Idaho wineries work to win respect

PARMA — On a small hill overlooking the Snake and Boise rivers, a winemaker tends to five acres of grapes.

The Associated Press

Parma Ridge Vineyards is the retirement dream of Dick Dickstein and one of Idaho’s newest wineries. Like other vintners, Dickstein is trying to find his place in the Northwest’s boutique wine market.

Officials with the Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Commission say it all comes down to timing and public perception. But that can be tough in a state best known for a certain other agricultural product.

"When people think Idaho, they’re not going to think grapes. They’re going to think potatoes, and that’s something Idaho is going to have to battle with," said Andy Perdue, editor of Wine Press Northwest magazine.

Still, he said, local wines have an advantage that more established vintners in California, Washington and Oregon are leaving behind.

"One of the hallmarks of the wines there is that they are undervalued and underpriced, which means they are hitting a segment of the market that Washington wines don’t hit as much as they used to," Perdue said.

"People just don’t think of Idaho for wine, even though we produce some of the best grapes in the northwest," said Ted Judd, a historian for the Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Commission.

Judd said it is partly because Idaho got a slow start after prohibition.

"Prohibition killed the wine industry. Grape growers had to use the ground as something else if they wanted to make a living," said Judd. "After prohibition, religious influences in the state made the industry very slow to get started. It’s really only in the last 30 years that the wineries have started to come back," Judd said.

Dickstein, a former resident of Las Vegas, chose Idaho for his winery despite its reputation.

"Washington state probably would have been a better place for a winery but my wife and I didn’t like the area around Yakima. Oregon was too cold, and with California’s political climate, I wouldn’t go back there on a bet," Dickstein said. "In Idaho, I like the land and the people, and the growing season is just right for grapes."

Idaho wine surprises people, Dickstein said.

"Nobody takes Idaho wines seriously, but nobody took Oregon wines seriously at first," Dickstein said. "We’re all growing up together."

Magic Valley’s Frank Hegy, owner of Hegy’s South Hills Vineyard and Winery, uses the typical consumer reaction as a marketing gimmick.

He uses specialty humor labels to make his wine stand out, including a black-and-white generic label that simply reads "Cheap Wine."

The same wine is available in a bottle with an Idaho-themed cartoon label and a traditional label.

"We get a lot of people that buy it as a gift, and don’t think it’s real wine in there. Then once they try it they call us up and say, ‘Hey, that’s good wine,"’ Hegy said. "It takes some catch to get them to try it, and once they do they come back for more."

In the past decade, the number of wineries in the state has nearly doubled, Perdue said.

The newest vintner is the Winery at Eagle Knoll, owned by Mike and Joy Kauffman and scheduled to open by June.

Mike Kauffman said he is not worried about breaking into the wine market — in part because wine sales will not be the only source of income for the company. With ponds, a waterfall and picnic tables, the 18-acre vineyard is available for weddings and parties.

More established wineries within the state offered advice and helped him plan the business, he said.

"It’s not competitive, because we all want the same thing — to get Idaho wines acknowledged," he said.

Bob Corbell, executive director of the Grape Growers and Wine Producers Commission, says most of the wine made in Idaho stays in Idaho.

"Studies we have done show Idaho wine drinkers are 35 or older, make a middle or higher income, and prefer white wines," he said. "We’re about the place Washington was 20 years ago, but I believe our reds will become known as the premium red wines."

In the meantime, he said, wine drinkers with a thirst for local products are reaping the benefits.

"Our wines are a little undervalued, so that a $10- or $12-Idaho wine often competes with $20- or $40-wine from places like California," Corbell said.

The largest vintner in the state is Ste. Chapelle. The winery is now owned by the largest wine company in the world, Canandaigua Wine.

"Napa wines were a novelty at the turn of the century because everyone drank wines from France," said Chuck Devlin, Ste. Chapelle winemaker. "Everybody had to prove themselves at first."

Devlin — who was working in California when he first heard about the job at the Caldwell vintner — was incredulous at first, too.

"I was surprised they even made wine here, because it’s so dry. But having irrigation allows you to grow almost anything," he said. "I didn’t come here to make good Idaho wine or even good Northwest wine. I came here to make world-competitive wine, and that’s what we do."

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