I rolled into Sandpoint, Idaho in the early afternoon and was immediately struck by a cute, quaint, yet somewhat hip downtown area in the town of approximately 6800 residents. Despite spending 4 years in the Spokane area, the only time I had seen Sandpoint was from the backseat of a car when I was 15 on a 24 hour run to Canada while working at a Northern Idaho summer camp. That's a story for a different day. Like many small communities in the Pacific Northwest, Sandpoint is steeped in Native tradition, with Lake Pend d'Oreille serving as a summer encampment site for the Salish Tribes. In the early 1900's, railroads and timber drove the economy and in 1963, Schweitzer Mountain Resort opened nearby turning Sandpoint into a tourist mecca. Presently with the lake and the resort, Sandpoint is an interesting collision between hip, urban, outdoor tourism and old-fashioned timber culture. Sandpoint is quickly becoming an arts and culture capital of Northern Idaho, and yes, they make wine there!
Pend d'Oreille Winery, founded in 1995 by Steve and Julie Meyer, is the only Idaho winery north of Coeur d'Alene. By the way, if you're going to visit Northern Idaho, better practice up on the use and pronunciation of apostrophes. I walked into the PO tasting room at the appointed time and was immediately struck by an environment that was reminiscent of a urban environment; a hip tasting bar area surrounded by a small restaurant and lifestyle store with hints of country charm. It could have easily been Portland or California. I was met by the Pend d'Oreille's cellarmaster and jack-of-all-trades, Jim, who poured two different 2007 Malbecs from the Terrior Series, one from Washington and one from Idaho. We'll get to that in a minute. After the Malbec, Jim asked if I wanted to head back to the cellar for some barrel samples. After rearranging my extremely packed (nonexistent) schedule for the rest of the day, I was in. Jim started pulling the 2010 vintage out of the barrels and by time we had made it through some very promising Viognier and a few strains of Chardonnay, the man himself, Steve Meyer, joined us.
As Steve and I thieved into the 2009 vintage of PO red wine, I had the opportunity to ask him some of the questions that you are probably thinking right now - why Idaho being at the top of the list. Steve started sharing his background and I quickly got a glimpse inside the workings of a visionary winemaker and winery. Steve started making wine in Burgundy 25 years ago during an errant ski trip. After cutting his teeth in France and California, a wife from the area and proximity to some of the best fruit in the world brought Steve and Julie back to Sandpoint. With a dual-mission of creating the greatest wine in the Northwest and invigorating a wine culture in the Sandpoint area, Steve takes his role in the industry very seriously as he creates wines of smaller varietals to both educate consumers in the area and promote business during the shoulder seasons of a tourist town. Pend d'Oreille surprises many as Sandpoint isn't exactly wine country, but a quick drive to both Eastern Washington and Southern Idaho growing regions makes it the perfect locale. Always pushing boundaries, Steve has placed a heavy emphasis on sustainability in operations with a "Think Green, Drink Red" motto. To that end, the winery has implemented a refillable bottle program out of their tasting room. Think of a growler in the beer world. For an initial $25 bottle purchase, customers can have a refill of either Bistro Rouge or Bistro Blanc for just $16 at any time. In the first year of the program, Pend d'Oreille kept over 10,000 pounds of glass out of the landfill and averages 350 fills per month. How cool is that?
On to the wine! While at the winery, I probably tasted 15 different wines from bottles or barrels so can't possibly speak to all of them. I can say they were all good, and if you've read our previous coverage we love pretty much everything PO puts out. One of the cool things that Steve does is called the Terrior Series, a side by side varietal comparison from two different winegrowing regions. For 2007, Malbec was the varietal of choice with representation of vineyard designated Washington and Idaho fruit, presented with identical winemaking styles. Here's the rundown:
2007 Malbec, Freepons Vineyard, Yakima Valley, Washington: With a lot of dark fruit on the nose, this wine has a mellow tannin structure and a smooth mouthfeel. A relatively classic Malbec, it would pair well with some bolder food such as chili. Very nice. Case production of 74 with a very reasonable price point of $28.00.
2007 Malbec, Wood River Vineyard, Snake River Valley, Idaho: Tasted second, I found the Idaho Malbec to be a bit more tannic with some rose petal on the nose. Hints of plum and vanilla on the palate meld into a very delicious wine and a quite pleasant surprise coming out of Idaho. This is a gorgeous representation of the Snake River Valley. With a case production of 73 and the $28.00 price tag, it won't stick around long.
My preference leaned slightly towards the Idaho Malbec for this vintage. The 2010 and 2009 vintages are showing a lot of promise, keep your eyes open for the Primitivo and Zinfandel to hit the streets.
So...Idaho, huh? An often-forgotten area of the Pacific Northwest, wine grapes were introduced to Idaho in the late 1800's and were grown until Prohibition. For those familiar with the area, the old Potlatch Lumber mill site near Lewiston was a vineyard in forgotten days. In the 70's, Idaho saw a resurgence of vineyard development and the area is now home to 38 wineries. Many believe that the Southern Idaho area is ideal for growth, with high heat summers and cold winters. With over 1500 acres of grapes, and AVA designation for the Snake River Valley, Idaho is staking it's claim in the marketplace with primary production of Chardonnay, Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Eichardt's Pub for a great beer selection and elk burger and the Coldwater Creek Wine Bar for a nice by-the-glass selection. Yes, it's the same Coldwater Creek that sells women's clothing. The Best Western Edgewater Resort offered comfortable, reasonably priced accommodations with a fantastic hot tub. If you're looking for a scenic and fun place to visit with some awesome wine, put Sandpoint on your list. If you want to avoid the tourist mobs, November is a great time to do it. Be careful, though, as you may wake up to snow on the ground as I did the next morning.