I bet when you think of wineries and vineyards, your mind immediately goes to Sonoma Valley or Southern Washington, right? What if I told you that in a little part of Idaho known as the Snake River Valley, there are over 50 wineries? It’s true! With its combination of volcanic soil, high elevation, and desert-like environment, grapes grow exceptionally well here. Idaho wineries are booming, so we made a point to go and check it out on our latest trip to Boise.
A few weeks ago, we went on an incredible tour of Boise and its surroundings hosted by SWITA. We did activities like whitewater rafting, biking the greenbelt, eating delicious food, and so much more. We could have easily spent an entire week there! On the last full day of our trip, we were invited out by the Idaho Wine Commission to come and experience some vineyards, taste some exceptional wine, and see how much this region has to offer! It was the most beautiful summer day, and we stopped by The Orchard House to pick up lunch and get our day started.
Here’s our story…
Exploring Enchanting Idaho Wineries
Before we dive into this post, here are some quick facts and history about Idaho and their relationship with wine…
- The first grapes in Idaho were planted in 1865 in Lewiston, ID.
- The industry was booming until the Prohibition, which ceased all production in 1919.
- The first grapes in the Snake River Valley post-prohibition were planted in the 1970s.
- Now in 2017 there are over 50 wineries in the Valley, and that number continues to grow!
Disclaimer: We are not wine connoisseurs. We’ll probably mess up the jargon, misunderstand a process, or even get something completely wrong. This is an opinion article, based on the experience that we had and the incredible people we met. We hope you enjoy reading our story!
On our tour of Idaho’s Wine Country, the Idaho Wine Commision (thanks Ashlee!) arranged for us to visit 4 vineyards and meet the owners. We were excited to get a closer look into the estates and learn more about the individual stories of the winemakers. Let the day begin!
Our first stop was at Bitner Vineyards. Ron and Mary Bitner established this family-run vineyard in 1981, making it one of the oldest vineyards in the region. They now grow five types of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Viognier. They are currently the only vineyard in the region with a LIVE (Low Input Vineyard and Enology) certification, meaning they use natural and sustainable methods when growing grapes and take proper care to protect and conserve the land they use by using little to no chemicals.
As Berty and I talked with Amy Bitner, their daughter, we learned that her father Ron is a bee expert and a lifetime learner of “biodiversity-based growing practices”. They welcome natural and beneficial insects to the vineyards to keep the growing process as natural as possible. This is why when you purchase a bottle from Bitner Vineyards, there is an emblem of the leaf cutter bee on their corks. You can learn more about their sustainable estate here.
We asked, “What makes their vineyard different from the others?” Amy immediately responded with the ‘hand-craftedness’ of their grapes. They touch every grape, picking them by hand. This means they are able to pass over any grape that they deem not good enough or not ready, rather than using a machine that collects everything on the vine. The location also adds to their uniqueness: the types of volcanic soil and sand together with the high elevation “brings a beautiful acidity” to the wine.
Berty and I learned how to properly taste wine from Amy Bitner. She explained that sometimes people can take the process too seriously – it’s really just about figuring out what you like and don’t like! The more you try and compare different wines, the better idea you get of what suits your palette, and that’s a completely personal opinion. Thanks for giving us the freedom to be curious!
Wines we tried:
- Dry Riesling 2015 – fruity and fresh
- Chardonnay (the first wine they produced) – oak barreled, buttery and smooth
- High Desert White 2014 – (we bought a bottle of this one) – three-blend of Riesling
- Chardonnay, and Viognier – sweet and floral
- Tempranillo 2014
- Shiraz Cabernet
Thank you Ron and Amy for allowing us to come and experience your beautiful estate! Learn more about Bitner Vineyards here and plan your next visit!
As we drove up the tree-lined entrance to Koenig Vineyards, Berty and I knew this was going to be a spectacular place. Before going in, we spent some time out by the courtyard’s fountain and enjoyed the view from the balcony overlooking the vineyards. Tables and chairs were dispersed among the patio which is meant to encourage people to pack picnics, bring friends, and make a day out of visiting the Snake River Valley. We were immediately impressed with the beautiful European architecture of the tasting room designed by the founder Greg Koenig. Located on what is known as the “Sunny Slope District”, this elegant tasting room is inviting, refreshing, and downright beautiful.
One of the highlights of our day was getting a tour of their processing warehouse. Berty and I came into this day as total wine newbies, so we were grateful to have someone like Greg Koenig to give us a tour and explain to us the processes, tools, and skills used to create the perfect bottle of wine. Greg is SO smart when it comes to winemaking. His confidence and knowledge really shined as we asked him question after question of what things were and how they worked. We could tell he has put his heart and soul into his business – he knew all the workers by name and took care in all the little details like labeling and presentation.
Koenig Vineyards uses classic oak barrels to age their wine. Each barrel has a label of the kind of wine it is and when it was filled to ensure proper rotation, cleaning, and aging. From Greg, Berty and I also learned that red wine is created when the red grape juice and skin are pressed and processed together. This creates the dark red color – when the skins can ferment with the juice. Oppositely, white wine is made when the grapes are pressed without the skin, or when the grape skins are removed right away. And finally, rosé wine is created when red grapes are pressed with the skin, but only for a short period of time. That’s what gives it that pink color!
