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Idaho wine industry celebrating 15th anniversary of state's first AVA

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

CALDWELL – In 2002, there were 11 wineries in Idaho. Today, there are more than 70.

Idaho’s viticulture industry is celebrating the 15th anniversary of the federal wine designation that is credited as the main catalyst for the rapid growth that has occurred in the state’s wine industry in recent years.

Idaho received its first American Viticultural Area designation in April 2007 with the creation of the Snake River Valley AVA.

An AVA is a specific wine grape growing region that is federally designated because it has certain growing conditions, boundaries and history.

“An AVA puts you on the map,” says Caldwell winemaker and vineyard owner Mike Williamson. “When your state has an AVA, that’s kind of an arrival point. It means something.”

Idaho’s first AVA designation “put us on the map and gave us this recognition and validation that we didn’t have before,” says Idaho Wine Commission Executive director Moya Shatz-Dolsby.

An AVA designation lets wine connoisseurs know that the wine produced in a specific region has certain distinct characteristics, says Caldwell winemaker Martin Fujishin.

When the Snake River Valley received its AVA designation, that opened doors to more restaurants and other retail outlets, he says.  

“When you have a bottle of wine that says Idaho on it, that only gets you so far,” Fujishin says. “But when you can say, ‘This bottle is Snake River Valley,’ suddenly the wine shops start to take notice. An AVA says, ‘This is a recognized wine area. These guys are the real deal.’ And that really changed everything for us.”

AVAs are designated by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. According to the ATTTB website, “These designations allow vintners and consumers to attribute a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of a wine made from grapes grown in an area to its geographic origin.”

The Snake River Valley AVA designation was the main catalyst behind the rapid growth that occurred in the state’s wine industry since 2007, Shatz-Dolsby says.

“An AVA designation proves you’re different than anywhere else in the county,” she says. “It gave us validation.”

Idaho’s rapid population growth over the past decade has also helped.

Idaho has been one of the fastest growing states in the nation from a percentage standpoint over the past 10 years and most of those newcomers have located in Idaho’s Treasure Valley, which is where the vast majority of Idaho wineries are located. 

That has given those wineries a growing customer base.

“If we didn’t have that population growth the last 10-15 years, Idaho’s wine industry would not have been able to grow like we have,” says Williamson.

But that rapidly growing population has also resulted in the loss of a lot of farmland in southwestern Idaho and stressed the agricultural industry there.

The growth is a double-edged sword, Fujishin says: The more people that are here (as potential customers), that’s awesome. But the flip side to that is that it puts more pressure on our primary farm ground that we have out here in the area. We’re seeing increased pressure on the prime vineyard spots. Everybody says, What’s the best place to grow grapes? It’s a south-facing slope over a river. Well, where does everybody want to live? They all want to live on a south-facing slope over the river.”

The process of receiving an AVA designation is not an easy one and applicants have to prove their region is indeed unique from other wine grape growing regions.  

In the case of the Snake River Valley AVA, Idaho’s wine industry showed the region had a defined set of soils and a unique climate.

When a region does receive an official AVA designation, Fujishin says, it’s a signal to consumers that, “Hey, these wineries really do know what they are doing here and have been willing to go through the time and effort to show and do the research on what makes their area different.”

The Snake River Valley AVA, at 8,000 square miles, is one of the nation’s largest and encompasses 12 counties in southwestern Idaho and part of the eastern Oregon counties of Malheur and Baker.

Since The Snake River Valley AVA was designated in 2007, Idaho has added two more AVAs.

The Eagle Hills AVA, which is located in the foothills of Eagle, and is a sub-AVA of the Snake River Valley AVA, was designated in 2015.

The Lewis-Clark Valley AVA, which includes a 40-mile long strip of canyons within the cities of Lewiston and Clarkston in the middle, and parts of Asotin, Garfield and Whitman counties in Washington, was designated in 2016.

On average, Idaho’s wineries harvest more than 2,000 tons of grapes each year off of 1,300 vineyard acres and produce 131,250 12-bottle cases of wine.

According to an economic impact study funded by the Idaho Wine Commission, the state’s wine industry impacts the state’s economy to the tune of $210 million each year.