Monday, August 20, 2012

Persevering through 4 owners to become winemaker at Idaho's Ste Chappelle

Maurine Johnson
My column this month for Palate Press is about Idaho, where an exciting wine scene has flowered in the last decade. Nobody has a better perspective on it than Maurine Johnson, who has worked at the state's largest winery, Ste. Chapelle, for 25 years.

Johnson, an Idaho native, has worked under four of the winery's five owners, all of them big companies. She started as a lab technician and "record keeper," spent 13 years as assistant winemaker, and was finally promoted to winemaker just one year before Precept Wines bought the company from the failed Ascentia Wine Estates.

Unlike Ascentia and Constellation, which owned the company before, Precept seems serious about making fine wine in Idaho, so Johnson might have been nervous when the company brought in Napa veteran Bill Murray as head of winemaking. But Murray is concentrating on Idaho's second-largest winery, Sawtooth, as well as Washington's Canoe Ridge, allowing Johnson to do the job she prepared for for so long.

Johnson's memory of the Idaho wine scene is so good that she reminded me of the following scene from the first Muppet Movie in 1979, in which Steve Martin gave Idaho wine an image it would need three decades to recover from:

In 1979, Martin wasn't wrong. Read the Palate Press story: Idaho farmers treated grapes like wheat, and there wasn't much winemaking talent there either. Ste. Chapelle, founded in 1976, was the first serious winery since Prohibition. Plus, making wine in Idaho isn't easy, especially three decades earlier in the global-warming cycle.

"Our climate is on the edge of the wine world," Johnson says. "Some years we fall off."

Ste. Chapelle doesn't own its own vineyards and has always been at the mercy of farmers who until the '90s -- at least -- didn't know what they were doing. Yet the winery, in a beautiful building, does know marketing. It found a local market for wines and has grown to 130,000 cases per year. Part of the reason can be chalked up to professional winemaking. Sure, you can't make a great wine from flawed grapes, but if you know what you're doing, you don't have to make a flawed wine. People bought a lot of sweet Riesling; sugar covers up a lot of weaknesses.

Things are different now. Ste. Chapelle gets 65% of its grapes from the professionally farmed Skyline vineyard, owned by the same people who own Precept. It has long term contracts with other growers so it's not reduced to looking around on the spot market.

Most of Ste. Chapelle's wines are $9 and $11. For that, they're generally good value. Some are better than that. The 2010 Winemaker's Series Snake River Valley Chardonnay ($11) was barrel-fermented in 100% new oak, had the lees stirred regularly and tastes like it: full-flavored and leesy, with decent acidity and nice melon fruit. The 2010 Winemaker's Series Snake River Valley Syrah ($11) has lively, bright blackberry fruit and would be welcomed at any barbecue.

The Winemaker's Series has the signature of the winemaker on the label. Through 2010, that was Johnson's predecessor. She opened a bottle of the 2011 Winemaker's Series Chardonnay for me: It seems like it will be just as good as the '10, given the extra year of bottle age. She asked if I liked it. I did. She pointed at the signature. She said, "I finally got my name on the label."

Read the Palate Press column here.

A big thank you to everyone who voted for me to be named Best Industry Blog for 2012!

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