After a very insightful tour of his warehouses, we went into the new tasting room to taste some of their signature wines! For proper wine-tasting, we learned that you begin with whites, and make your way towards darker wines, so that you don’t overwhelm your palette. We were also able to try Ice Wine- which is very sweet! Ice Wine is created when the grapes are harvested frozen, some time in December. This late in the season, they have a very high sugar content, and it tasted like drinking straight honey!
Thank you Greg Koenig for sharing your incredible wisdom with us, and allowing us to see a part of the winemaking process! We had a wonderful day! Read more about Koenig Vineyards here and experience their new and beautiful tasting room!
HAT Ranch Winery
This was our third stop of the day. We were surprised with how close the vineyards are to one another. We would drive just a few blocks, and already be at our next destination!
We met with the owner of Hat Ranch Winery, Tim Harless. Tim specifically moved out to Idaho to grow grapes! From hobby to lifestyle, he has been interested in the winemaking process for over 15 years. Compared to the 800-some wineries in Washington, 40 in the Idaho Valley seemed like a much more attractive area to get started. Here, he has the freedom to experiment, try new things, and explore what he could create with the grapes on his 6 acre vineyard.
Berty and I were curious about the name “HAT Ranch”. Was it an acronym? Was there a story? We asked Tim: In 1902, HAT Ranch Homestead was established by Jacob and Margarette Frison, who were starting a new life out in the great Northwest. Family heritage and tradition led Tim to continue the name’s legacy, but instead of continuing farming and homesteading, his journey led him to the “great new frontier of the wine industry“. He was inspired by his family’s pioneering spirit to start a new life and journey out in the Snake River Valley.
We learned from Tim that the wine community in Idaho is very supportive of one another. Some growers will go in together to purchase a piece of large equipment and share it during the working season. People quickly become friends and form a small community of winemakers here in the Valley!
After some spectacular tastings, (they won gold for their 2011 Chardonnay and silver for their 2011 Riesling!), we ended up getting a bottle of wine called The Hat Trick Red blend. It combines three different types of grapes together to create a really unique and complex flavor. This wine, for us, sums up our experience with Tim and HAT Ranch Winery. He takes risks (like moving out to Idaho) and gets a thrill out of experimenting with different flavor combinations (like the Hat Trick Wines).
Fun Fact: All of the fence posts in his vineyard have different hats on them!
Thank you Tim for inviting us in and letting us try your spectacular wines! We were grateful for the opportunity to meet you and hear your story. Learn more about HAT Ranch Winery at their website here.
Huston Vineyards was our last stop of the day. We were excited to visit, and even giggled on the way over because we saw this place was located on “Chicken Dinner Road”. 🙂 As we drove into the parking lot, we saw a beautiful garden filled with flowers, places to sit and drink wine, and an inviting and stylish barn.
Here, we met Gregg and Mary Alger, the owners. They are both Idaho natives and stayed local for the warm sense of family, community, and peaceful living out here in the countryside. When we met Mary, she immediately offered us food – cheese and crackers! It was honestly the best after tasting wine all day. Mary is the kind of person who makes you feel like part of the family, even if you’ve only met her 5 minutes before. Her warm spirit and the friendliness of the space took us back to memories of slow summer days with family. The second you step foot at Huston Vineyards, you feel like you’re home!
Pronounced like the city “Houston”, they decided on this name to commemorate the small community created for agricultural production just a few blocks down the road.
Remember how I mentioned Huston Vineyards is on Chicken Dinner Road? Mary told us the story of a cheeky cook who invited an Idaho governor over for dinner. Little did he know, she was going to make a deal with him: she serves him dinner, and in exchange he sees to it that her road gets ‘oiled’ (instead of the gravel road it had been). Sure enough, they struck a deal. The governor got chicken, mashed potatoes and apple pie, and the bold cook got a shiny new road to her house! You can find the longer version of the story here.
To honor the history of this road, Huston Vineyards did something a little unorthodox and started two labels at the same time. Their Huston Reserve label and their Chicken Dinner label. The Chicken Dinner label is meant to be an everyday table wine – a bottle to gather friends and family around the table to simply enjoy each others’ company.
Mary and Gregg are a big believers that food and wine can go together perfectly. They are both active in the community, participating or hosting events with different chefs, winemakers, and community organizers to create one-of-a-kind evenings. They’ll also host Farm-to-Table events – collaborative evenings celebrating things like “World Malbec Day” which focuses on the pairing of local foods to their wine. We were impressed with the sense of community and family that they have created around their wine culture!
Thank you Mary for your warm hospitality and making us feel so welcome! If you’re reading this, let us know when the next Farm-to-Table event is happening – we want to be a part of it! Find out more about Huston Vineyards (and their Farm-to-Table events!) at their website here.
Thank you also to the Idaho Wine Commision for hosting us around the beautiful Idaho Wineries! We were so grateful for the opportunity to explore the Snake River Valley.
Have you explored any Idaho Wineries? Where did you go and what made it special? We’d love to hear your story in the comments!
More Destinations Near Boise
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