JENNIFER K. BAUER

The Lewiston Tribune via Associated Press

LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) -- Slowly, under the gaze of the hot August sun, a grape approaches its destiny.

It has endured prime conditions -- baking heat, terrible soil, cool nights and scarce water. All these stresses have created an ideal fruit for award-winning wine.

This grape isn't in France or California or even Walla Walla, it's in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley.

Don't believe it? It's already happened. Winemakers in the Quad Cities of Lewiston, Clarkston, Moscow and Pullman are using locally grown grapes to create wines competing on the international market. Their products are widely available in local stores, restaurants and beyond, and selling well.

There are six established wineries in the region. The Tribune toured the five that are regularly open to the public to meet the people who are working to put northern Idaho and eastern Washington on the fine-wine map.

Merry Cellars, Pullman

The rich smell of oak barrels permeates one's nostrils upon entering Pullman's Merry Cellars. To one side is a fashionable tasting bar. To the other, a shelf of bottles on display, scores of medals around their necks. The rest of the cool, rectangular room is lined with barrels of wine.

Merry Cellars recently moved from downtown Pullman to a bigger, more modern structure surrounded by rolling wheat fields at the Port of Whitman County. Since opening in 2004, owners Patrick Merry and his father Dan have gone from making 400 cases of wine a year to 3,600 (one case is 12 bottles). As a manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer, Merry Cellars distributes in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. The owners are looking to expand.

Originally from Billings, Mont., Patrick Merry started Merry Cellars after becoming "distracted by wine making" while working on a doctorate in computer science. He abandoned computers to study at Washington State University's viticulture and enology program, started in 2002.

Initially, Merry says, he planned to relocate Merry Cellars to Walla Walla, but close ties to the Pullman community, and his success here, have led him to forget that idea.

He'd like to see more wineries in the area, "the more the merrier," he says with a smile, but adds he thinks it would take 20 to 24 for the region to become a wine destination.

The majority of grapes in Merry Cellars wines come from well-established vineyards in Washington, although he has bought grapes from Umiker Vineyard in Lewiston. In 2005, Merry planted a test plot of wine grapes on the Palouse. The grapes never ripened, and then winter did them in.

"Pretty much every winter we're starting over again," he says.

But growing grapes isn't his focus, "for me, it's making the best wine we can," he says, taking a sip of sauvignon blanc.

Outside, Merry is constructing grape arbors for table grapes that will add the ambiance of the winery's outdoor patio opening Sept. 18.

Wawawai Canyon Winery, outside Pullman

Wawawai Canyon Winery looks like a rustic barn alongside the Moscow-Pullman Highway but behind the front door lies a white-walled art gallery and trendy wine bar.

Behind the bar is winemaker Ben Moffett. Now in his 20s, Moffett started making wine when he was 15, around the time his parents, WSU science professors David and Stacia Moffett, purchased property in nearby Wawawai Canyon. The Moffetts found the rugged Snake River canyon slopes excellent for growing grapes, which require less water than fruit like apples, and prefer marginal soil. Lewiston viticultural pioneer, Robert Wing, provided them with some ideal vine cuttings for their land. Today about 30 percent of the grapes in Wawawai Canyon wine come from their farm.

Double doors in the tasting room lead to a dining room lit by translucent ceiling panels and lined with oil paintings by local artists. The winery's artistic flair comes from Ben Moffett's wife and co-vintner Christine Havens, a bronze sculptor. The two met while attending the School of Viticulture and Enology at Walla Walla Community College.

Returning to Moffett's hometown, they "wanted to create a venue people would want to come to," says Moffett, who relishes the unhampered relationship between a winemaker and a customer.

The converted milk barn is home to art receptions; classical, rock and folk concerts; and soon, a bistro. They are also planning a series of winemakers' dinners, pairing wine with local organic food in six-course meals.

"People want these kinds of experiences," Havens says.

The couple believes this is a renaissance period for wine where people are enthusiastically learning and exploring.

From their first vintage in 2004, Wawawai Canyon has grown from producing 200 cases to more than 800. They were also tapped to produce a special blend for the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.

"At least once a week somebody comes in saying they are going to start a winery," Moffett says.

"We already see this trend of people wanting to drive around and tour," Havens says.

The guest book at the front door testifies to the widening interest, with local addresses co-mingling with those from Bangkok, England, Texas and Pennsylvania.

Camas Prairie Winery, Moscow

Camas Prairie Winery owner Stuart Scott could be called the godfather of Idaho wine.

Established in 1983, he runs Idaho's oldest independent modern winery from a Main Street storefront. Newspaper and magazine reviews plaster the walls and shelves, listing the countless awards and positive reviews his wines have garnered over the years.

Scott offers a huge selection of sweet wines, handmade champagne and enticing meads with names like Raspberry Honey and Palouse Gold. His best seller is a huckleberry dessert wine. People can taste one sample for free, after that it's four tastes for $1.

"A winery is kind of a lifestyle business. You do this because you enjoy it," says Scott, who is retired from careers in the U.S. Army and the U.S. Justice Department, where he worked as a probation and parole agent for northern Idaho federal courts. Ready to retire again, Scott has put the winery up for sale.

"When somebody goes to a boutique or microwinery, they've already made a decision to buy better wine," Scott says. "It doesn't advantage me and disadvantage (another small winemaker). Who loses are the grocery stores when people are not buying less-expensive wine from California (or elsewhere). ... The more wineries we have the more it's going to get people to come. So it's good for us all."

Scott believes 10 wineries in a 30-mile area can create a destination. With the six wineries in the Quad Cities area, and a number of local breweries, it's getting close to where people from Spokane, the Tri-Cities and Boise will say, "let's go to that area and try the beverages."

