Not only are wines being made in Idaho, they’re being made organically as well. I spoke with Gary Cunningham who, along with his wife Martha, own and operate 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards.
What are the challenges of growing grapes in Idaho?
You can grow grapes anywhere. The real is issue is ripening the fruit. In Idaho we’re always destined to have that one last frost in the fall. We have a warm site and use wind machines, so we can keep them on the vines those last few weeks. We’re a part of the Snake River Valley AVA. The soil quality here has produced some outstanding fruit. If you make the best fruit possible then 90% of your work is already done.
When did you start the winery?
We began planting in 2003 and released our first wine in May 2008. Our goal is to produce 100% estate-grown wines. We’re about to release 7 wines, and six of them estate-grown. It’s the perfect site; 8-9 degree slope on south-facing hills with great soil. We released 5,200 cases last year and plan for 12,000 in 2009. I doubt we’ll go past that. At some stage you can’t maintain the quality. We don’t want to use grapes from Oregon and Washington just to keep bottling. We’re not a major corporation; just a family.
Why the decision to go organic?
We live in the vineyard. We look at it outside our windows. Anything sprayed on the vines would be consumed by my family and the people who work for us. We wanted it to be clean. It was never a marketing idea, just a family decision. Of course now, four years later, when we put “organic” on the bottle is seems more important to people today.
How hard is it to farm organically in Idaho?
We get cold winters, and the natural freeze reduces the problems. We don’t have phylloxera, and very few insect issues like you would in California. We are very secluded. There’s no other farming within miles of us, so there’s no chance of overspray.
Which grapes do best in Idaho soil?
The consensus is the Rhone varietals do well. We’ve planted Syrah, Vigonier, Roussanne and Mourvedre among others.
Grapes can be grown organically in the vineyard, but then be subject to controversial techniques once inside the winery. What’s your approach to winemaking?
Our goal is to maximize the purity of the fruit, not to mask anything. We don’t oak our Vigonier. For our Pinot Gris, we used an alsatian yeast, because that’s what we think brings out the ideal style that represents that wine.
We grow 100% of our grapes organically. We go out of our way to make sure the consumer understands that. We do not make organic wine because we are concerned about shelf life. We add a minimal amount of sulfites during the wine making process to ensure that quality. We believe how and where the grapes are grown is the most important thing.
Is there a prejudice against Idaho wines? Do people even know they make wine there?
It’s more of a lack of knowledge. Originally Idaho wines were made from a lot of grapes that came from outside the state. The quality wasn’t what it should have been. Like any beginning industry, we’re trying to get out the word to the marketplace. Even people from Idaho are surprised to taste our wines and see a level of quality they didn’t expect. The Snake River Valley AVA is starting to get some recognition. We sell every bottle of wine we make.
What’s the attitude about farming organically there in general?
When we first wanted to go green it wasn’t that big a deal. Now it’s different. I can go to my supermarket and get organic eggs and cereal. Our friend’s dairy is applying for certification. Today, people want local if they can get it, and it’s even better when they’re organic as well.
Do you market you wines as “organic?”
We put 100% organically grown grapes on our label. We want them to know that they are organic and that they came from our own vineyard. So few people understand what estate-grown means.
Where did the name “3 Horse Ranch” come from?
We owned three horses when we bought the ranch. And my wife and I have one daughter, so there are three of us too.