Idaho's renaissance of women winemakers

Once one of the country's best wine-making regions, Idaho's Lewis-Clark valley is making a comeback. Meet the women leading the revolution.
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Karl and Coco Umiker

Once one of the country's best wine-making regions, Idaho's Lewis-Clark valley is making a comeback. Meet the women leading the revolution.

The young lady in the vineyard is Coco Umiker, undergrad degree in microbiology, Ph.D. in food science from WSU. Her husband, Karl, no academic slouch himself, with a Masters in soil science, manages their five-acre vineyard on the bluff above town known as Lewiston Orchards. Coco (excuse me, Dr. Umiker) is the wine maker for their 1,500-case label, Clearwater Canyon. Though it's easy to think of any place east of Bellevue as an entirely different country, Idaho (home to three dozen wineries) is technically in Seattle's backyard.

Lewiston is an inland, ocean-going port via the Snake and Columbia rivers and the rest of the world isn't going to understand why we pay so little attention. I say this because Coco (excuse me, Dr. Umiker) really is the Northwest wine industry's next rock star. Barely 30, she's too busy tending to Clearwater Canyon's affairs and teaching at Lewis-Clark State College to accept an appointment on the five-member Idaho Wine Commission.

Instead, the vacant seat will go to her good friend Melissa Sandborn, her contemporary at WSU's grad school and soulmate at Colter's Creek winery in nearby Juliaetta. Melissa's husband, Mike Pearson, is an engineer who owns a nationally known diagnostic lab based in Moscow. Their winery is at a once-abandoned, seven-acre vineyard along the Potlatch River, near its confluence with Clearwater Creek on the steep, south-facing slopes of the river canyon.

What's now called the Lewis-Clark Valley was, until a century ago, one of the premier wine-growing regions in the country. Forget about the heat-seeking Spanish monks in Central California; the noble cool-climate vinifera were growing here long before, courtesy of immigrants from northern Europe. Alas, Prohibition (and a few harsh winters) put an end to all that. At least until the pioneering spirit that Oregon and Washington nurtured in the 1970s and 1980s took root in the wheat fields of the Palouse and the canyons of the Snake River.

The next step in reviving the valley, local growers agree, is to certify the Lewis Clark Valley as an AVA (American Viticultural Area). It would be Idaho's second (the first covers the Snake River Valley west of Boise), and it would extend into Washington. Remember, these are the first vineyards in the Pacific Northwest, so it's high time they got their due.

When little Coco Gardner was growing up on the family's 50-acre family farm, her adoring grandfather, Ralph Nichols, wouldn't let her ride the combine when the slopes got too steep. (This was before combines had self-levelling cabs.) He was "a beer-drinking farmer," Coco recalls, but he remembered his German neighbor harvesting grapes, so when she asked permission to plant a few acres of vines at the edge of the wheat fields, he proudly drove the Ford tractor himself. (Nichols, who became a convert to wine-drinking, died two years ago, aged 96.)

To prove she was no longer a frail little girl, Coco took a 300-level welding class at the University of Idaho; she still has her (pink) welder's helmet and, in fact, fabricates the winery's specialized equipment. "We do it ourselves because we don't have deep pockets," she explains.

Meanwhile, it is Melissa Sanborn who will take the vacant seat on Idaho's wine commission, and Dr. Umiker will see if her class schedule frees up so she can join the board in a couple of years. Both women, by the way, write extremely entertaining blogs. Melissa's is full of recipes; Dr. Umiker posts videos of the vineyard.

More than a footnote, since we're talking about rock stars: The rock near these vineyards is basalt; it's what you see on all the canyon walls. There's a Basalt Cellars winery as well, owned and operated by Clarkston pharmacist Rick Wasem. His own eight-acre vineyard is on the Snake River, planted with tempranillo, and he buys grapes from top-notch growers as well.

Finally, in a futuristic industrial park adjacent to Washington State University, Patrick Merry finds himself free from the stress traditionally associated with a Ph.D. in computer science; instead he makes wine from local grapes aged in Hungarian oak. Funny enough, he got into winemaking as a hobby, and was so good at it the WSU faculty asked him to take charge of the student wine-making program. Nothing personal, you understand. But the gents in this region don't stand a chance against Melissa and Coco. Dr. Umiker, sorry.

The author's visit to Pullman, Moscow, Lewiston and Clarkston was sponsored by the North Central Idaho Travel Association.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden

Ronald Holden is a regular Crosscut contributor. His new book, published this month, is titled “HOME GROWN Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink." (Belltown Media. $17.95).