Even though the vines Mike Pearson and Melissa Sanborn purchased had only produced grapes for one chardonnay, the new land owners were undaunted as they cleared sumac, blackberry, poison oak, and cut each grape vine down to the root. The vineyard hadn’t been watered or taken care of for the previous five or six years. “The entire thing had to be basically torn apart,” says Mike, who worked with Melissa and her parents, weeding and retrellising the entire vineyard.
As laboratory director of Anatek labs in Moscow, Mike knows what entrepreneurialism is all about. He says, “If you have the diligence, you can be successful.” As owner of Colter’s Creek Winery, he has already claimed achievement with positive feedback from locals and a gold medal from the Idaho Wine Competition for a 2008 cabernet/malbec blend. Mike says, “So far, we’re having no trouble selling it.”
Colter’s Creek, located off a winding road below Juliaetta, is the lowest elevation vineyard in Idaho. The hillsides, which provide different amounts of sunshine and temperature, allow Colter’s Creek to grow more varietals than vineyards that don’t have as much variation in elevation and temperature. Mike explains that even microclimates on his property can change. With the 8-10 varietals they’ve planted, they tend to play with the topography, using west-facing and south-facing slopes to experiment with temperature and amounts of light. Mike says it “gives you the ability to control your product.”
Mike and Melissa bought the property in 2007, but the vineyard had been planted by previous owners between 1986 and 1996. The reds they produced last year are the first reds off the vineyards. When they bought the land, they bought grapes from the Tri-Cities to “get their feet wet” and test out the wine making equipment. They also converted an uninsulated pole barn into a shop, tasting room, and cellar in the spring and summer of 2008.
The season begins mid-April when the bud starts to open and form a shoot. Mike says, “Different grape varietals ripen at different times.” Chardonnay ripens early. Other varietals, including Reisling and cabernet sauvignon, ripen late. This past season was the coldest of the last 20 in the Pacific Northwest so Mike and Melissa were happy they were able to harvest all the grapes before the first frost. Mike says, referring to the season, “It straggles on depending on what you have planted.” Usually, the grape juice is fermenting within two days of picking. The wines they produce take anywhere from 1 week to 1 month to ferment. From there, the aging process begins. All red wines and chardonnay are aged in oak barrels for as long as 12-16 months, and many wines are still aged even further after they are bottled. Usually, they have wines at all different stages of the process simultaneously.
“We’re trying to focus on a local product,” Mike says, “including buying our grapes local.” They had done wine making as a hobby and Melissa, who had a chemistry background, earned a Masters in Food Science with an emphasis on enology and sensory science at W.S.U. During her three-year program, she studied sensory and chemical analysis of wine. Mike states that winemakers don’t usually grow their own grapes, so he and Melissa are essentially entering two businesses at the same time. Mike says you’re putting a lot of savings and time into a business that you don’t know is going to pan out. “Certainly as far as wines, we kind of came in blind thinking we could actually grow some decent grapes. To actually grow those grapes, turn it into some wine, send it out on the market and have people like it, that’s pretty huge,” says Mike.
Although they hadn’t produced wine on a large scale, Mike thinks making a larger volume might be easier since there is less chance for spoilage. He says watching the wine diligently and testing it is important. He says, “It’s kind of a living, breathing liquid for sure.”
Right now, Mike and Melissa load up their truck and sell the wine wholesale to places like the Moscow Food Co-op, Juliaetta Food Market, Frontier Foods in Orofino, and Rosaurs in Moscow and Lewiston. They just were approved to distribute in Washington. They would like to tap into the tourist market and sell more wine from the winery. He says they would be happy if they could sell 3,000-4000 cases within 100 miles.
Mike and Melissa would like to expand their acreage to 10-12 acres in the next year, aiming for 20-25 acres of grapes by 2013. They also intend to add a bridge for easier access from Hwy 3 and begin construction on a tasting room that would be open on weekends. Currently, the winery is only open by appointment.
Mike explains that Colter’s Creek and a few other wineries are working on having the area approved as an American Viticulture Area, probably to be named the Lewis Clark Valley AVA. He explains how in the late 1800s the Lewiston-Clarkston valley had many acres of grapes that don’t exist today. The Potlatch mill itself sits on a vineyard from 1905. Italian and French immigrants started growing grapes and making wine, but Prohibition shut down the operations. Historically, he says, this was the first wine-growing area in the Northwest.
“It’s been kind of a slow start,” Mike says about the quad cities wine scene, but he admits the area is set to grow in the next 5-10 years. If the AVA gets approved, Mike hopes it will entice growers in the area to plant more grapes. Mike thinks there is a uniqueness in this area, explaining that grapes take on different flavors depending where they’re grown. He says, “The quality is here, the enthusiasm is here, the history is here. With that combination, things are going to pick up.”
— Andrea Clark Mason
Originally appeared in The Ruralite, March 2011