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In Idaho, Women Winemakers Reign Supreme

By Paula Froelich

Jan 15, 2020

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At 3100 Cellars, Hailey Minder focuses exclusively on sparkling wines.

Courtesy of 3100 Cellars

At 3100 Cellars, Hailey Minder focuses exclusively on sparkling wines.

Yes, there’s a wine scene in Idaho—and these women are leading the way.

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Until recently, Idaho was known for its potatoes. But as oenophiles flock to the state’s volcanic valleys, word is getting out—Idaho is actually a wine lover’s dream. It’s also a haven for women winemakers. 

With cold winters and hot, dry summers, Idaho’s Lewis Clark Valley, Snake River Valley, and Eagle Foothills have similar climates to the great wine-growing regions of the world. In the past ten years, they’ve all seen exponential growth as American Viticultural Areas, with 60 vineyards now operating across the three regions. 

Mostly small in size, these new vineyards typically produce just 1,000 to 6,000 cases a year (with the notable exception of Ste. Chapelle, which makes 100,000), but they had an economic impact of nearly $210 million in 2018 and employed more than 1,200 people. More impressive still is the fact that many are also owned by women. In fact, at 15, Idaho has the highest number of women-run wineries in the United States, according to the Idaho Wine Commission.  

One reason for this, said winemaker Melissa Sanborn of Colter’s Creek in Juliaetta, is the overall youth of the industry in Idaho. “Wineries were still getting established at a time when women were getting into not just the wine industry, but really starting to show face in a lot of industries,” she said. “Women also have really great palates, which makes us great winemakers.”

Another factor is the relative freedom within the Idaho wine industry, said Leslie Preston, owner of Coiled Wines in Garden City. “Idaho is like the Wild West for wine,” she says. “There aren’t boundaries and you can do anything.” Preston, who spent several years making wine in Napa Valley, added, “There’s a really strong support for entrepreneurs, regardless of gender, and I don’t feel like there’s an ‘old boys’ club’ here, which I have felt in other states. There’s no place besides Idaho where I would really be having this much fun and this much freedom.”

Read on for a guide to Idaho’s female winemakers—and where to find them throughout the state.

Melissa Sanborn

Colter’s Creek, Juliaetta

Several of Melissa Sanborn’s wines are gold-medal winners.

Melissa Sanborn and her husband, Mike Pearson, purchased what would become Colter’s Creek vineyard in 2007, just as she was finishing a graduate program in wine chemistry. “Our vineyard had been originally planted in the 1980s and was abandoned, but all the vines were alive, so we revived those initial seven acres—and then planted more,” Sanborn said. The resulting wines—including a Spanish blend, a riesling, and even an ice wine—have been regular gold-medal winners in the Great Northwest Invitational, the Cascadia Wine Competition, and the Idaho Wine Competition.

Lisa Grigg

Jovinea Cellars, Lenore

After interning with renowned winemaker Carter Clary of Woodie Cellars, Lisa Grigg opened Jovinea Cellars with her husband in the small town of Lenore in Idaho’s Lewis Clark Valley in 2018. The couple is currently purchasing grapes from Idaho and Washington while their estate vineyard is in development, but they eventually hope to source everything from the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA. On sale now are small-lot, artisan wines with lots of character, including a chardonnay, a viognier, and a pinot grigio. 

Coco Umiker

Clearwater Canyon Cellars, Lewiston

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Named Idaho’s “Winery of the Year” in 2015, Clearwater Canyon Cellars in the Lewis Clark Valley has been around since 2004. Coco Umiker, who received her PhD in food chemistry, is behind the award-winning wine, which includes an excellent syrah as well as an albariño and rosé.

Amy and Mary Bitner

Bitner Vineyards, Caldwell

Amy Bitner is committed to running her vineyard in a sustainable, socially conscious way.

Owned by Mary and Ron Bitner and run by their daughter Amy, Bitner Vineyards was established in 1981 on 15 acres in Caldwell. Today, the winery prides itself on its sustainable, socially conscious practices, from hand-pulling weeds instead of using toxic chemicals to planting crops between the vines just for bees. The wines—which range from chardonnay and riesling to cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, syrah, and viognier—can only be purchased at the vineyard or via a wine club and often sell out within six months of release.

To get a sip for yourself, visit the vineyard’s tasting room, located in a former tractor shed with panoramic views of the valley. Here, you can sample five different wines for just $10, oftentimes with Mary and Ron themselves. Should you not want to leave, Bitner also boasts a bed-and-breakfast, complete with a suite and two rooms overlooking the vineyards.

Helen Harless

HAT Ranch Winery, Caldwell

Helen and Tim Harless got into winemaking in retirement, founding HAT Ranch in 2011. “The kids had graduated and we were thinking of what to do,” Helen said. “We moved here specifically to buy a vineyard ... It’s a lot of work. We are not retired.” Their efforts paid off, however, and over the past three years they’ve won gold and silver medals in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the Cascadia Wine Competition, and the Idaho Wine Competition for their earthy cabernet sauvignon, dry rosé, fruit-forward petit verdot, and more. 

