Marsing, Idaho — The Williamson family has grown tree fruit for four generations, but now the orchard is transitioning to vineyards.
“My cousin Patrick, my sister Beverly and I took over management from my father Roger and Patrick’s father John. Before them it was my grandfather John, and he took over from his uncle Henry Williamson,” Michael Williamson said.
Their orchards have done well over the years, but now they are making the switch to winemaking. They started planting vineyards in 1998.
“We’ve cut back a lot of our fruit, though we still have a few peaches, cherries and apricots. Our main focus now is wines,” he said.
The focus for their products has always been flavor.
“Customers at our fruit stands were always telling us our fruit tastes the best. Flavor is what wine is all about, so we thought we could also grow good wine grapes,” Williamson explained.
The climate and soil are perfect on the Sunnyslope for growing fruit or grapes. “For wine, you definitely want the right soil and terrain. You don’t want a heavy soil that retains moisture; you want the water to drain out. ... We don’t get much rain, which is great because we can stress the plants just a little and reduce the amount of growth that goes into leaves and vines. We can control the amount of water with our drip irrigation.”
In this high desert climate, moisture can be perfectly controlled, and this is what gives unique flavors to the wine that other climates cannot. “We can obtain a little higher acidity, which adds a nice balance to the flavor,” he said.
“We also get the contrast of hot days and cool nights during their ripening period in the fall. This helps build sugars (in fruit crops or grapes) in the daytime with photosynthesis and then at night it cools down and holds onto the acidity — so you get a nice balance of sweet and crisp.”
When the Williamsons planted their first vines, Ste. Chappelle — the biggest winery in Idaho — was offering contracts to growers.
“They talked to us and we showed them some of our ground and they thought it would be great for grapes. Our smaller orchard equipment matches what we needed for vineyards and we also had the necessary labor pool. So we started growing for Ste. Chappelle and then planted more than our contract.”
The Williamsons decided to make some wine themselves with the additional grapes and talked with a new local winemaker at that time, Greg Koenig. “He looked at our vines and thought they were great, and decided to make wine for us,” Williamson said.
“We thought the wines tasted good, and this was about the time a lot of new winemakers and vineyards were going in — and reinstatement of the Idaho Wine Competition. It is held at various locations around here, featuring Idaho wines, with judges from across the Northwest. We submitted our wines to that first competition in 2001 and all of our wines won medals, and our Cabernet won best of show. That was very encouraging!” he said.
“So we felt we were doing something right and decided to keep doing it, focusing on quality and flavor,” he said.
Currently there is another surge of growth in the Idaho wine industry.
“We are feeling very optimistic. We sold some of our orchard ground and our fruit packing shed. The market for packing has changed. We’ve always believed in the importance of flavor; it has to taste good as well as look good. We’ve always believed that our customers will come back if it tastes good,” he said. “This is right in line with our winemaking, and catering to wine tasting. For us this was a fairly easy transition and the timing was right. That’s what’s important in agriculture — timing and a bit of luck and hard work.”
Williamsons moved their tasting room to a more accessible location. “Now it’s right on the highway and we are getting lots of customers. Our earlier tasting room was set back in the hills in a more picturesque place, but too far out of the way. Now we are more visible and people can find us.”
This is still very much a family business.
“My cousin Patrick studied at WSU and got a degree in viticulture (growing grapes) and enology (wine-making). He is our vineyard manager. My sister Beverly is a graphic designer so she designs our labels and is in charge of our sales and marketing. I’m the general manager. We divide up our workload,” Williamson said.
The family still grows some fruit. In early summer they have U-pick cherries, and grow some white peaches that go to export markets.
“These are packed in a neighbor’s packing shed and sent to Asian markets. This is a niche market we plan to continue. We also grow a few apricots we sell to Lakeview Market near Sunnyslope. After raising fruit for so long, it’s hard to let go of it completely,” he said. “We don’t want to totally shut a door on something we’ve been doing forever.”