In a nascent wine industry that includes only 50 or so producers, one fact stands out: Women are not only making some of the state’s best wine, they are also making the majority of it. Here’s a look at four of Idaho’s pioneering female winemakers.
Colter’s Creek Winery
Born in Spokane, Washington, Melissa Sanborn was raised in a wine-loving household. “Wine was always at our table and part of our lives,” she says. “[My parents] dragged us around to tasting rooms basically our whole youth. It stuck with me.”
She was a chemistry major in college, and subsequently worked as an analytical chemist, but says, “I always knew that I would get into wine.”
So when she decided to go to graduate school at Washington State University, Sanborn opted to study sensory science and wine chemistry. And Sanborn and her husband, Mike Pearson, began looking for a piece of vineyard land. “We knew we wanted to grow grapes if we were going to make wine,” Sanborn says.
The couple came across an abandoned vineyard in Juliaetta, Idaho—a town in the northwestern part of the state that, at the time, had just short of 600 residents. Although the area had a history of wine-grape growing, it was home to few modern-day vineyards or wineries. “The vines [including some Chardonnay and White Riesling] were still alive even though they had been abandoned, so we knew that they could withstand the winter temperatures,” Sanborn says.
Over the years, Sanborn and Pearson have expanded the vineyard from seven acres to around 30 at their Colter’s Creek Winery. The couple also manages a restaurant attached to their Main Street tasting room in Juliaetta. “In terms of getting people here, we knew we needed to offer people something besides just the tasting room,” Sanborn says.
They champion the local fruit and spearheaded formation of the Lewis-Clark Valley appellation, which was approved as Idaho’s third federally recognized growing region in 2016.
“A region’s wine industry succeeds because of the grapes,” Sanborn says. “You can put a winery anywhere. You can put a tasting room anywhere, but it’s all about the grapes… It’s fun to be at the forefront of an industry. It’s challenging and exciting.”
Born into a family of hobby gardeners who had more than 40 grape varieties planted on their property, Melanie Krause grew up with a natural love of agriculture. But, “It never occurred to me that you could have a career making wine,” she says.
After graduating from college, Krause’s boyfriend—now husband—took a job in the tiny town of Umatilla, Oregon. “I was pretty much thinking that that was the end of our relationship,” she says, with a laugh.
Instead, Krause moved with him and explored her interest in agriculture by taking a job as a vineyard technician at what is now Ste. Michelle in Washington. Two years later, she took a position as an enologist at Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate Winery.
“It didn’t take me very long to figure out that all of the money, glamour and credit was on the winemaking side,” Krause chuckles. “Once I discovered winemaking, it was all over. There was no question in my mind what my career was going to be.”
In 2006, when Krause decided to start her own winery, Cinder Wines, she turned to her hometown of Boise, Idaho. “I’d been spying on the Boise industry the whole time I’d been living in Washington,” Krause says. “I felt like we could make world-class wines in Idaho.”
She says one grape in particular convinced her to move back: Viognier. “It was a beautifully balanced wine when it was grown in Boise, with all of those wonderful aromatics and richness of texture, but without the things that are detracting sometimes.”
Krause says the state’s wines have a unique signature. “Gracefulness and balance are the most prominent features that go through all of the wines—reds, whites and rosés. I do think we make rich red wines, but they are not wines that you need to use a fork and a steak knife to eat.”
Sawtooth Winery & Ste. Chapelle
Meredith Smith was working in real-estate development and accounting in Dallas and looking for a change. “I was making some really good money, but I didn’t feel satisfied,” she says.
That’s when she came across a line in a book that would change her life. It read, “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.”
“It was very clear to me that it was wine and agriculture,” she says. Smith had these interests throughout her life. But a career in wine?
“I never considered it. Ever. It didn’t cross my mind.”
She began studying viticulture and enology online, first at University of California, Davis and then at Washington State University. “My perspective is you have to have great fruit to have great wine,” she says. “So, I wanted to know how to grow great fruit.”
After finishing the certificate program, Smith, who was raised in Idaho, talked with winemaker Dr. Jan Krupp about entering Idaho’s industry. Krupp advised her to pursue the desire to make wine back home, and encouraged Smith to explore Northwest winemaking as much as possible. When Bill Murray offered her a job working harvest at Sawtooth Winery in Nampa, she made a bold decision.
“I was doing pretty well financially at the time, and I quit that job [to instead work] for $10 an hour, for maybe a two-month position,” says Smith, laughing. She was 40 years old.
After harvest, Smith was hired full-time at the winery and quickly rose through the ranks to become head winemaker. In 2016, she was also named winemaker at Ste. Chapelle, Idaho’s largest winery, which, along with Sawtooth, is owned by Washington-based Precept Wine.
“I thought it would be a great challenge for me,” she says of taking the position at Ste. Chappelle. “I’m honored that they felt confident that I could do both.”
Leslie Preston was teaching French Literature while taking graduate courses at University of California, Davis, when her students spurred an epiphany. Enrolled in one of the country’s best wine programs, they were in her class to prepare for wine internships in France.
“I was intrigued by Idaho Syrah. I had never tasted anything like it.”—Leslie Preston
“I had always loved wine,” Preston says. “It just hadn’t dawned on me that it could be in my life in that way.” Preston changed course. While finishing her dissertation (“My heart and mind were very much elsewhere,” she says) she took prerequisite classes for the master’s program in enology at Davis. Upon graduation, Preston worked at Clos du Bois Wines and Saintsbury before joining Stags’ Leap Winery in Napa Valley as an enologist.
But her interests veered north. Born in Boise, Preston had watched Idaho’s growing viticultural scene and was drawn in by a tasting from Sawtooth Winery. “I was intrigued by Idaho Syrah,” she says. “I had never tasted anything like it.”
While visiting her home state in 2006, Preston made a small amount of wine. She stayed in Idaho for that year’s harvest. Inspired, she decided to start making wine from Idaho fruit in Napa Valley. She took a year off for family, then began hauling Idaho grapes to a custom-crush facility in St. Helena, California.
She says officials at highway agricultural stops were confused. “They would always assume that they had the story backwards,” Preston laughs. “Why would you take Idaho fruit to the Napa Valley?”
Coiled Wines officially launched with the release of a 2008 Syrah, but it wasn’t until 2012 that Preston and her family completely relocated to the Boise area to focus on the brand and winery operations.
Preston does everything herself. “I unload my trucks. I scrub my tanks. I top my wine. I like it that way.”
Preston believes in Idaho wine’s future. “I wouldn’t have been drawn back here without being totally convinced that the fruit was amazing.”