Saturday, September 24, 2011

Grapes, no wrath

BUHL, Idaho -- When you order fresh trout from a restaurant -- almost regardless of where that restaurant is -- odds are your meal originated in the spring waters of a trout farm in Buhl (sorry, they aren’t pulled one at a time from the rushing river by fly-fishermen who look like Brad Pitt).
On downriver a few miles, water from one of America’s largest aquifers gushes from the volcanic rock of the Snake River Canyon in the region known as Thousand Springs. The area also is Idaho’s largest producer of dairy products -- just take a deep sniff on a hot day. That’s no grilled cheese sandwich. Then there are the beets, which feed a sugar factory just southeast of Twin Falls, creating its own special odor (not to mention crystalline sugar every bit as sweet as the stuff from tropical cane).
Out toward the southwestern desert on the fringes of the Magic Valley, the scent turns to sage. Pocketed within this unique land o’ plenty is Idaho’s newest wine grape region. Yes, wine. Grapes.
The area southwest of Boise is home to a couple-dozen wineries, and now Buhl is becoming its own identifiable wine grape region, for now part of the Snake River Valley appellation. The loamy volcanic soil is ideal for certain varietals, though the process of learning to deal with the temperature extremes here is a work in progress.
 There’s now a destination winery near Buhl, a “12-year money pit” according to its owners Russ and Claudia Snyder. On a north-facing slope, the Snyders nurture 14 acres of grapes that they turn into various red, white and pink wines in their small winery. They have a weekend-only steakhouse and a huge patio and garden that are increasingly popular for local weddings. It’s a happy surprise to run across this viticultural oasis squeezed between hay fields and Angus ranches. (The obviously amused locals in Twin Falls refer to Claudia as “the grape lady,” she says.)
From the patio on a hot first day of autumn, we could follow the sloping ground for miles down to where the Snake River Canyon leaves an opening in the landscape; from there the ground slopes gradually higher again, leading to the mountains of south-central Idaho beyond. The grain elevators of Buhl are just down the road and down the hill.
We are here to do more than gawk, so we spend five dollars for a tasting (a pretty stingy three sips) and buy a bottle of gentle Merlot, which has just enough cherry sweetness to make for a good warm-weather sipper. Compared to our several tastings in Washington and Oregon, the Snyder wine is quaffable but doesn’t quite stack up to the Columbia River or Willamette Valley products. But, here’s the thing -- it’s just fine, and it’s coming from Buhl, Idaho. This requires certain allowances.
Combine this with surroundings that send any tension you came with melting away (they also run an on-site bed and breakfast with a single room in a remodeled cabin if you need additional therapy), and Snyder Winery is worth the time to get off the freeway, meander through Thousand Springs and stop in for a bottle or two.

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