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SNAKE RIVER VALLEY, Idaho - It is Idaho's fastest-growing agricultural industry, bringing millions and millions of dollars into the state every single year, and it is not potatoes. It's wine. Also, the changing climate elsewhere could drive more winemakers to Idaho.
Business Is Booming
Right now, at Koenig Vineyards along the Snake River near Marsing, workers are busy, and cramped.
"We're just constantly trying to make room for more wines," says owner Greg Koenig.
Koenig built their current facility a few years ago. But, thanks to his business and the overall demand for Idaho wine growing so quickly, he's already outgrown his building. "The good news is that people are really starting to get excited about Idaho wines."
The Bad Old Days
But, it wasn't always that way. In fact, a few decades ago, Idaho wine was part of a famous joke in "The Muppets Movie," where Steve Martin (playing a waiter) spits out "One of the finest wines of Idaho," sparkling muscatel.
As you might imagine, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission, Moya Dolsby, doesn't think that's too funny, "Isn't that awful? People are still talking about it. Justin, stop talking about it!"
I will. Because, there's been serious growth in the Idaho wine industry. As Dolsby points out, "Idaho is more than just potatoes."
From 2008 to 2013, the number of Idaho wineries has increased from 38 to 51. The number of wine jobs has grown from 625 to 1,226. And, the industry's economic impact in the state has more than doubled, from $73 million to $169.3 million. But, it's not just about the amount of wine being produced. The quality is also improving.
Koenig says, "We talk about 20 years ago as being the bad old days when we couldn't even get people to try our wines. Now, people are coming to us and asking."
Dolsby says, "Now, I feel like I don't have to beg restaurants to try wine."
Koenig is the first Idaho winery to score a 90-plus rating from Wine Spectator, and they did it on three different wines. In fact, wineries across the state are winning big awards.
Things like that get Dolsby excited. "That's awesome. That's huge. That's like, 'Yes! We're doing it!'"
Warming Up To Idaho Wine
But, what about Idaho is helping vineyards grow? And, what's drawing other winemakers to Idaho? Dolsby says, plenty, "It's something different, new... resources, water, land, it's more affordable."
"Wine is all about soil and climate," says Koenig. "The modern Idaho wine industry is here only because of the climate for what people can grow. There are only a few places in the world where you can grow good wine grapes."
And, those places are changing, because their climates are changing.
"Idaho, like much of the Northwest and the globe, has warmed just over a degree fahrenheit over the past century," says John Abatzoglou, PhD. and climatologist at the University of Idaho.
A degree may not sound like much. But, Dr. Abatzoglou says that has allowed perennial crops, like wine grapes, to better survive the Winter in Idaho. He also says it's increased the growing season by two weeks, opening Idaho's doors to more types of crops, "That includes a lot of the crops, such as wine grapes, and other sorts of fruits."
Meanwhile, the same climate changes in America's most highly-regarded wine region, Northern California, could make it too hot and dry for some varieties of grapes down there. Dr. Abatzoglou says that means, growers could bring them to Idaho, "It's possible that many of these crops will be able to take refuge in the Northwest, including parts of Idaho by the mid 21st-century."
Unlimited Potential
The climate, along with Idaho's soil and affordable land, is why Idaho's wine industry is poised to continue to grow, ripen, and pour into other areas of the state.
Koenig says, "The potential for Idaho wine is really unlimited at this point."
Also, June is Idaho wine month. That features Savor Idaho, event where hundreds of people will gather at the Botanical Gardens to taste Idaho's finest wine and also some food.