by Susan Hamilton

Wineries in North Idaho tend to be under most wine lovers' radar, but not any more. Coeur d'Alene Cellars, the new winery in the Lake City, and Pend Oreille Winery in Sandpoint, which has recently moved to new digs, are making waves with their outstanding wines. Bob Harris' first release for Coeur d'Alene Cellars is a bold Syrah that recently garnered a top rating with Wine Press Northwest magazine's discriminating tasters. Pend Oreille Winery has a gold-medal-winning Syrah as well as affordable Bistro reds and whites that taste like much more expensive wines.

Coeur d'Alene Cellars

Unlike many wineries in our area, the 8,000-square-foot facility that houses Coeur d'Alene Cellars is ultramodern. "We've built a winery of concrete, steel and glass," says owner and winemaker Harris. "There's no wood except for the wine barrels."

Designed by Harris' longtime friend Matt Haba of GGLU Architecture in Seattle, the winery is state-of-the-art. It allows for hand sorting of grapes, features a "crush pad" for handling fruit and wine, and has climate- and humidity-controlled chambers for wine-filled barrels. The facilities also include a tasting room and a reserve-barrel room designed with space for winemaker dinners and events. "You can have a multi-course meal in the high-tech wine cave among barrels and wine bottles," Harris explains.

This June, the tasting room will be moving to downtown Coeur d'Alene. Barrel Room No. 6 will feature a comfy wine bar where customers can order wine by the glass or bottle, have appetizers and hear live music among modern d & eacute;cor accented with artwork by Harris' mother-in-law, Sarah Gates.

But where did this all begin? In the '90s, Harris' interest in wine blossomed into a winemaking hobby. After 9/11, he quit his job as manager of a software development company in Seattle to pursue his dream of creating a winery. Soon after, Harris and his wife Kimber toured France and the wine country of Europe for four months. When they returned to the States, they began looking for a location for their winery. The couple wanted to be near a grape-growing region and close to a small resort town. After considering various Northwest locations, they settled on Coeur d'Alene -- Kimber's hometown.

Now that Harris has had four years of commercial winemaking experience (with some assistance from local winemaker Kristina Mielke van Loben Sels of Arbor Crest Cellars), he's still committed to a holistic view. "My philosophy is to work with the grape growers to make the best wine on the vine," Harris explains. "I want to let the fruit sing."

Harris has the Yakima and Columbia Valley grapes he uses hand sorted so that only the finest fruit is crushed on the winery's German Schafenberger wine press. Grapes are pressed in whole clusters for white wine and after fermentation for red wine. "In all cases, we do light pressing to ensure quality," Harris says.

"We don't filter our wine a lot and don't include a lot of additives," he continues. Of the winery's five barrel rooms, four are climate-controlled to create the perfect environment for each vintage. "We use softer French oak barrels for aging," Harris says.

Harris has focused his winemaking on Rhone varietals, beginning with Syrah and Viognier. Coeur d'Alene Cellars' 2002 Syrah is a luscious red wine made from grapes in the Pepper Bridge and Elephant Mountain vineyards of Walla Walla and Yakima. The knowledgeable tasters at Wine Press Northwest magazine gave this vintage their highest rating ("outstanding") and named it one of this year's 52 Pacific Northwest wines of the week. The Syrah's fruity tastes of blackberry, blueberry, huckleberry and cherry mingle with vanilla and chocolate flavors as well as contrasting notes of black pepper and coffee.

The winery's 2003 Viognier won a gold medal at last summer's Idaho Wine Festival held just outside Boise. "This was an impressive win, because it was one of only three gold medals awarded for white wines," Harris says. The grapes for this full-bodied white wine are from the Seven Hills and Elerding vineyards of Walla Walla and Yakima. Flavors of melon, apricot and tropical fruit blend with vanilla tones to create a wine with a creamy texture, seductive nose and smooth finish.

