Vail Wine Ink column: Idaho’s Lewis-Clark Valley is the new appellation |

Vail Wine Ink column: Idaho’s Lewis-Clark Valley is the new appellation

The Lewis-Clark Valley AVA was sanctioned after local growers took the long road, working for the designation since 2007.
Ray J. Gadd / Special to the Tribune |

American viticultural areas

There are currently 235 American Viticulture Areas (AVA). California, naturally, has the most, with 138, or more than half of all the designated appellations in the nation. Colorado has two, the Grand Mesa AVA near Grand Junction and the West Elks AVA in Delta County. The first AVA was Augusta in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, which received status in 1980, eight months before Napa in California. The Largest AVA? That would be The Upper Mississippi River AVA, which includes parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois and encompasses more than 29,000 square miles. The smallest AVA is Cole Ranch in Mendocino County, California, which is just 189 acres. So now you know.

Under the Influence

Colter’s Creek 2013 Arrow Rim Red (Idaho) — For the first time, an Idaho wine makes an appearance in Wine Ink. And I hate to say it, but it is reminiscent of a Washington wine. Berries, razz and boysen, open up to dark chocolate and coffee flavors. Keep an eye on these folks. And if you are in the neighborhood of Juliaetta, Idaho, be sure to stop in for a burger and a glass of wine.

Where does your wine come from? Well, when you buy an American wine, the answer is almost always on the label.

Say you buy a wine from California. On the label it will say where the grapes in that wine were sourced. If they came from a number of vineyards in different parts of the state, the label will simply say “California.” If most of the grapes in the bottle were grown within a specific county or region, such as Sonoma County, it will be designated as “Sonoma.”

Further, if they came from a single place in Sonoma County, such as the Russian River Valley, the label will highlight “Russian River.” And finally, if they came from a single vineyard in the Russian River Valley, in Sonoma County in California, it should be labeled with the name of that vineyard.

By being aware of that information, you can pinpoint exactly where your wine originated. And in wine, the place of its origin is an important thing.

Wine regions in the U.s.

According to “Wines and Vines,” an industry publication that maintains a database of such statistics, there are, as of March, 8,795 wineries in America. In order to organize where these wineries are located, and where they source their grapes, there is a system that breaks each wine region down into American Viticultural Areas. These are also called “appellations.” They are designated and administered by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which is responsible for keeping track of the nation’s wineries.

Appellations are places in America that have specific geographic or geologic features that make them unique for growing grapes for wine. The designation of a place as an American Viticultural Area helps to give consumers a better understanding of what they can expect from the wines that originate from those areas. To use the name of a specific appelation on the wine label, 85 percent of the wine in the bottle must have come from grapes grown within the geographical boundaries. The designation also help producers and winemakers in the regions establish marketing platforms to take advantage of the unique nature of the regions

These are an important part of the system of American wine, as the designation clearly defines the characteristics of a region. The kinds of soils that dominate that region, the weather patterns, the altitudes of the region — all have an impact on what grapes will grow best in that appellation and what kinds of traits might be expected from vineyards in that area.


I raise the point because, this month, word came that the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau designated that a chunk of land that spans the border between Idaho and Washington be granted status as The Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area. This is a big move in providing legitimacy to the growers and winemakers of Idaho; it allows them to label their wines as being from an area that has been deemed to be unique and significant in America for growing wine.

The Lewis-Clark Valley appellation encompasses 479 miles, with two-thirds of that area in Idaho and one-third in Washington. The area encompasses the backbone of the Bitterroot Mountains and is hilly and rocky, with much of it foreboding. But 16 wineries currently source grapes from the appellation, and there are 80 acres of vines planted on the Idaho side.

The names of the wineries are a little obscure at this point, and production is very limited. Wines from Basalt Cellars on the Washington side of the viticultural area and Idaho’s Colter’s Creek are gaining fans. The varieties of grapes are similar to those found in the neighboring Washington wine regions, with a focus on red grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and Syrah, and amongst white grapes, Riesling, pinot gris and chardonnay.

This is the third American Viticultural Area in Idaho and the 14th in the state of Washington.

So who cares?

The winemakers of the region care about the designation, as it legitimizes their efforts. But beyond that, the new designation is good for the industry in general. It gives wine drinkers a context for considering new areas that could be exceptional for creating great wines in the future. As the wines of Washington state have improved over the past 20 years, it is likely that opportunity exists for there to be outstanding wines produced in Idaho, as well, over the next 20 years.

Grapes don’t recognize borders. They recognize nurturing soils, sunny days and cool nights. Bravo to the grapes and the winemakers of The Lewis-Clark American Viticultural Area.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at

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