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Saturday, Mar. 15, 2008

Idaho Winery to Watch: Williamson Vineyards

CALDWELL, Idaho — Any winemaker knows it all comes down to the fruit.

In the case of Williamson Vineyards, it started with something other than grapes.

Roger and John Williamson branched out from the family orchard business in 1999 by planting grapevines on 28 acres in Caldwell, Idaho. And within three years, their Sunny Slope vineyard attracted attention.

“People ask me why their grapes are so good,” said neighboring winemaker Greg Koenig, whose brother, Andy, uses Williamson orchard fruit at his famed Koenig Distillery. “It’s a great site and they are very skilled farmers, and they are so willing to listen to anybody. There’s no arrogance or stubbornness.”

Their return on investment came early and continues, which explains why Williamson Vineyards received our 2008 Idaho Winery to Watch.

Last year, the Williamson Vineyards 2004 Syrah from the Snake River Valley grabbed a gold medal and its 2005 Riesling a silver at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino, Calif.

The 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon took gold at the 2007 Tasters Guild as well as bronze at both the International Eastern Wine Competition and the Northwest Wine Summit. The 2005 Viognier won silver at the Idaho Wine Festival.

The big winner was the 2006 Late Harvest Viognier, which brought home a gold medal and best dessert wine at the Idaho Wine Festival.

Partial credit for those medals belongs to Koenig, who makes the Williamson Vineyards wines.

“People do give him a bit of a hard time whenever our wines do better in competitions than his own wines,” said Beverly Williamson, the director of sales. “He’s awesome about it, though, and laughs along with the rest of us.”

Koenig could have predicted it in 2001 when the vines, planted at the request of Ste. Chapelle, were in their third “leaf” or growing season.

“I used to walk my dogs past their vines, and that first year the grapes were so beautiful,” Koenig said. “They were all contracted out, but I told Roger, ‘Please let me make a barrel of Cabernet and a barrel of Syrah. Let’s ferment it and see what it will do.’ And it was ‘Wow!’ ”

Some found its way into Koenig’s own 2004 Reserve Syrah — Idaho’s most expensive wine. Much of it, however, ended up in an $8 off-dry blend.

“At the time, Roger was nervous just how the vines were going to do,” Koenig said.

Now, Williamson Vineyards has Koenig produce six bottlings, including a fortified Syrah, but less than 1,000 cases. There are plans to grow with the addition of Mourvédre — another Rhône variety — and Sangiovese.

“I’m a fourth-generation Williamson, and there are seven Williamsons working on the farm,” Beverly said. “We have a cousin, Patrick (Williamson), who is going to Walla Walla Community College for enology, and he’s going to transfer to Washington State University to continue with horticulture.

“We’re hoping to have him work with Greg and follow in Greg’s footsteps, but we hope we can continue to work with Greg indefinitely,” she added. “He’s very much sought-after.”

Koenig said, “My goal would be to continue with them for a long, long time.”

In fact, he recently purchased 10 acres adjacent to the Williamsons’ vines for his new 10,000-case winery and vineyard.

“Their grapes are why we’re really excited about Idaho wine,” Koenig said. “Especially Syrah and Viognier.”

* Williamson Vineyards, 19692 Williamson Lane, Caldwell, Idaho, 208-459-7333, willorch.com.