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Second generation moves Williamson Vineyards along
CALDWELL, Idaho – These days, their business name reads Williamson Orchards and Vineyards. In a decade, it might be more appropriate for the family to change it to Williamson Vineyards and Orchards.
Just 15 years ago, that would have been unimaginable for this family that began farming on the Sunnyslope region of Idaho’s Snake River Valley in 1909.
“We’re at the ground level of the Idaho wine industry exploding,” said Beverly Williamson, who operates the multi-generation business with her brother Mike and cousin Patrick. “As a family, we sat down and wondered, ‘Why don’t we start shifting from 90 percent tree fruit and 10 percent wine grapes to 60 percent wine grapes and 40 percent tree fruit?’ That was kind of hard for our dads to grasp.”
The children used the family’s history of successful diversification to help make their argument, and the long-term transition is taking place methodically. At this point, the Williamson family still farms 300 acres of orchards, but it already has 50 acres of award-winning vines in the ground, and there are more on the way – thanks to the vineyard work of Mike and Patrick.
“Four years ago, we had to make a decision,” Beverly Williamson said. “There’s a new style of growing and picking orchard fruit and taking to market that we don’t feel comfortable with. Grocery stores and distributors want the fruit fairly green so they can travel long distances, so there are new guidelines for packing houses that would require a fairly big investment.
“At the same time, we have this other asset – this vineyard that has been a backbone for the Idaho wine industry for 15 years,” she continued. “It’s one of the best sites in the state, and now we’ve got the experience on how to maintain vineyards and how to put in new vineyards. We feel this is just another evolution of our family business.”
A more visible and immediate sign of the continued diversification soon will be right along Highway 55 as Williamson Vineyards opens a new tasting room Sept. 28 in the Sunnyslope Wine District not far from the Snake River and the town of Marsing.
Idaho Century Farm in 2009
The Williamsons pay tribute to their homesteading family history on their bottles of wine with labels that feature a windmill. George and Lillian (Williamson) Gammon installed a windmill in 1915 to pull irrigation water out of their well near the Snake River. In 1920, they helped establish the Sunnyslope fruit industry by planting cherry and apple trees across their 80-acre parcel.
The Gammons had no children, but Lillian’s brother, Henry, and nephew Jack Williamson from Virginia – took over the farm during World War II. Jack’s sons, Roger and John, would grow the operation to 700 acres of fruit and row crops.
In 1998, they planted their first 28 acres of vineyards specifically for Ste. Chapelle, Idaho’s oldest and largest winery.
Neighboring winemaker Greg Koenig saw the immediate quality and long-term potential of those Williamson grapes, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. He soon talked John and Roger into not only selling him some of their fruit but also launching their eponymous winery brand.
“I used to walk my dogs past their vines, and that first year the grapes were so beautiful,” Koenig says. “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!’ ”
Naturally, they entered an arrangement to have Koenig make their wines – an award-winning relationship well into its second decade. Annual production stands at about 1,500 cases.
In 2007, the Williamson Vineyards 2004 Syrah grabbed a gold medal at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in Southern California. The next year, Wine Press Northwest magazine named Williamson Vineyards its Idaho Winery to Watch.
And now, the Williamsons now sell grapes to 10 wineries.
Trio of cousins in control at Williamson
The Williamson brothers now have three of their children – Jack’s grandkids – calling the shots. There are two of Roger’s children – Mike and Beverly – and John’s son, Patrick.
“We have meetings with Roger and John about six times a year,” Beverly said. “When the dads retired, they told us, ‘This is your thing and you are in charge, but you are welcome to come to us for advice and we’ll give you our two cents.’ So they are still part of the business, but they are pretty much retired. The new building decision and the new vineyard decisions are those of Michael, Patrick and myself.”
Mike graduated from the University of Idaho with an agricultural science degree, and his talent, experience and easy-going personality have turned him into a leader within the Idaho wine industry who is in the midst of a second term as a governor-appointed commissioner on the Idaho Wine Commission. Patrick attended the Walla Walla Community College winemaking program before transferring to Washington State University for horticulture. Together, the cousins not only manage their vineyards but also sites such as acclaimed Fraser Vineyard while continuing to oversee the orchards, particularly those prized peaches.
“I am very grateful that I work very well with my family, and we are all good at communicating what we need to have done,” Beverly said. “Mike and Pat support each other amazingly well in the vineyard.”
