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Western Innovator: Eclipsing a family’s dream

James Holesinsky converts Idaho dairy farm into winery
Carol Ryan Dumas

Capital Press

Published on September 10, 2017 11:18AM

James Holesinsky transformed his parents’ Buhl, Idaho, dairy into a vineyard and winery.

Carol Ryan Dumas/Capital Press

James Holesinsky transformed his parents’ Buhl, Idaho, dairy into a vineyard and winery.

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Carol Ryan Dumas/Capital Press Vineyard and winery owner James Holesinsky, left, and winery manager

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BUHL, Idaho —­ Land that once hosted a small family dairy now boasts rows of bountiful grapevines and an award-winning winery. The cows have been gone for decades, and the former milking parlor has been transformed into a winery with old-world ambiance.

James Holesinsky’s parents stopped milking cows in the late 1970s and went into the dairy chemical business, but his father always wished there was a vineyard on the farm’s green pastures.

At 22, Holesinsky made that happen.

Some friends were planting grapes and had leftover vines. Holesinsky was working in the family business, but being an avid gardener and wanting to honor his father’s lifelong dream, he took the plunge — planting 1,000 Chardonnay vines.

His dad, other family members and friends helped with the planting — and the vineyard finally became reality.

That same year, 2001, Holesinsky started taking wine-making and viticulture courses online through the University of California-Davis Extension, later earning a winemaking certification through the program.

The next year, he planted 3,000 Syrah, 2,000 Merlot and 200 Port vines.

“And the rest is history. We just started making wine every year then on,” he said.

The vineyard expanded again in 2006, adding 2,000 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1,000 Riesling vines. Muscat vines were added in 2007.

But it isn’t easy growing grapes so far inland; they need good drainage and good airflow.

“Both are equally important. We learned the hard way,” he said.

Most attempts at growing grapes in the area end in failure because of the frost. It freezes the vines back to the ground every year, he said.

He tried growing grapes on all 14 acres of the farm, but only 6 acres turned out to be suitable for grapes. He adds to his own harvest by contracting grapes from the Hagerman area and bottles about 700 cases of wine a year.

He prides himself on using French-style wine-making techniques for his red wines — aging on the lees, the dead yeast cells and other particles that remain after fermentation and settle as sediment. He also lets the wine sit in oak barrels for about two years, longer for some wines, before tapping it to the bottle.

“Most people mismanage the lees; you have to make it aerobic. That’s where you get all your flavor,” he said.

Good wine takes patience, dedication, time and experience. Along the way, some things don’t work out, he said.

“You have to stay with the method and perfect it … make it your own. It’s a lot of fix it as you go,” he said.

His goal is to create world-class wines with no shortcuts, no impurities, no over-processing or over-filtering and no additives, and his wines have won numerous awards in prestigious competitions.

“When someone buys my wine, I want them to taste it and know that this is what wine is supposed to taste like,” he said.

Helping Holesinsky “make it his own” is winery manager Eric Smallwood, who handles marketing, sales, distribution and new-product development. He came on board a year ago, and is also training to be a wine maker.

The two have been friends for years. Smallwood had been working in North Dakota as a concert promoter, but was back in Idaho on a visit when he and Holesinsky started talking about taking the winery to a higher level. 

“James needed someone to come in and run the winery because he’s been tied up with his other business,” the chemical business he bought from his parents, Smallwood said.

The winery self-distributes to retailers and restaurants in the Boise, Sun Valley and Twin Falls areas, which keeps Smallwood busy.

One wine — Blackout, a Syrah and Cabernet Franc blend produced for the solar eclipse — had a wider draw. The wine was featured on NBC’s “Today Show” in mid-August in a segment about food and drink celebrating the eclipse.

“It’s been the most successful release of the winery ever,” Smallwood said.

The winery produced 112 cases, and it sold out in about three weeks. People from all over the country are still contacting the winery, trying to get their hands on it, he said.

“It’s really been surreal. It was the first label I’ve ever done on a wine bottle, and it hit a home run,” he said.

The winery will soon be coming out with a new blend and a new label — Idavine, tied to how popular Idaho wines have become, he said.

The winery already applied for federal label approval and expects to have that certification by mid-October. It will also start marketing wine in pouches, and it prides itself on locally sourcing all its graphic designs and screen printed labels.

Holesinsky also plans to transition back to organic. The vineyard started out certified organic and still grows the grapes organically, but delays in organic inspections were limiting his marketing and he ended up letting go of the certification.

The winery is open for tours and tastings by appointment, and its dessert wines are currently only sold on site.

James Holesinsky

Age: 39

Established: 2001

Location: Buhl, Idaho

Grape acreage: 6 acres and contracted grapes from nearby vineyards

Wines: Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay, Riesling, Rose, red blends and dessert wines

Awards: Idaho Wine Competition — 2 gold, 2 silver, 3 bronze; Northwest Wine Summit — 2 gold, 1 silver, 5 bronze; Idaho Wine Festival — 1 gold; Denver International Wine Competition — 2 gold; Critics Challenge International Wine Competition — 1 gold; Riverside International Wine Competition — 1 bronze; Savor Northwest Wine Awards — 4 silver

Employees: 1 full-time, 1 part-time and a few seasonal workers

Tours and tastings: By appointment


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