Idaho's wine industry is finally coming of age -- and overcoming a haunting slight by none other than The Muppets.
June marks the fourth annual Idaho Wine Month. This year, it is making progress thanks to wineries, restaurants, retailers and wholesalers. That support comes all the way from the Capitol, as Gov. Butch Otter is even making appearances at stores to sign bottles of Idaho wine.
"We've come a long way," said Moya Shatz Dolsby, executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission. "In 2002, there were 11 wineries."
Today, the number of producers from Sandpoint to Twin Falls is 50.
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The wine industry has faced daunting challenges through the years, not the least of which is the state's religious and socially conservative residents.
"About 30 percent of the population doesn't drink wine," Dolsby said, "the majority of which are in eastern Idaho. We haven't had a problem because they see the money behind it, and a lot of religious people buy wine as gifts for others."
Another hurdle can only be described as Idaho's Sideways moment. In 1979, The Muppet Movie came out. In one scene, Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy are enjoying a romantic dinner, when Steve Martin appears as an obnoxious wine steward, who manages to besmirch the entire Idaho wine industry -- which then consisted of Ste. Chapelle.
In the scene, Martin pulls out a bottle of sparkling Muscatel, which he describes as "one of the finest wines of Idaho." After tasting and spitting it out in disgust, Martin says, "Excellent choice," to which Kermit replies, "Should be for 95 cents."
Not unlike the 2004 movie Sideways, which caused Merlot sales to plummet with one crude comment, the Idaho wine industry was set back decades with the bit of comedy.
"People are still talking about that!" Dolsby said with a laugh.
Today, Idaho's wine industry has some serious momentum going, thanks in part to the energetic Dolsby and her staff, as well as to Seattle-based Precept Wine, which owns Idaho's two largest wineries and its biggest vineyard. Precept purchased 130,000-case Ste. Chapelle last year, and it has owned 15,000-case Sawtooth since 1998. It also owns 400-acre Skyline Vineyard in the Snake River Valley.
"Idaho is extremely important to us," said Mark Harmann, Precept's senior vice president of sales. "We're championing the state."
If you haven't tasted Idaho wines lately, this month is a good excuse to try them again. Grape growers are dialing in the viticultural practices, and wineries have a strong mix of imported and homegrown talent.
Here are four Idaho wines we've tried recently. Ask for them from your favorite merchant or order directly from the wineries.
Koenig Vineyards 2010 Williamson Vineyards Sangiovese, Snake River Valley, $20: This opens with aromas of white chocolate, dusty cherry, mint and tarragon, followed by flavors of raspberry and cherry on the entry, then finished with dried cranberry and raspberry.
Cinder Wines 2010 Cab-Merlot, Snake River Valley, $27: This red blend is stunning, with aromas of crushed leaf, red currant, dried cherry and cocoa powder, transitioning to flavors of Marionberry jam, juicy cherry, lime zest and a hint of cranberry.
Sawtooth Winery 2011 Syrah, Snake River Valley, $14: Napa Valley transplant Bill Murray has crafted a superb Syrah, which starts with a nose of black currant candy, white pepper, plum sauce and oak, backed by flavors of blackberry jam, ripe boysenberry and dark chocolate.
3 Horse Ranch Vineyards 2012 Reserve Rosé:, Snake River Valley, $15: This rosé is a blend of Merlot, Grenache and Mourvèdre. It begins with aromas of golden raspberry, clove and cherry, followed by flavors of peach, apricot, tangerine and minerality. With acidity close to perfect, this has great structure and will pair beautifully with pizza, barbecued chicken or pasta with a red sauce.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine; www.greatnorthwestwine.com.