Reviving the L-C Valley Wine Industry
The Lewiston-Clarkston Valley in Idaho and Washington was home to a booming wine industry in the late 1800s. Then prohibition happened.
That wine business has made a comeback over the past two decades, thanks in part to University of Idaho alumni Karl and Coco Umiker.
A desire to find careers that would keep them together led the Umikers to establish Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston on land that’s been in Coco’s family since 1916.
“We discovered there is a very vibrant history of wine down here in the L-C Valley that had gone dormant,” she said. “We were worried we would end up in these career paths that would take us far from each other. We started looking into the soils and talking to my family about the farm and it became clear we might make a go of it.”
They planted the first vines in 2003, a year before Coco graduated from U of I with bachelor’s degrees in microbiology and molecular biology and biochemistry. Karl earned a master’s degree in soils from U of I’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences in 2000.
Originally from Fayetteville, Arkansas, Karl had no prior agricultural experience before arriving in Idaho. A soils elective class while studying chemistry at the University of Arkansas opened his eyes to the field.
“It excited me that I could use my chemistry knowledge to understand this more applied field of soils,” he said.
Karl worked at U of I as a soil scientist for 11 years before focusing full-time on his current role as vineyard manager.
Coco was intent on becoming a pediatric oncologist when she first came to the university. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 11, her experience fighting the disease shaped her interest in science.
“As it turned out, I loved science,” Coco said. “It lit me on fire. I stuck with my major because I loved science but realized I didn’t want to be a medical doctor.”
Through her coursework, she became interested in beneficial micro-organisms.
“I realized in my first microbiology class at U of I that we seemed to be focused on the few microbes that cause disease, when less than 1 percent of them actually do,” she said. “There is this vast world of microbes out there doing good and fermenting foods and making wine. I became fascinated with that whole idea.”
Coco’s first experience making wine came during a microbiology lab taught by Tim Steffens.
“We were doing a section on fermentation and had the choice to make root beer, wine or beer and I chose wine because I was already interested in it,” she said. “I got really into making that wine and Tim was so fun and could see I was really into it and gave me more information.”
The Umikers, along with Colter’s Creek Winery in Juliaetta and the Clearwater Economic Development Association, were the driving forces behind the nine-year effort to establish the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA). An AVA helps establish an identity for grapes and wine from a designated region. The AVA was approved in 2016, the same year the Umikers’ estate vineyard was certified as an Idaho Century Farm.
“This place is special because it is up and outside of the cold air pockets that you see in the larger Columbia Basin,” he said. “And I think that is a significant difference even to grapes grown in Walla Walla.”
As the valley’s wine industry continues to grow, the Umikers keep their focus on producing quality wines including their popular Renaissance Red and Estate Syrah. Coco is the first head female winemaker and first Idaho winemaker to accumulate 12 Platinum awards from Wine Press Northwest. The same publication named Clearwater Canyon Cellars the 2015 Idaho Winery of the Year.
“Maybe the most flattering thing is the fact we are still in business 15 years later and people are buying our wine,” she said. “The focus has always been on the quality of the wine. That’s what keeps people coming back.”
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Published in the spring 2019 issue of Here We Have Idaho.