Coeur d'Alene Cellars' next releases will be an upper-end Syrah blend, called Scarlett's Couvee (named for Harris' daughter), and a Viognier blend, Sarah's Couvee (named for Harris' mother-in-law).

"Our vintages have done nothing but improve," Harris exclaims. "The wine we made last fall is the best we've done so far."

Pend Oreille Winery

In the resort town of Sandpoint, this burgeoning boutique winery has become a destination in itself. Renovations are now complete at the winery's new location downtown in the former Pend Oreille Brewing Company's facility.

"It's a drastic change from when the brewing company was here," says Cindy Marks, general manager for Pend Oreille Winery. "We've opened it all up, put in an ultramodern wine bar and changed the dark wood and fabrics to lots of light, bright colors."

The winery's large retail space showcases crystal, home accessories and, of course, many wine-related items as well as its wines. The shop looks like a gallery or upscale gift store. But that hasn't kept the winery from selling plenty of wine from its storefront. "We are unique in that we sell more wine out our front door than through distributors," Marks explains. "We get a lot of foot traffic here and people seek us out."

No doubt the sound of music brings in customers as well. The mellow, eclectic blend of live music on Friday and Saturday evenings keeps the wine bar busy until closing time.

But how did this successful venture start? Pend Oreille Winery's beginnings can be traced to the cradle of European wine country: France. Owner and winemaker Stephen Meyer began his career in winemaking in the south Burgundy region, where he worked for several wineries in 1985. Next he headed for California's wine country, where he was a vineyard manager, cellar master and eventually assistant winemaker at Roudon-Smith Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. After taking winemaking courses at UC Davis, Meyer struck out on his own and began producing wines. His first attempt -- a cabernet sauvignon -- garnered a second place at the Santa Cruz County Fair Amateur Wine Competition in 1987. When his 1992 chardonnay took first place at that same competition a few years later, he knew he was onto something.

Meyer and his wife Julie established Pend Oreille Winery in Sandpoint 10 years ago. Since it's the only winery in town, I was curious why the Meyers settled there. Again, it's a situation of going back home. Julie grew up in Sandpoint, and the Meyers knew it was a good place to raise their family. Sandpoint is also within an eight-hour drive of the Columbia Valley vineyards the Meyers wanted to work with.

Since Meyer was in France for his first visit in many years, I talked with the winery's cellar master and assistant winemaker, Dave Van Gundy. But just what does a cellar master and assistant winemaker do? "Basically, I control the wine production from the grape to the bottle," Van Gundy says. "In essence, I baby-sit the wine."

How about Pend Oreille Winery's winemaking philosophy? "We handcraft a quality product using traditional French techniques," Van Gundy explains. "We take a lot of pride in how clean our facility is and how we baby-sit the wine through its processing."

And that pride shows in the awards that several Pend Oreille Winery vintages have garnered. Its 2001 Syrah won a gold medal at the 25th annual Tri-Cities Wine Festival in November 2003. This was one of only five gold medals awarded among more than 200 entries at the festival, one of the most prestigious competitions for Northwest wineries. That same year, Pend Oreille Winery was named Wine Press Northwest magazine's Idaho Winery of the Year.

Two years earlier, at the same competition in Tri-Cities, Pend Oreille Winery's Bistro Rouge also won a gold medal. This fruit-forward blend of cabernet, merlot and Syrah has flavors of blackberry, brambleberry and toasty oak. More than one Northwest wine reviewer has said this wine is amazingly affordable, and its luscious flavor makes it taste like a more expensive wine.

Next month, Pend Oreille Winery will release L'Oeuvre 2002 -- a blend of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc. "This Meritage is our reserve red table wine," Van Gundy says. "The huckleberry blush we're also releasing in May is a refreshing, crisp and semi-sweet wine that's infused with Riesling."

So raise a glass to two North Idaho wineries that have brought outstanding wines and unique winemaking to the Inland Northwest.

Publication date: 04/14/05

  • or