Though you may be more familiar with the wines of Oregon and Washington, surprisingly Idaho was the first state in the Pacific Northwest to plant grape vines.
Early History of the Idaho Wine Industry
In the 1870s French and German immigrants arrived in the town of Lewiston in the Lewis-Clark Valley of northwestern Idaho and cultivated grape varietals such as Petite Sirah, Petite Verdot, and Cabernet Franc. By 1908 over 40 varieties of grapes were grown and the winemakers were winning awards around the country. The Idaho wine industry was booming. But, as was the case in so many other states, Prohibition devastated the industry, first on the state level in 1916, followed by National Prohibition in 1920. Production came to a screeching halt and most wine was sent to Spokane, WA to be turned into vinegar.
Rebirth of the Industry
Wine making did not return to Idaho until 1970 when grapevines were planted along the Snake River Valley in the southwestern part of the state. Grapes thrive in the unique four season climate of the valley. Cold winters allow the vines to go dormant and conserve carbohydrates for energy in the growing season and rid the vines of bugs and disease. The high elevations of the region combined with cool summer nights and warm days serve to balance grape acids and sugars, producing beautifully balanced wines. Initially wine makers planted cool climate white wine grapes such as Riesling, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay but more recently there has been an emphasis on red wines from Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Tempranillo grapes.
Growth of Idaho Wine
Over the next three decades the Idaho wine industry grew slowly but steadily. In 2002 the state had 11 wineries and by 2010 there were over 40. In 2007 the Snake River Valley became the first federally recognized American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the state covering over 8,000 square miles (including some in Oregon)with 1,125 planted acres. In 2015 the Eagle Foothills sub AVA was established within the Snake River Valley AVA. This sub AVA is located near Eagle, Idaho close to the capital city of Boise. It was approved as a sub AVA after scientists from Southern Oregon University determined its unique climate, soil, and terrain was different from the rest of the region.
Wine production returned to the Lewis-Clark Valley in the 1990’s and in April 2016 the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA, and the third in Idaho, was approved. Today this northern Idaho region includes a contiguous section of southeastern Washington state encompassing approximately 500 square miles of land planted to 100 acres of grapes.
This temperate-climate Lewis-Clark Valley AVA has steep river canyons and plateaus within it and is home to the lowest elevation vineyards in the state, yet is successful in ripening a wide variety of high quality wine grapes. There are 16 vineyards and 7 wineries in the AVA producing wine from twenty-three different grape varietals, most of them red, including Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbara, and the Austrian born grape Blaufrankisch. The nine white grape varietals include Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscat.
To learn more about this area including tours, tastings, and events , click here. Today there are over 60 wineries across the state of Idaho with the greatest concentration located in the Snake River Valley AVA region of Sunnyslope. Following the Sunnyslope wine trail is the best way to visit and learn about the 17 wineries in the region. Go to their website to learn more. And to find more information on the wineries, regions, and viticulture of Idaho, go to the Idaho Wine Commission website.