Riesling to big reds at Williamson Vineyards
This year, the Williamsons are in the process of transitioning some Riesling to Cabernet Sauvignon. Last year, they planted Malbec, and there’s more of that to come, along with Tempranillo, Grenache and perhaps Albariño and Roussanne.
“We plan to continue to grow the vineyards in small lots – 3 to 6 acres – every year for the next five years,” Beverly said. “We’re very conscious on planting grape varieties that not only do well, but also if there is a market for them. Is that grape a fad or will it still be popular in three years when it comes into production? The boys listen to all of that, the science of it and how it fits with the patchwork of the vineyard.”
Beverly handles the day-to-day operations of the Williamson Orchards and Vineyards, manages sales and the tasting room. There’s also marketing and public relations for the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, an on-going alliance she and Martin Fujishin of Fujishin Family Cellars continue to shepherd.
“Really, credit for the formation of the Sunnyslope Wine Trail goes to Gregg Alger (Huston Vineyards) and Ron Bitner (Bitner Vineyards),” Beverly said. “It all started with morning coffee at the Orchard House and ‘How can we become cooperative as a group to get people to drive 45 minutes from downtown Boise and try these delicious wines we all make?’ ”
The group is pursuing nonprofit status, which will help it apply for economic development grants, expand the lineup of consumer events, hire an employee and ultimately petition the federal government to establish the Sunnyslope as an American Viticultural Area.
“The Sunnyslope Wine Trail is going to be a destination,” Beverly Williamson said. “There’s the beautiful new tasting room for Koenig, and the changes at Ste. Chapelle with the patio and the plans for the concert space – which is amazing – and Sawtooth moving to Ste. Chapelle. We’re going to start to see a whole lot of traffic because of it. This is going to be the place to come to experience Idaho wine country.”
From Williamson Lane to Highway 55
Foresight and investment by their forefathers meant the Williamson children didn’t need to purchase property for their new tasting room. And their move from Williamson Lane will be a short one – from just below Ste. Chapelle to just across Highway 55. They are transforming a small residence with an out building into a tasting room with 1,100 square feet, event space, case/barrel storage and a second floor for offices,
“We’ve had so many people who stop into the tasting room over the years who say, ‘I’ve been driving past you for 30 years and never knew you were here,” Beverly said. “Now, we’ll have a chance to change that.”
This new, larger retail space will make the wine tasting experience more comfortable and accommodating, but the Williamsons don’t plan on bringing a different personality to the property.
“We’re farmers. We’re proud of that, and we’ve been doing it a long time,” she said. “Welcoming people is a huge thing for us, and we want them to feel at home, so we hope to bring some of the feel of the old barn to the new facility with the same ‘farm charm.’ We’re moving the big windmill blades from the farm and the wooden trucks from the old place, only this is a lot classier than the inside of the old barn.”
Beverly chuckled about moving into a new work environment with “heat in the winter and bathrooms with doors on them,” but she will be distancing herself from a lifetime of fond memories.
“I grew up as a kid on the farm, but since I was a girl, I was not pushed to work out in the fields, so I would help my mom run the fruit stand when I was in junior high and high school,” Beverly said. “Both of my parents are friendly, easy-going and easy-to-talk-to people, and I like people. Give me a topic, and I’d probably chew your ear off.
“So I enjoyed hanging out with Mom at the fruit stand and watch her talk with customers and treat them with respect and honesty,” she continued. “She would make people feel so welcome, and I’ve always wanted to do that, too.”
Sunnyslope Wine District continues its rise
A decade ago, Greg Koenig purchased 10 acres alongside Williamson vines for his production facility, small vineyard and future tasting room. The Notre Dame-trained architect is now poised to open that Italian-inspired showpiece tasting room along Hoskins Road, within view of Roger Williamson’s home, that will set a new standard for Idaho.
Within five minutes, wine tourists can venture from the new tasting rooms for Koenig and Williamson, with Bitner Vineyards, Fujishin Family Cellars and Hat Ranch Winery essentially in between. Huston Vineyards – with wines made by rising star Melanie Krause of Cinder Wines – is just a five-minute drive to the east on the way back to Boise.
“It’s very rural,” Beverly Williamson said. “The locals love it, and we hope we can charm some of the people from out of town as well. We’re not at the same stage of our industry as Washington and Oregon, and certainly not California, but there’s so much to offer in terms of a personal experience.
“For those of us right along Highway 55, you can stop at Martin’s tasting room and the Orchard House for home-cooked food,” she added. “And we’re hoping that when people stop at Williamson they will find that same feeling, too.”