Colter's Creek Winery

photo by Kim Fetrow

By Peg Kingery, Co-op Wine Buyer

The first wine grapes planted in the Pacific Northwest were in Lewiston, Idaho in 1864. I thought about this as I drove along the Potlatch River and glanced at the terraced vines gracing the canyon walls above me. Wines made from those grapes won national acclaim— until Prohibition put a temporary end to the industry. History is repeating itself; wines from these new plantings are also winning awards, but thankfully today there aren’t any constitutional bans stopping production or consumption.

The vineyards I was looking at belong to Colter’s Creek Winery, located in Juliaetta, Idaho. Owners Mike Pearson and Melissa Sanborn purchased the property, an abandoned vineyard, in 2007. Since then, they have nurtured the old vines and planted many acres of new, bringing the total to 35. Mike oversees the vineyard operations, while Melissa focuses on winemaking.

Mike and Melissa are dedicated to crafting wines made from grapes grown in the Lewis-Clark Valley and the Snake River Valley American Viticultural Areas (AVA). In past years, 20-25% of the grapes came from the Snake River Valley; however, because of a severe winter there most likely won’t be any available this year. “(We strive) to maintain the integrity of producing the wine,” Melissa told me. While some wineries buy bulk wine and bottle it under their own brand, Colter’s Creek oversees all aspects of the winemaking process, from picking and crushing the grapes to bottling the wine after it has aged. All of their wines have ‘produced and bottled by’ printed on the labels. Currently, they produce between five and six thousand cases of wine each year. They have the capacity to age 30,000 gallons of wine in oak barrels and stainless steel tanks.

Colter’s Creek uses sustainable farming and manufacturing methods in all aspects of their operation. 20-30% of their irrigation water is solar-pumped from the Clearwater and Potlatch Rivers. The water is delivered to the vines using low-pressure drip lines, which applies the water directly to the root zone. They compost all of their vine trimmings and winemaking by-products, and reapply them as fertilizer. Insect control (grasshoppers) in the vineyards is taken care of by the family’s free-ranging chickens.

Mike and Melissa believe in supporting the local economy. They employ 15 people to work in the vineyards, their tasting room and other aspects of their business. They also run a Harvest Fundraising Program where organizations can apply for donations. Mike and Melissa are especially interested in helping groups that focus on the environment and on the health, safety and education of children.

Colter’s Creek tasting room and restaurant is located in a beautifully restored brick building in downtown Juliaetta. They feature six wines on tap, as well as several local draft beers. Of special note is their wine refill program where a customer can refill an empty bottle from one of the taps. An eclectic, rotating menu of appetizers, entrees and desserts made with local, seasonal ingredients is available to compliment the wine. Much of the produce used in recipes (tomatoes, greens, rhubarb, eggplant and others) comes from the family’s garden. Mike particularly enjoys this aspect of the business, as well as developing recipes for the menu. Wine, branded clothing, local merchandize and other items are also available for purchase for folks who have a true affinity for the winery and would like others to know about it. The tasting room and restaurant is open from Thursday through Sunday.

The winery recently purchased a building on Main Street in Moscow that they are in the process of renovating to serve as another tasting room. Mike and Melissa envision this space as a wine bar with an event center available for private group parties. They hope to open in November.

Mike and Melissa told me that Idaho wines are gaining more and more in popularity, thanks to a greater presence in area restaurants, bottle shops, and grocery stores. Colter’s Creek’s wines, as well as other Idaho wines, are winning awards in many national competitions which is also helping with exposure. In 2016 the winery’s 2013 Koos-Koos-Kia won a silver medal in the Savor NW Wine Competition in the “Top Red Blends under $30” category. The Co-op carries the 2014 vintage of this wine, as well as Colter’s Creek’s Syrah, Chardonnay, and Riesling. The Syrah, with its notes of dark berries and pepper, is a personal favorite and the perfect wine to complement a summer barbecue.

Assistant wine maker and sales manager Jon Harding brought me into the vineyards at the end of my visit. Meticulously trimmed vines, with small buds beginning to show, spread out before and above me. High on the hillside I had a sweeping view of both the Clearwater and the Potlatch Rivers. I imagined what this landscape would have looked like in 1864. Take away the highways, and maybe not so very different! I’m quite sure the Lewis Clark Valley’s founding winemakers are pleased that the legacy of their craft is being continued by Colter’s Creek Winery.