Ripening of the grape

AG FALL ’09: Area wineries finding success in quest to reintroduce industry to Quad Cities

By Brad W. Gary of the Tribune

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Jim Arnett has been growing grapes in Clarkston for about a dozen years.

But it’s only been in the last five that he’s seen the market for his crop develop with winemakers in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.

“We didn’t have a wine industry to start with five years ago,” he said “It’s been 100 years since we had a wine industry, so to speak, in the valley.”

Prior to 2004, Arnett and his wife, Dana Arnett, sold their red wine grapes to private winemakers and winemakers elsewhere.

Now, he’s planning to add three acres of vines to accommodate the increased demand uncorked with the growth of local wineries. Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston and Colter’s Creek winery in Juliaetta have bought all of Arnett’s grapes the last two years.

“All the vineyards have a large range of varietals that they do well,” said Coco Umiker of Lewiston. “It is just an amazing place to grow grapes.”

Umiker is the winemaker at Clearwater Canyon Cellars at the Port of Lewiston, where she and her husband, Karl Umiker, are part owners. The couple is separately growing grapes on three acres off 10th Street in the Lewiston Orchards, many of which are sold to the winery.

“A lot of people come into Lewiston and they don’t realize what an amazing place it is. All of us that live here and love this place want to show something that brings positive attention to the valley,” Umiker said.

Six wineries comprising of Basalt Cellars in Clarkston, Colter’s Creek, Merry Cellars in Pullman, Camas Prairie Winery in Moscow, Wawawai Canyon Winery in Pullman and Clearwater Canyon Cellars recently formed the Palouse Lewis-Clark Wine Alliance as a means to promote the area’s wine.

Their drive came in part from the success of Walla Walla-area wines, and the rich history of grape growing in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. They say it could reignite a great winemaking tradition that dried up with prohibition in the 1920s.

And winemakers have a breadth of fruit to choose from, as different grapes are better suited on their vines in certain parts of the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.

“There are a lot of micro-climates in the area that are suitable for specific areas. A broad variety are able to be grown in the valley,” said Lydia Clayton, Nez Perce County’s University of Idaho extension agent.

Arnett’s vineyard in Clarkston has sandy soil suited for cabernet sauvignon. Umiker’s in the Lewiston Orchards has richer soils that grow merlot and syrah grapes well.

But the industry remains in its infancy, said fellow grape grower Bill Hobbs. Getting local wines re-established will take some time. Hobbs has five acres of vines near the Harvest Vista subdivision east of Lewiston, four of which are actively producing.

“We’re into the sixth year,” he said, and having good luck growing grapes, including the cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and Riesling.

The investment in grapes, the time it takes to produce a grape good enough to barrel, and the up to two years in the barrel before bottling, can cost quite a bit of time and money.

About five acres equates to a full-time job for many growers when it comes to labor and maintenance of the vines, Hobbs said. The growing started as a way to diversify other crops, but Hobbs admits it’s taken five years to grow toward full production. He’s got plans for additional vines in the near future.

“We’d like to see more wineries start in the area to utilize the local grapes, to get an AVA (American Viticultural Area) designation for this area,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs said he’s seen interest in the region’s vines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and word has spread simply by word of mouth by wine enthusiasts around the region.

“The secret is take it slow and do it right,” Hobbs said. “It will work out well.”

Gary may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2262.