Grape Expectations

By Tara Morgan / Photography By Tara Morgan | June 15, 2016
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New Koenig Vineyards

A gravel road cuts through an arbor of lush maple trees as it winds up to the new Koenig Vineyards tasting room, situated atop a small hill in Sunnyslope. Neatly trellised vines stretch into the distance, while the Owyhee Mountains jut up through the haze hanging on the horizon.

Winemaker and co-owner Greg Koenig has been producing wines in a warehouse here in the heart of Southern Idaho’s Snake River Valley American Viticultural Area since 2009—everything from his popular Riesling Ice Wine to the lush Cuvée Amelia Reserve Syrah—along with wines for other local labels like Bitner Vineyards, 3 Horse Ranch and Williamson Vineyards. But Koenig’s tasting room has remained in its original location, two miles east in a small chateau opened in 1995 near the idyllic intersection of Plum Road and Grape Lane where his brother, Andy Koenig, converts fresh fruit into delicate, Austrian-style eau de vie.

“The last few years, wine tasting has become pretty popular and we’ve had more and more traffic,” said Greg Koenig. “My old tasting room—which 20 years ago was perfectly big enough for what it was—is now crowded and we can’t really give people good customer service.”

So the Koenigs decided to consolidate their winemaking under one roof. From harvesting to crushing to barrelaging to bottling to tasting, you can now follow the chain from grape to glass at Koenig’s new space.

“People want to drive out here to wine country and see wine country, so we made the decision to put our tasting room, production, everything together on the hill,” he said.

On a recent warm afternoon, the screech of a hawk pierced the rumble of construction equipment pushing piles of dirt this way and that. Koenig, who studied architecture at Notre Dame, animatedly described the new patio terrace, which will feature a limestone replica of his favorite fountain in Tuscany and an Italian tower with a winding steel staircase.

Greg Koenig

“You can go up into it and can see over the valley,” he said. “It’s just 21 feet up, but it’s amazing how much the valley opens up; you get this awesome view.”

From that vantage point, Sunnyslope might still look like a sleepy agricultural community, but zoom in and you’ll find a flurry of new development. In fact, just behind Koenig’s new facility, on a steep, south-facing slope that Koenig calls “the warmest in Idaho,” sits J Victor Vineyards. Owned by Boise businessman Jay Hawkins, the property boasts 32 acres of freshly planted red wine vines—everything from Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot to Tempranillo to Sangiovese—which the Koenig brothers will manage.

“That’s going to give Idaho wineries, ours and other small wineries, a whole other source of high-quality fruit,” said Koenig. As the Idaho wine industry continues to flourish and more new wineries open, Koenig says sourcing grapes has become increasingly more difficult.

“There’s kind of a glass ceiling; we don’t have enough fruit here right now to keep up with demand,” he said.

Martin Fujishin, one of Koenig’s longtime employees and owner of Fujishin Family Cellars, seconds that problem.

“With the newfound interest in Idaho wines, it’s really changed the landscape for the small wineries around here,” said Fujishin. “There’s new wineries cropping up all the time and there hasn’t been really a lot of investment in new vineyards.”

But that’s starting to change. Not far from J Victor is another new vineyard, Scoria Vineyards. The 250-acre property is owned by Sydney Weitz-Nederend and her father, Joe Weitz. In 2014, they planted eight and a half acres of Malbec and Petit Verdot and this spring they planted nine more of Cabernet and Merlot. Nederend and Weitz are hoping to harvest their first grapes this fall.

But Pat Williamson—vineyard manager for Williamson Orchards & Vineyards, which owns 45 acres of vines adjacent to Koenig’s new facility—doesn’t agree with the notion that there’s a grape shortage.

“A lot of people are saying that more grapes need to go into the ground but, as a grower, we’ve been growing for a while and we’ve not been seeing enough people taking everything that we can grow and leave nothing to hang,” said Williamson.

Nonetheless, Williamson has made some changes to its vines. Last year, they removed six acres of Riesling and planted some new vines, including Cabernet and Malbec.

“We just planted six acres this year, six acres last year and we’re thinking about doing another six acres next year,” said Williamson. In addition, Williamson is building a new tasting room in a remodeled shop off Highway 55, a couple of blocks south of The Orchard House—the only restaurant in Sunnyslope.

In Fujishin’s opinion, that’s another thing Sunnyslope is lacking: more amenities like restaurants and boutique hotels.

“When people come to wine country, they need the full wine country experience. … I think those are some infrastructure issues that will definitely get sorted out as we go forward,” said Fujishin.

But for now, Koenig’s sprawling new tasting facility is a step in the right direction—a needed investment in both infrastructure and the future of the Sunnyslope wine region.

“It’s exciting times,” said Koenig. “After all these years, 21 years later, we have all this interest in Idaho wine combined with some new investment, so it’s fun.”

Article from Edible Idaho at http://edibleidaho.ediblecommunities.com/drink/grape-expectations
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