Colters Creek wines are grown in several steep fields along the Potlatch River just north of its confluence with the Clearwater River.
Colters Creek wines are grown in several steep fields along the Potlatch River just north of its confluence with the Clearwater River.

JULIAETTA — This is the time of year when winemakers begin to worry.

April is bud break, when the new leaves start to show, and this year it’s a little behind schedule because of a wet spring. As with any fruit, a late frost could severely damage early buds. If bud break is too late the grapes may not have enough time to fully ripen.

“There’s an adage that 80 percent of winemaking happens in the vineyard. It’s very true,” says Mike Pearson, who, with his wife, Melissa Sanborn, owns Colter’s Creek Vineyards and Winery outside Juliaetta.

The vineyard rises on picturesque canyon slopes above the Potlatch River. There are 15,000 vines and each one needs individual care. The enemies include powdery mildew, starlings and too much rain, but most of the time grapes do very well in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley, a fact that Prohibition nearly managed to erase.

Colter’s Creek is one of the local wineries working to put the region back on the map for good wine. They and other local wine and beer makers will be serving the fruits of their labor Friday at the 22nd annual Confluence Grape & Grain in Lewiston.

In the late 1800s European immigrants recognized that the fertile, rocky soil, river canyons, hot summers and not-too-cold winters were similar to those in their native lands where grapes grew well. The resulting wines, the first in the Northwest, won international medals. Prohibition smothered the growing industry, but some of the vines remained.

Sanborn studied wine and sensory science at graduate school at Washington State University. Pearson is a Moscow engineer who grew up on a farm. They were looking for property in the area of one of the region’s oldest vineyards, a 1905 plot in Lenore, when they stumbled upon what became Colter’s Creek. They bought the property, which included a seven-acre vineyard, in 2007. Its earliest vines were planted in 1986. The couple has added about 10 acres of vines since then experimenting with a variety of different grapes.

Starting a vineyard and winery in Idaho, a state not known as wine territory, was not a concern, Pearson says. He saw it as an advantage. There’s a lot of wine out there but a product grown and made in Idaho would be unique. There are only 45 wineries in the state. He and a group of other local winemakers are petitioning the U.S. government to designate the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley an American Viticultural Area.

“Our emphasis is that it has to be fruit from the area,” Pearson says. “A region’s reputation comes from local fruit.”

Recently Colter’s Creek’s 2009 Red Bordeaux Blend won a double gold medal at the Finger Lakes International Wine Competition and Wine Enthusiast gave one of their Reislings 90 points and a Best Buy label.

Colter’s Creek produced 1,500 cases of wine in 2011. Half of it they sold wholesale to Rosauers in Lewiston and Moscow, the Moscow Food Co-op and the Moscow Wine Company, along with a few local restaurants. The other half they sell through their tasting room, which is at the end of a steep and windy gravel road.

To make visiting easier the couple is renovating an old pharmacy at Juliaetta into a new tasting room they expect to open in June or July.

“Idaho’s reputation is quickly changing,” Pearson says.

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If you go

What: 22nd annual Confluence Grape & Grain When: 6-9 p.m. Friday Where: Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts & History, 415 Main St., Lewiston Admission: $25 Of Note: Along with wine and beer tasting there will be a silent auction. Proceeds benefit the arts center and the LCSC Business Student Organization.

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