Sydney Nederend

Scoria Vineyards, Caldwell

Sydney Nederend started working in wine when she was just 21 years old.

Sydney Nederend started planting vines in 2014, when she was just 21 and fresh out of college with a marketing degree. She eventually struck gold near an old volcanic vent, on a sagebrush- and cactus-covered property that her family has been farming for 100 years. In 2015, she came out with her first chardonnay, though she now specializes in red wines like petit verdot, malbec, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot under her Scoria Vineyards label. 

Leslie Robertson

Hells Canyon Winery, Caldwell

True Idaho wine pioneers, Leslie and Steve Robertson founded Hells Canyon Winery all the way back in 1981. Today, the picturesque vineyard is a favorite for its sustainable, estate-grown wines, especially its merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and floral but spicy cabernet franc. Get a taste at the vineyard’s on-site wine bar, which offers appetizers and wine flights on a scenic patio overlooking the Snake River when the weather is nice, or indoors by the fire during the colder months.

Bijou, Hadley, and Jocelyn Robertson

Zhoo Zhoo Winery, Caldwell

Wine runs in the Robertson blood. Leslie and Steve’s three daughters, Bijou, Hadley, and Jocelyn, launched their own label under Hells Canyon Winery in 2003, using grapes from the family farm to create an entirely different rosé. “Our wine is just as good, if not better, than comparable ones in Oregon and Washington,” said Hadley. Zhoo Zhoo now also makes a merlot, a syrah, and an unoaked chardonnay, as well as a few red blends. 

Angela Shaltry

W2 Wines, Caldwell 

Known for her pinot noirs and syrahs, Angela Shaltry owned Périple Wines until 2015, when she was diagnosed with brain cancer and forced to put her passion on hold. Two years later, however, she was in remission and back at work with Angela Shaltry Consulting, where she helps people learn the business of vineyard and wine management. Today, she also makes small-batch wines for clients at a facility in Caldwell, producing Oregon pinot noir under her W2 Wines label. 

Meredith Smith

Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth Winery, Caldwell

Meredith Smith is beind both Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth Winery, where she makes highly acclaimed vintages.

Not only is Meredith Smith the award-winning winemaker behind Idaho’s largest and longest continually operating winery, but she’s also the head winemaker at Sawtooth, a 70-acre estate vineyard nearby. Wine Enthusiast called her Sawtooth 2011 riesling and 2017 pinot gris “best buys,” while Washington Post wine writer Dave McIntyre raved about Sawtooth, saying “I’m a big fan of this winery for its outstanding riesling, delightful chardonnay, and succulent syrah.”

Melanie Krause

Cinder Wines, Garden City

Hailed as one of the best urban wineries in the West, Melanie Krause’s Cinder Wines is located just outside Boise in Garden City. Krause started her career as a vineyard technician, then transitioned to crafting “homemade” wines, albeit with advice from Chateau Ste. Michelle and Northstar winemakers. In 2008, she struck out on her own and, last year, her 2017 Snake River Valley Tempranillo won the gold medal at the Idaho Wine Competition. 

Hailey Minder

3100 Cellars, Garden City

Named after the number of white-water river miles in the state of Idaho, the all-sparkling 3100 Cellars comes courtesy of winemaker Hailey Minder, who trained at nearby Telaya Wine Co. before opening her own winery with her husband, Marshall, in 2014. At 3100, Minder focuses solely on what she calls “the bubbles” and makes, among other wines, a sparkling chardonnay and rosé.

Leslie Preston

Coiled Wines, Garden City

Born and bred in Idaho, Leslie Preston was studying French literature and teaching French classes at the University of California, Davis, when she got the idea to start making wine. After a few years of hauling Idaho grapes to a custom-crush facility in St. Helena, she moved from Napa Valley back to Idaho, founded Coiled Wines, and debuted her first syrah. Her “vine-to-wine” urban winery is now known for its syrah blend, as well as its dry riesling, petit verdot, and chablis-style chardonnay.

Carrie Sullivan

Telaya Wine Co., Garden City

A former veterinarian for small and exotic animals, Carrie Sullivan established Telaya Wine Co. along with her husband, Earl, in 2008 as part of a life plan that would allow them both to be more present for their sons. The winery, which specializes in cabernet sauvignon and red blends, has grown considerably since then—Wine Press Northwest went from calling it a “Winery to Watch” in 2015 to “Winery of the Year” in 2016. 

Tammy Stowe-McClure

Indian Creek Winery, Kuna 

Fans of American Ninja Warrior may recognize Tammy Stowe-McClure from her stint on the hit show, but she’s most comfortable at the vineyard her father, Bill, founded in the 1980s. She took over managing Indian Creek Winery several years ago and now works alongside her husband, Mike, to produce the vineyard’s signature syrah, pinot noir, and malbec, as well as a particularly delicious riesling.  

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>>Next: Plan your trip with AFAR’s Travel Guide to Idaho

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