How to Visit Idaho's Affordable, Up-and-Coming Wine Country

by  Laura Motta | Dec 27, 2018
The view from Koenig Vineyards
The view from Koenig Vineyards / Laura Motta

If you had to name an up-and-coming wine region in the United States, the state of Idaho — best known for its long stretches of rugged wilderness and the glam ski resort of Sun Valley — might not be your first choice. But the shores of the Snake River, which makes up a portion of the state’s border with Oregon, provide the kind of fast-draining, sandy volcanic soil where grapes thrive. Viognier, gewürztraminer, petit verdot, and cabernet franc are just a few of the varietals that grow here, in a place with a long history farming all kinds of produce, not just potatoes.

Though the area doesn’t have the endless lodging and culinary options that you’d find in California wine country, this emerging region has a collection of fine tasting rooms, dedicated and experienced winemakers, and plenty of rolling, vineyard-covered scenery. That is to say, it has the key ingredients for a fine getaway. The best part about this region is that it still flies relatively under the radar, and that a visit here (including a bottle or six of your favorite vintage) will cost you significantly less than would in other, comparable wine getaways. Here’s how to visit. 

General Orientation to Idaho Wine

Idaho has three AVAs — American viticultural areas officially designated by the federal government. The Snake River Valley AVA, in southwestern Idaho, includes the state capital of Boise, where there’s a cluster of about a dozen wineries, and you don’t even have to leave town to reach them. This AVA also encompasses a set of wineries in and around the town of Caldwell, which is about a 35-minute drive from Boise. For the rest of our guide, we’ll focus on this easy-to-reach area. 

A second AVA, the Eagle Hills AVA, lies entirely within the Snake River AVA and is also situated near Boise, in and around the town of Eagle. It's the only AVA located entirely in the state of Idaho. The third is the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA, which is shared with the state of Washington and is anchored in the towns of Clarkston in Washington, and Lewiston, which is directly across the river in Idaho. The wineries in this area are popular with cruisers who are sailing on Snake River itineraries. These cruises typically start in Portland and end in Clarkston, leaving cruisers to extend their stays (and sip lots of excellent wines) in Idaho, Washington, or both. American Cruise Lines, American Queen Steamboat Company, and UnCruise Adventures offer this itinerary.     

How to Get There and How to Get Around

For trips to the Snake River area, Boise will be your home base. In coming years, development in the town of Caldwell, specifically designed with wine travelers in mind, will become a reality, but for now, Idaho’s capital city is your best bet. All major U.S. carriers (with the exception of JetBlue) fly there, with nonstop flights offered from many hubs throughout the west and midwest, including Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas. East coasters will have to grab a connecting flight.

Once you land in Boise, renting a car is good idea. Ride sharing services like Lyft and Uber both operate in Boise and also cover the wineries around Caldwell, but the trip between the two areas won’t be cheap — about $45 each way. In light of that, a rental car offers good value; just be sure you have a designated driver if you’re wine tasting. 

Where to Stay

When it comes to lodging, Boise is steeped in affordable chain hotels. An array of Hilton Garden Inns, Residence Inns, Fairfield Inns, and the like guarantee a stay south of $200 per night at most times of the year, but there are a few notable signature properties to add to your must-visit list. Hotel 43 is a solid boutique option that’s known for its restaurant, Chandlers, which has won accolades from Wine Spectator and Forbes and is known for its steaks and martinis. Hotel rates range from about $175-$200 per night. Starters at Chandlers range from $16-$37, with entrees going for $35-$90. The Modern Hotel, situated in a renovated Travelodge and also in the center of town, has cheery Midcentury decor and a welcoming patio. Its eponymous restaurant is helmed by Nate Whitley, who was nominated for a James Beard Award in 2015. Rooms go for $150-$175 per night, while appetizers in the restaurant cost $7-$13; entrees are $14-$24. 

Wineries in Boise

When you’re in Boise, you don’t have to go far to drink wines that originated in the Snake River Valley AVA, whether you’re looking for smaller operations with just a few different bottles, or established brands with vast tasting rooms that host events and serve food. Two wineries that fall easily into the latter category are Cinder and Telaya, both of which are situated in the Garden City area of Boise. Cinder, with its high-ceilinged, warehouse-chic tasting room, pours tempranillo, syrah, rose, dry viognier and others for hordes of locals; none of these wines retail for more than $30. Cheese and charcuterie boards, olives, and assorted chocolates accompany the tastings and top out at $13. 

Telaya Wine Co., which occupies a handsome corrugated metal structure situated right on the Boise River, was founded in 2008 and distributes its wines mostly to local hotels and restaurants, including Chandlers at Hotel 43. Before or after your tasting, which might include a mourvedre, syrah, or cabernet, stroll along the Boise River Greenbelt, which is just a few steps from the winery’s door. You’ll pass by rapids, bridges, and local wildlife, and you can follow the trail back to downtown Boise. 

Smaller wineries in Boise to check out include Par Terre, which is situated in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it commercial space on Route 26. Here you’ll find just four wines (rose, merlot, syrah, and semillon) at unbeatable prices. Tastings cost $5 with full glasses going for $6-$8. Want a whole bottle? The whites cost $18 and the reds $24. Sharing real estate with Telaya on the Boise River is 3100 Cellars, which specializes in sparkling wines and draws its inspiration from all of Idaho’s rivers — all 3,100 miles of them. Tastings are by-appointment and all bottles cost $36. 

Beyond the Capital

The region around Caldwell, which is sometimes called the Sunnyslope area, looks and feels more like a true wine region. With fields of grapes stretching in every direction, vast swaths of blue sky, and tasting rooms that offer views across the landscape, this area is where you’ll want to go to truly savor this region and its wines. 

Koenig winery should be you first stop. Its stone facade conjures images of Tuscany and you can taste wines inside the dark-wood tasting room, or by the bubbling fountain on the shaded patio. Here, you can enjoy and purchase a long list of wines, including merlot, chardonnay, or zinfandel, or even ice wine, all while taking in the view. Bottles cost from $16-$30, with reserve bottles that go up to $50. Koenig distills spirits as well. Nearby Williamson Orchards & Vineyards is a family-run company that has its roots in fruit orchard cultivation — a natural complement to winemaking. In fact, other winemakers in the area use Williamson fruit in their vintages. The tasting room is filled with antiques from the family farm, and the sense of warmth and connection here is strong. You can try five wines for $5, and bottles range from about $20-$30. 

Sawtooth produces wines that embody the spirt of the great outdoors, which is more than apparent in its rustic-style tasting room, which takes design cues from fly fishing. Bottles retail for about $15-$30, with some reserves going for more.The winemaker behind Sawtooth’s award-winning riesling, pinot gris, and chardonnay is Meredith Smith, who’s one of many women helming the area’s wineries. Another is Sydney Weitz-Nederland, whose relatively new winery, Scoria Vineyards, is situated on land that her family has farmed for generations. Her red varietals grow on the sandy soil that surrounds an extinct volcanic vent and the nearby tasting room channels the volcanic theme with dark stone and bright red accents. Scoria’s wines have been so popular that they’re sold out for the season (bottles ranged $18-$32); the tasting room reopens with a new lineup of wines in 2019.   

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