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For the week of Mar. 15 through Mar. 21, 2000

Idaho’s wine country

Only the grapes know why
they like it

Express Staff Writer

Steve Roberto, St. Chapelle winery
Viticulture 101. Winemaker Steven Roberto describes the bilateral cordon pruning of St. Chapelle winery’s Riesling grapevines. Idaho wines are “more elegant than the heavy-handed, ponderous, monstrous, high-alcohol wines you read about in gaudy publications like the Wine Spectator,” Roberto said. (Express Photo by David N. Seelig)

SUNNY SLOPE—Steve Roberto is converting people who think that Idaho’s only viable crops are potatoes and snow.

It’s no secret that Idaho wine gets a bad rap, but that’s probably from people who have never made the trip to the Sunny Slope area near the Snake River in the southwestern part of the state. That scenic valley is where Roberto runs the preeminent winery in the state, if not the entire Northwest.

Listening to the 42-year-old Roberto talk about the wine he makes at St. Chapelle winery is enough to make anyone reconsider his or her preconceived notions, but when it comes to the final convincing, the wines speak for themselves.

At the Sun Valley Wine Auction, which St. Chapelle attends regularly, and at blind tastings across the United States, Roberto’s deep, lush Syrahs and crisp, elegant Rieslings have stood up to some of the best wines in the world, to the consternation of a few snobs, he said during a tour of the vineyards and winemaking facilities on Saturday.

For many, St. Chapelle has been synonymous with Idaho wine since it crushed its first commercial vintage in 1976.

Through the 1980s and ‘90s, most agree, St. Chapelle has led the way in exploring and expanding Idaho’s wine-growing horizons.

Since coming to the winery in 1998 from the Robert Mondavi winery in California, Roberto says he has had his work cut out building on St. Chapelle’s already respected reputation.

"The vineyards here were primitive and yet the wines still had this interesting character," he said of his first experiences in Idaho. "I wanted to learn more about it. One thing led to another, and I became winemaker [at St. Chapelle]."

Roberto, who has a degree in winemaking and viticulture from the University of California at Davis, insists that wines in Idaho have a unique character that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. And he believes that character will eventually catapult Idaho wines to the top of the viticultural heap.

Typically, he said, the wines in Idaho are light and elegant, not the "heavy-handed, ponderous, monstrous, high-alcohol wines you read about in gaudy publications like the Wine Spectator."

The unique character of the grapes, he said, comes from Idaho’s unique climate and soil, which he tries to showcase rather than mask.

"You can make a commercial style anywhere in the world," he said. "But we resist the temptation here, because the world doesn’t need anymore buttery Chardonnays or oaky wines. It needs wines with character, and the wines here in Idaho have that."

Roberto encouraged believers and skeptics alike to visit St. Chapelle for a tasting and a tour. For directions, call the winery at (208) 459-7222.


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