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Idaho's wine country: Exploring the booming industry

The number of wineries in Idaho has increased by 75% in the last decade. The wine industry contributes an estimated $210 million to the state's economy.

CALDWELL, Idaho — When you think of wine country, many might think of Napa Valley, California, but Idaho has its own booming wine industry. In fact, Idaho’s wine industry contributes an estimated $210 million to the state's economy, and as Idaho keeps growing, so does that number. 

Right now, wineries across Idaho are hard at work in harvest season. According to the Idaho Wine Commission, the Gem State is one of the fastest-growing wine regions in the United States. 

In 2011, there were 40 wineries in Idaho. That number has since increased by 75%. There are now 70 wineries in Idaho, with the largest and oldest winery being St Chapelle in Caldwell. They started making wine in 1975.

“Essentially, we're the pioneers on the hillside here,” Regional Manager for Sawtooth Winery and St. Chapelle Winery, Kelli Meyer said. “We are still the wild west of wine country in the northwest, we are growing. We're a budding wine industry.” 

That growth is something the Idaho Department of Commerce is tracking.

“It's kind of an unexpected travel experience for folks,” Marketing and Innovation Administrator at the Idaho Department of Commerce, Matt Borud said.

The department oversees the Visit Idaho brand. Borud told KTVB interest in Idaho’s wine country started pouring in between 2013 and 2015. 

“In our last survey, we had 11% of Idaho travelers indicated they were interested in a winery or tasting room type of an experience,” Borud said. 

As the owner of Snake River Wine Tours, Samantha Maxey has watched Idaho's wine country gain popularity since she first began giving tours four years ago. 

“At that time, the wineries definitely were not as busy,” Maxey said. “You could sometimes walk into a winery on a weekend and just get a tasting on your own and now you definitely need a reservation on the weekends.” 

The people touring are coming from all over the country, Maxey added.

“Boise has become a destination,” Maxey said. “We see a lot of people that come here regionally from Phoenix, from Washington, from Oregon, a lot of people from California, which is great, but I’d say right now, it's still a big local community, but we get a lot of out of town guests, which is really great for Idaho tourism as a whole, because they're putting more heads and beds in Boise and they're going out to more restaurants downtown." 

Idaho has three AVA regions, which are areas designated just for grape growing. 

“The American Viticultural Association recognizes various regions across the country. Idaho has three," Borud said. "We've got the Snake River Valley, we've got the Eagle Foothills area, also much smaller, but also kind of in the Treasure Valley area, and then the Lewis-Clark Valley up north."

In the Eagle Foothills, there are five wineries. Corey Sprott is the winemaker at 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards, which he said was the first winery in the area.

As someone from Napa Valley, he said Idaho's wine country reminds him of another California region. 

“I think this area is a lot like Sonoma was back in the 70s and 80s, where there was a lot of farmer winemakers,” Sprott said. 

The industry is something Ron Bitner is all too familiar with. He and his wife own Bitner Vineyards on the Sunnyslope Wine Trail. 

“It's been fun to watch the industry grow and is continuing to grow,” Bitner said. 

They began planting grapes in 1981, when there were only about five wineries at the time. 

“A lot of people made fun of the four or five of us that were planning wine grapes, because they assumed that we were going to make potato wine,” Bitner said.

Now, that has changed.

“A lot of winemakers are being recognized, whereas before we weren't,” Bitner said.

Just 40 minutes from the Sunnyslope Wine Trail is where we find the Urban Wine District. There roughly seven or eight wineries just within a couple of miles of each other. 

“Some wineries have their own estate vineyard, and you know, they've got some land somewhere where they grow their own grapes," Potter Wines co-owner Crystal Potter said. "We do not have our own vineyard, we're an urban winery."

Potter is also the Chairman of the Idaho Wine Commission. She and her husband got into the wine industry when they grew grapes in their backyard and started creating their own wine.

“Our industry here is still small comparatively to some of those, you know, California industries and even Washington, but the beautiful part about the industry here is because we're small, we have a great way to control our quality of wines,” Potter said. 

Just down the street is Telaya. Earl Sullivan is the co-owner and head wine maker. He and his wife started making wine in Washington in 2008. 

“Then in 2011, we started making wine in Idaho and then in 2016, we built this building, and moved in here to kind of continue our expansion and will be about 10,000 cases this year,” Sullivan said. “So, it's a big change from 50 cases in 2008.”  

Those cases are shipped to customers in 28 states who are part of Telaya's wine club. At St. Chapelle, their wines can be bought in states across the country. They have seen a dramatic change in where their clientele is visiting from. 

“We used to see it was probably 80% local and 20% out of town. I would say we're now probably seeing 60% from out of town and then still a very heavy local following, but again, with an influx of people moving here, we are seeing a lot of people from California, which by the way, I love it because they love wine,” Meyer said. “I always get excited when, you know, there's a couple things that we hear a lot in tourism. One of them is ‘oh my god, I had no idea."

As the last grape is picked from the vine and aged in barrels, a reminder, the grapes being harvested right now will not be bottled and ready to drink for another six months to four years, depending on the wine and the winemaker. 

The winemakers KTVB spoke with also wants to stress, the wine they are making is not only accessible, but world class. In fact, many of them have either been recognized regionally or even internationally for their wines, like Bitner and Telaya.

USA Today also just voted Snake River Wine Tours the number one wine tour in the country! They beat out companies in Napa Valley and Santa Barbara. 

As for the future of Idaho's wine country, the wineries believe it will continue to grow and the wines will continue to get better. Most Idaho wineries are open year round.

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