Planned Serendipity

by Christina Kelly & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f Idaho is the Gemstone State, then one of its crown jewels is a winery located in Coeur d'Alene that ironically produces wine made from Washington state grapes.

Coeur d'Alene Cellars is the well-planned idea of Kimber Gates, a lifetime Coeur d'Alene resident with a knack for business, a palate for tasting nuance and subtlety and the drive to make it all work. In addition to the winery, Gates and her family operate a wine bar, the Barrel Room No. 6 in downtown Coeur d'Alene, where they serve their wines by the glass, along with some light food fare, pleasant background music and lots of local art dotting the walls.

"I started with a business plan because I saw a need in Coeur d'Alene," says Gates, 32, who despite her business savvy will occasionally be asked if she is even old enough to drink. "I was surprised that a winery in a resort town had not already happened, so the timing was good."

Because of the Coeur d'Alene Resort's proximity, the winery gets busloads of tourists visiting the area for the first time. Locals tend to gravitate to the wine bar, where customers can taste wines that are not widely distributed.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & t the core of Coeur d'Alene Cellars are the stylish Rhone-style varietals Syrah and Viognier. These were the first wines made by Gates and her then-husband Bob Harris. They saw their first harvest in 2002 and sold their first commercial release, a Viognier, in 2003, followed by a Syrah in 2004.

Since 2003, Coeur d'Alene Cellars has expanded to include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and blended red and white wines, such as Bordeaux-style blends and easy quaffers for everyday meals. None of the fruit comes from Idaho -- all the grapes are trucked in from Washington vineyards some three hours away.

"We tell people we smuggle the grapes in during the night," says Gates.

Despite all her planning, unexpected things happen, so a theme of serendipity seems to be emerging at the winery. Gates was divorced in 2005, leaving the winery without a full-time winemaker; luckily, assistant winemaker Warren Schutz was ready to move up to winemaker. As the winery took off and sales were booming, Gates realized she needed someone to run marketing, sales and the tasting room: In stepped Robin Chisholm, an old family friend with a knack for meeting and greeting people and a good head for business.

"This place works out -- when someone leaves, the right person comes in and it works," says Gates. "I am not a spontaneous person, although I would like to be, but here, things always fall into place. Maybe I should have a label called 'Serendipity.'"

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & f Coeur d'Alene Cellars has the right karma, with people being in the right place at the right time, it is thought out well in advance. Gates' friends say she knows the exact date of her last bank payment years in the future. Her parents, Charlie and Sarah Gates, say their daughter researched every aspect about the winery, including economies of scale to manage growth. Gates asked Sarah, a regional artist, to design the labels for the bottles, and her watercolor paintings hang in the winery.

Gates holds an MBA, a CPA and a degree in French literature, and she spent a year in Burgundy attending school. When she returned, she worked for Eric Rindal at Waterbrook Winery in Walla Walla. But she needed to raise additional money to start a business, so Gates moved to Seattle and worked in Internet and software development.

"I wanted to go home to Coeur d'Alene," says Gates. "We did well in Seattle, and after two and a half years, we were able to move back to Idaho and start the business."

Schutz, the winemaker for Coeur d'Alene Cellars and a UC Davis graduate, is also an artist. Although he had worked many years for California wineries (and a two-year stint in New Zealand), he left the industry to pursue his art. But in 2004, he needed a job and learned through associates that Coeur d'Alene Cellars was looking for help.

"The first two vintages, the 2003 and 2004, were created by Kimber and her ex-husband," says Schutz. "I helped blend the 2004, but the 2005 [wines] are mine -- I made those decisions."

The wines have changed stylistically with Schutz on board. Gates and Schutz have fashioned two Viogniers -- one barrel-fermented (in wood) and one stored in steel barrels, displaying apricot notes and fresh stone fruits, a little floral and honeysuckle in the nose. But the Syrahs stand out as lip-smackingly good. The three core wines are the '03 Syrah, the '04 Boushey Vineyard Syrah and the '04 Stillwater Vineyard Syrah. The '03 has blueberry and smoky characteristics; the Boushey is brighter with cherry and spice; and the Stillwater has peppercorn and bitter chocolate along with dark red fruit.

Both Gates and Schutz say it is the great vineyards in Washington that make the difference in their wines. Although they want to stay at a production level of around 3,000 cases annually, they've had opportunities from several vineyards that they could not pass up and are now at about 3,500 cases. The wines are winning awards and acclaim from wine critics, but Gates knows that many people have yet to discover them.

They just have to convince people that an Idaho winery makes great Washington State wine.