform better to learn. We are funded also by specialty crop grants. So managing the grants actually takes quite a bit of time. We’re extremely lucky that we’ve gotten those.

Speaking of legislation, what are some things that you’d like to see happen there?

Well, I’d love to increase our funding so we can do more. We’re heavily reliant on specialty crop grants and it’s great that we’ve been so lucky getting those, but it’s not a good way to do business when you’re relying on grants. So we need to have more dedicated funding to do what we do. It’d be nice to have the option to increase our share of the wine excise tax. So we’re funded by the wine excise tax. That’s just 45 cents a gallon and we get 2 cents of that, which is 4 percent. That’s not very much.

The rest goes to the general fund, drug and alcohol abuse – all good things that we need to support. But also for this industry to grow and for us to have more economic impact, we need to get a bigger part of the pie. Mind you, this is my opinion. What my job is is to tout it.

Do wineries here predominantly grow their own grapes or do they buy them from elsewhere and import them?

It’s kind of across the board. Some wineries grow their own grapes and make their own wine. Some wineries only make wine and buy all their fruit, and that’s pretty common. We only have 1,300 acres planted in Idaho, which is great, but we need more grapes.

When you plant a grape, it takes three to five years for that grape to mature. So even if we planted today, they’re not going to be ready for three to five years. So what am I going to do? Well then I’m going to have to go to Washington to get grapes. If that’s what you have to do to make more wine, then you’ve got to do what you got to.

What makes Idaho a good place to grow grapes?

Sunnyslope Vineyard in Caldwell. Photo courtesy of Kim Fetrow

We are a high mountain desert, so our elevation ranges from 2,000 to 3,500 feet. We have basically pretty ideal growing conditions. And you want minerals in the soil. Ideally you want grapes planted on the slope so there’s air drainage.

We have hot days in the summer and cool nights and that’s when you get the balance of the acids and sugars. And that makes for these great wines. Another great thing about growing in Idaho is it gets cold gradually in the winter. So usually you don’t have this “bam!” freeze.

How will climate change affect Idaho’s wine industry?

It will make it better. So any type of grape, just like tomatoes, needs a certain heat degree growing to ripen. Shiraz needs x amount of heat degree growing days and Cabernet needs x amount. Cabernet needs longer heat, more heat degree growing days. So with climate change we will grow better Cabernet. We’ll grow better wines.

What kind of pressure are wineries and vineyards getting from development?

It’s definitely encroaching and I think we need to do our best to try to secure agriculture lands. I understand that people need a place to live, right? We all need a home. But how do we protect the agricultural land that’s ideal for growing grapes or any crop for that matter? We try to educate as best as we can and preserve, but it’s also… an interesting dilemma and debate for sure.

What are some of the points of the sales pitch you use to win that debate?

I try not to use the words like “nice” and “fun” a lot, but it’s fun! We have a great time. We have a great life. It’s beautiful. You’re growing something, you’re creating and you’re part of this community that wants to make Idaho a better place, as corny as that sounds. And we show that we have this amazing wine and, even when I’m traveling, people are not surprised anymore that we have wine in Idaho. Most people in the wine world know this.

I’m just shocked when consumers know this. That’s what gets me. And so it’s not as hard a sale as it used to be, especially with so many people moving here. I’m getting several calls every week about starting a winery or starting a vineyard. A lot of times I have to slow people’s roll. Like “Wait, do your research. Don’t just go and start it. You need to have the right things in place before you go.”

So it’s a passion.

Oh, it’s totally a passion.

So how is it predominantly sold? Do people come into a winery and buy one bottle? Is it in restaurants? What are kind of the trends there?

Every winery is different. We’re definitely seeing more wine being shipped to consumers because everyone’s traveling. And most Idaho wineries will ship. You can’t ship to every state because there’s different rules, but a lot of wineries are selling more in their tasting room because there’s only around 225,000 cases of Idaho wine sold and it fluctuates every year. So you sell that predominantly out of your tasting room, but every winery has a different makeup. “I want 50% to be in restaurants or I want to sell 75 or 80% out of my tasting room.” And that’s all business choices on how you want to sell. “I only want to sell through wine club and I’m only going to be open two times a year.” Whatever you want to do.

Let’s go back to construction. I’ve heard that some wineries are using Opportunity Zones to fund construction. How much of that is there?

In Idaho, there’s not a ton that I am aware of. I would love to see more. I know Caldwell – they’re definitely trying to encourage growth and I would love to see more Opportunity Zones and more funding for that too. How do we incentivize people to plant, to build a winery in Garden City, for example? I mean there’s several wineries now and breweries, which is amazing. And that’s been great for that town in bringing tax dollars in and increasing property values.

Even in downtown, there’s tasting rooms popping up. So it’s bringing a reason for people to come downtown. Look at Destination Caldwell right in downtown Caldwell. They’re really focusing on agriculture and it’s working. It’s pretty impressive to see the change. But I think we could have more.

I think people also to have to be aware of the economic impact. They want to see the numbers. It brings the $209 million economic impact. There could be more. There can always be more.

Are people moving out of state here specifically to [open a vineyard] or are they local Idahoans?

It’s definitely across the board. A little bit is people who grew up here and then moved away, got training in Washington and then came back. Or there’ll  be somebody who’s in their forties, had an amazing career and now want to do something different.

I think we’re seeing more young people lately wanting to start because Idaho is approachable. There’s this collaborative spirit where people want to help each other and the barriers to entry are lower. Everything’s more affordable in Idaho and land’s cheaper. Everything is more affordable and there’s a lot of sharing going on.

We get calls a lot and I try to connect the dots and get people in the right place and try to figure out what do you really want to do, because oftentimes I’ll have someone come in like, “We want to have a vineyard and winery.” Well, do you want to make wine or do you really want to be out there in the vineyards? So asking them the right questions and leading them. Then you can get them to go where they want to go and have success. We just had a new vineyard manager come from Oregon and he’s this young guy. It’s great.

Rosé wines at the Albertons Marketplace in Meridian. Photo by Steve Sinovic

So to sum up, is there a thought or some information that you want to leave our listeners and readers with that you feel is important for them to know?

I think that everybody should be drinking Idaho wine and that they should be trying it because they want to support this industry. We need to support our local communities. Drink local.

Where are some good places to get Idaho wine locally other than going to the vineyard itself?

So in Boise: Boise Co-op, Whole Foods, wine shops… Albertsons. They have amazing selections.

About Liz Patterson Harbauer