Clearwater Canyon Cellars, Lewiston

From an industrial warehouse in North Lewiston, Clearwater Canyon Cellars is unearthing Idaho's fine-wine heritage buried in the rubble of Prohibition.

In 1872, European grapevines were introduced to the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley. Resulting wines won prestigious international medals. Vineyards grew to as large as 80 acres with more than 50 varieties. Prohibition put an end to the local industry around 1916.

Clearwater Canyon Cellars' goal is to make premium wine from grapes grown in the Clearwater Canyon region, says winemaker Coco Umiker. Their Renaissance Red is made only from Idaho grapes. In their other wines, a majority of the fruit comes from the region.

"We're not doing something novel, 100 years ago it was done here and it was done well," says Umiker, who, with her husband Karl, is one of four couples who own Clearwater Canyon Cellars. Others are Gary Rencehausen and Barb Nedrow, Tim and Patty Switzer, and Jerome and JoAnn Hansen, all of Lewiston.

Separate from the winery, Umiker, a molecular biologist, and her husband Karl, a soil scientist, own Umiker Vineyard at the top of Gun Club Road in the Lewiston Orchards. Walking through four acres of vines she has planted, she explains why the Clearwater Valley region is prime for wine grapes. It has a long growing season and mild winters. Cool summer nights allow the grapes to ripen slower than in California vineyards. She believes this leads to more complex flavors. Attempts are being made to get the region designated as an American Viticultural Area.

"I think people from out of town are amazed when we pour them a glass and tell them, 'This wine is made from 100 percent locally grown grapes.' If I had a dollar every time someone looked surprised and said 'this is really good.' They do come in with some skepticism. I think people that live here know the climate and expect to have good wine."

Having grown from 100 to 800 cases a year, Clearwater Canyon wine is widely available in local stores and restaurants as well as in Moscow, Boise and Coeur d'Alene.

There's a saying among winemakers, she says: "Start with a large fortune and end up with a small one." Lewiston's vintners didn't start rich and aren't looking to make a fortune.

"We all have a huge amount of love for the valley," says Umiker, a Lewiston native. "We love wine, the wine culture and the idea of slowing down and appreciating food and friends. There's the desire to make that happen here. With these people, and these grapes, and our valley, we could make something amazing."

They like to use a 1906 quote from award-winning vintner Robert Schleicher: "It may not be too visionary to dream of the slopes and hillsides of the Snake and Clearwater rivers being covered with vineyards."

Basalt Cellars, Clarkston

Basalt Cellars, in the Port of Clarkston, offers visitors a seat at one of the tables in its comfortable tasting room near the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers.

Clarkston co-owners Rick Wasem and Lynn DeVleming share the duties at Basalt. Wasem, owner, manager and pharmacist at Wasem's Drug in Clarkston, is the winemaker. DeVleming handles administrative duties. The two, along with the owners of Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston, met and were motivated to start wineries in the valley in 2004 after attending the Lewis and Clark Regional Grape Symposium at the Clarkston branch of Walla Walla Community College.

"We both have the same dream of more local vineyards, of putting the L-C Valley back on the map as it was a hundred years ago for premium wines," Wasem says.

Wasem started planting grapes in his Clarkston vineyard in 1997 with the idea of one day starting a winery. After the symposium he took the plunge and bought several tons of grapes and equipment and made about six barrels of wine in his garage. His first vintage came out in 2004. Since then Basalt Cellars moved to a prominent location at the port and has grown a supportive wine club.

Wine club members generally agree to buy a certain number of bottles a year. They help small wineries build a clientele.

"Members are invited to parties, given special prices and have access to special wines made in limited quantities for them. It's growing rapidly," Wasem says.

Basalt specializes in reds. They mix grapes from local growers with those from high-end growers in Washington's Columbia Valley and elsewhere. They fluctuate between 1,500 and 2,000 cases of wine a year.

"We're very thankful the community has been such great support for the wine industry in the valley," Wasem says.

Colter's Creek Vineyards and Winery, Juliaetta

In 2007, husband and wife Mike Pearson and Melissa Sanborn bought a 10-acre vineyard outside Juliaetta and named it Colter's Creek, the title Lewis and Clark originally gave to the nearby Potlatch River. They released their first vintage in 2008.

"Our mission is a local product," says Sanborn, who is originally from Spokane and studied wine chemistry and sensory science at WSU, where she befriended Coco Umiker. "We want to source all our grapes in the valley and sell our wine here."

Colter's Creek is open by appointment only but the couple hope to begin offering regular weekend hours next year. They also plan to expand their vineyard to 20 acres. They are its third owners and when they took over it had been neglected for about five years. The earliest grapes, chardonnay, Riesling and Rkatsitell, were planted in 1986. Among those added since are merlot, zinfandel, grenache and cabernet sauvignon. South-facing canyon slopes are cooled by river winds. At 800 to 1,200 feet above sea level, it's one of the lowest-elevation vineyards in Idaho.

The couple uses a variety of sustainable practices in their vineyard. Solar energy pumps irrigation water. Rinse water is reused. Rainwater is collected. Pearson, the director of Anatek Labs in Moscow, enjoys using his science background in the vineyard, Sanborn says.

Now producing about 1,000 cases a year, they are slowly getting their wine into stores in Kendrick, Juliaetta, Orofino, Moscow and Lewiston and are working on expanding into Clarkston and Pullman.

Sanborn says they want to be a part of the local wine movement and are open to helping others and sharing advice. More and more people are planting vineyards in the region, and "... I think this area will really start to boom in the next five or 10 years."

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Information from: Lewiston Tribune, http://www.lmtribune.com

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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