Move over California, Washington and Oregon—Idaho is US’s newest burgeoning wine region where women winemakers are dominating the vineyards, finds Paula Froelich.
Sydney Nederend is an American wine prodigy. Four years ago, when Nederend was just 20 years old and a sophomore studying financial marketing and design in college, she decided she was going to start her own vineyard. She convinced her father, an Idaho farmer, to give her 20 acres of fallow land, where nothing currently grows, to plant Malbec and Petit Verdot grapes—the next year she had her first bottle under her own brand, Scoria. And it was great.
“Our land lies on a dormant volcanic vent—and it’s perfect for growing grapes,” says Nederend, who hopes to add another 80 acres of vines to her field by 2022. “When I started planting, the area was all sagebrush and cactus … now it’s vines.”
Nederend is just the latest face of the burgeoning Idaho Wine Commission—which is increasingly female and leading the country in women-owned vineyard and winemakers. Astonishingly, Idaho has a whopping 22 per cent women who own or co-own vineyards and are winemakers.
Contrast that with the more well-known wine-producing states like California, Washington and Oregon, which top out with just seven to 10 per cent female winemakers (and female-owned vineyards at a meager four per cent)—and, ironically, Idaho is the frontier for women looking to break into the oenophile industry.
“Unlike everywhere else in the world, women actually dominate the wine industry in Idaho,” said Tammy Stowe-McClure, the owner and operator of Indian Creek Winery. Stowe-McClure, is famous in the area, not just for her wines, but also for appearing on American Ninja Warrior as the Wine Warrior.
Indian Creek was started by her father Bill in the 1970s and was one of the first vineyards in Idaho. “This is the only job I’ve ever had,” Tammy said. “And it’s the only job I want.”
The Snake River Valley area lies along a stretch of extinct volcanoes and, due to the river and the valley, the area has a microclimate that is great for grapes; cold during the winter, hot and dry over the summer. Idaho also has the added benefit of not being as expensive as the coastal states, which has attracted non-traditional vineyard owners, or people who always dreamed of a vineyard in more expensive West Coast areas, but were priced out decades ago.
“The barrier to entry in the Idaho wine scene is quite low,” says Greg Koenig, a local vineyard owner and winemaker for Nederand’s Scoria, Bitner Vineyards (co-owned by Amy Bitner) and several other local vineyards. “The land is cheaper, it is cheaper to farm, and word is getting out.”
Helen Harless, a dentist, who co-owns Hat Ranch Vineyard and Winery with her husband, a retired Air Force officer, Tim, bought a former cattle feed farm in the area in 2010 after raising their kids in Texas.
“Earlier in my career, I had written about wine and knew a lot about it. Tim also loved wine and we always wanted to open our own vineyard. We looked at California, Oregon and Washington—and then someone told us about Idaho.”
As most industries find out, when women are let in, it means big business. There are now 51 vineyards in the state …
By 2012 the couple debuted their first bottle of Chardonnay and they now produce 3,000 cases of multiple varieties a year. Last year, the vineyard’s dry Muscato won a gold medal from the San Francisco Chronicle.
“It’s not really retirement,” Harless laughs, “We work harder now than we ever did! But we love it and it’s our dream.”
Melanie Krauss, the owner of Cinder Wines who specializes in Viognet, Syrah and Tempranillo wines, told Carpe Travel, “A lot of women are making or running wineries in Idaho. Many of us just wanted to move home, back to Idaho … living in the Snake River Valley has enabled me to continue my job in the wine industry. This is a self-made gig and for many of us who have families, it’s perfect. We can have the flexibility and quality of life we want for our families while doing a job we love.”
And in Idaho, wine is a family business.
Hadley Robertson, who owns Zhoo Zhoo wines with her sisters, learned everything at the knee of her parents Steve and Leslie Robertson, who started Hells Canyon Winery in 1981.
“Idaho started at the same time as Washington and Oregon—but they got larger quicker and caught on faster because of the population and those state’s larger cities. But our wine is just as good, if not better,” Robertson says.
And, as most industries find out, when women are let in, it means big business.
There are now 51 vineyards in the state and, according to the Idaho Wine Commission, the wine regions in the state have brought in $169.3 million and created over 1200 hundred jobs. Of the eight vineyards I visited, all were organic, sustainable family-run and there was an average 20 per cent year over year growth for the wineries. They all produced between 1,000-4,000 cases a year on average and sold out of product within six to eight months. Even more impressive—the growth is sustained through old-school, backyard business and wine clubs.
“We sell mostly out of our vineyard,” Nederand said. “We have a lot of bachelor and bachelorette parties,” Robertson agreed as several busloads of customers drove up.
And while the wine is great, the area is also perfect for the adventure seeker who may want to hike in the morning, taste wine in the afternoon and catch a rodeo in the evening before taking advantage of the shooting stars at night—Idaho now has the first Dark Sky Reserve in the US, too. And stargazing is, of course, paired perfectly with a glass of Idaho wine.