As we walked through the rows of vines, wine glasses in hand, I had a “We’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. The Idaho Century Farm that is home to Clearwater Canyon Cellars provides glimpses between the grapes of soft, rounded bronze hills in the distance. Above them, cerulean skies populated by transient white clouds and a warming late autumn sun were all contributing to a perfect wine country afternoon. But this was not a wine region I was familiar with. Varietals like Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Carmenère were all worthy and welcome palate pleasers, but again, not what I was accustomed to. We were also the only ones there. My friends and I exchanged wry smiles and knowing nods. After all, this was exactly what we were looking for and precisely why we chose the Lewis Clark Valley.
Residing in Portland, my friends and I are Willamette Valley wine stalwarts; revelers of rain and soft reds. In the search for life beyond pinot, we had visited Woodinville, Lake Chelan, and Walla Walla—always coming home with memories and wine club memberships. But those are well-established wine regions with the populace and the price tags to prove it.
The Lewis Clark Valley is where some of the first vines in the Northwest were planted and where some of its finest wines are currently being produced. As far as yet-to-be-discovered destinations go, it’s a prime spot flying well below the recreational radar of most. I’ll be the first to admit that it was probably my inner Portland hipster that helped guide the decision to head to Lewiston, Idaho for wine a weekend with friends—before it’s cool.
After completing the tour of the vineyard at Clearwater Canyon Cellars, co-owner/winemaker, Coco, gave us a remarkably engrossing lesson in the soil, geology, climate and science of the Northwest’s newest American Viticultural Area. Samples were finished, purchases were made and we loaded back into the van, ready for our next destination. At the recommendation of nearly anybody I could ask, we booked a tour with Twisted Vine Wine Tours to get a good lay of the land—and secure a designated driver. This decision made me a hero within the group. Clint, the owner/tour guide, was a goldmine of knowledge and affable professionalism. And our final destination on the tour, Lindsay Creek Vineyards, was an excellent choice. All the stops were wonderful—cozy tasting rooms, boutique wineries, and now with Lindsay Creek, a sprawling estate with the capacity to host weddings, live music and any number of other events. There were no nuptials to toast on the day of our visit, but the perfectly paired chocolate and wine combinations were more our speed anyway.
After the tour, we enjoyed some down time in our respective rooms at our home for the weekend, the Red Lion hotel, before freshening up and meeting for dinner on-site. Another recommendation that panned out in our favor, Meriwether’s Bistro resides within the hotel and wound up being the perfect marriage of convenience and farm-fresh Northwest cuisine. The earthy wild mushroom ravioli paired beautifully with the Koos-Koos-Kia Red from to Colter’s Creek and ensured I had a good base in the engine room for cocktails later.
Emboldened by full bellies, we headed over to the Clearwater River Casino for drinks and a show. I have an affinity for Northwest casinos. Having lived in Vegas for five years, I got my fill of the mega-casinos and the lavish trappings that are their hallmarks. Up here, casinos feel more like cozy lodges, often providing tangible tribal history in addition to gaming and entertainment. The Clearwater River Casino is a prime example, showcasing a number of exquisite Nez Perce items and artifacts along the casino’s Cultural Walk. After taking in some human history, it was time to pay homage to more recent and personal history in the form of the Gin Blossoms concert. I still maintain that the 90s were a golden age for music, and that evening only helped bolster my claim. After some post-concert beverages and only occasionally heated debates about grunge and hip-hop, we called it a day and retired for the night.
Having pumped the breaks on the evening before things got overly-festive, we woke the next morning fairly spry, but certainly in need of some morning-after nutrition. Breakfast at the Main Street Grill helped normalize my faculties through a dish known as Garbage Browns. It’s exactly what you think it is—kitchen sink-style hashbrowns—and it was everything I needed at that moment.
Next, we opted for a little scenery and excitement in the form of a jet boat tour with Snake River Adventures. Try doing that in the Willamette Valley. The Snake River flows in serpentine fashion through Hells Canyon—the deepest river gorge in North America. That’s correct, the deepest river gorge in the country is not in Arizona, but rather south of Lewiston along the Oregon/Idaho border. The jet boats have a long and storied history, but beyond that, they are a hell of a fun way to explore Hells Canyon. If you take the half day tour, as we did, you’ll get a taste of the rugged and remote landscape and still have time to do some late afternoon/early evening wine tasting. The ride is often fast, occasionally wet if you’re in the right spot, and always exciting. After a handful of hours of high-speed fresh air, we were primed for more wine.
Back in town, we visited the Vine 46 tasting room in Newberry Square. The old brick and hardwood floors were complimented nicely by the new wines. Mourvedre, Syrah and Malbec—all had great character as well as wallet-friendly price points. Then we went just over the river into Clarkston, Washington for a tasting at Basalt Cellars. This was to be our final tasting of the trip. I’m not entirely sure how to properly assign blame, but our stop there turned into a furious wine buying-salvo that squared us up on reds for the rest of the year. Was it the quality of the wines we tasted? The residual adrenaline high from the jet boat? Or perhaps just the overriding magic of the entire weekend? We’ll never know. Last supper was at the Mystic Cafe—a local institution that is equal parts saloon and coffee shop. I finished strong with a bone-in ribeye and a glass of Malbec. We would all retire somewhat early that night, sleep well and head home in the morning.
A wine weekend in the Lewis Clark Valley is unlike any other in the Northwest. In some ways, it’s akin to what those suddenly renowned areas must have been like 10 or 20 years ago. It’s new and exciting. Everybody seems to understand that they’re onto something, and are very pleased to be a part of it. But it’s being built on its own merits, with its own history and character firmly intact. It is undiscovered and absolutely authentic. The hipster in me hopes it stays that way. The wine lover in me is happy it’s there, and more than happy to share.