Until last fall, when I participated in a tasting tour of southern Idaho, I’d passed through the state perhaps half a dozen times, always on my way to somewhere else. It’s easy to forget how big the United States is, and how big the individual states are, particularly in the West. Idaho is the size of Switzerland, Portugal and Ireland combined. The population of those countries tallies about 25 million, while Idaho’s population is a mere 1.6 million, which is to say it’s largely rural. It shares borders with six states and Canada. It’s a mountainous state, save for the Snake River Plain, a high desert in the south, where you can drive for hours over gently undulating ground dotted with the occasional herd of pronghorns. The plain is covered by a layer of volcanic soil that stretches all the way from the Wyoming border in the east, to the state capital, Boise, in the west, a product of ancient lava flows from the Yellowstone Basin.
While Idaho may be most famous for its potatoes (as noted on every license plate), the state also ranks number one in production of trout, and barley. In fact, of the 185 different crops produced on 25,000 farms, 27 rank in the top 10. Cattle also play a big role in Idaho’s agribusiness, providing both beef and dairy products. 500 family-owned dairy farms employ 23,000 people and produce 13.8 billion pounds (that’s 1.6 billion gallons) of milk annually, ranking third behind only California and Wisconsin. In short, Idaho offers plenty to keep an epicurean traveler busy.
You could easily spend a week exploring the food and drink scene in and around Boise, the state capital (locals like to point out that it’s pronounced Boi-see, not Boi-zee). If you’re there on a weekend, you might want to stay at the centrally located Hotel 43, which claims a fortuitous position across the street from the Saturday Farmers’ Market.
Idaho has a small but thriving wine industry with more than 50 wineries and 1,300 acres of wine grapes producing just over 200,000 cases of wine annually. More than half of that production can be found around Boise in the Snake River Valley.
Just 32 miles west of Boise in the Sunnyslope region, the Symms family has been farming for over a hundred years. Today they manage 3,500 acres of fruit, including cherries, pears, peaches, ten different varieties of apples, and grapes. They introduced the first post-prohibition wine grapes here in 1963, and founded Ste. Chapelle winery in 1975. Though they later sold the winery, they still supply Ste. Chapelle with grapes. The winery has a visitor center with tasting room and deck overlooking the vineyards. At 120,000 cases, Set. Chapelle produces nine different varietals and is by far the largest in the state (the second largest, Sawtooth, produces about 10,000 cases a year).
My favorite Idaho wines can be had at an urban winery just 5 minutes from downtown Boise — Cinder Wines. Winemaker Melanie Krause learned her craft at Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate Winery in Washington. She produces about 6,000 cases of wine a year, including a terrific Tempranillo and a Bordeaux blend, though I was most impressed by her stellar Viognier, which presents a crisp mélange of tropical fruit flavors without the excessive alcohol that mars so many New World Viogniers. Cinder’s tasting room is open daily from 11:00 to 5:00.
If you have limited time for wine touring or simply want to taste, I recommend Bodovino, a one-stop shop for wine on 4th street in downtown Boise. Bodovino serves up an international array of 144 different wines by the glass delivered in one, three or five ounce pours from Wineemotion machines that keep each bottle at the optimum temperature and free from oxidation. You simply insert a pre-purchased “credit card” and select the size of your pour. If you find one you like, you can purchase a bottle, or choose from 400 other wines by the bottle.
With Idaho ranking first in barley production and third in hops, it’s no surprise there’s a vibrant craft brew culture, with 48 breweries spread across the state, and more than a dozen in Boise. If you’d like to sample a few while burning off the calories, you might want to book a seat on a pedals-and-pints people-powered jitney, stopping at several brew pubs in the center of town (excursions begin just a block from the aforementioned Hotel 43).
Of course drink is only part of the package. Passionate foodies have plenty of choices to eat in Boise. I had the pleasure of sampling the fare at seven restaurants (see below), all of which were good. Two were particularly memorable: Juniper and Leku Ona.
Dedicated to local food, wine and beer, Juniper is located at the entrance to Freak Alley, the Northwest’s largest outdoor mural gallery. At Juniper I can recommend a fabulous sturgeon on a black lentil cake. Be sure to take a stroll down Freak Alley to appreciate the free art. At the end of the alley, cross 9th street and continue through the next alley to 10th street to The Dish, and order a bacon wrapped deep-fried banana with freeze-dried strawberry and balsamic. Yum!
Boise is home to the largest concentration of Basques, per capita, in the U.S. It’s worth noting that the Basque country that spans the Pyrenees between France and Spain, has the most Michelin starred restaurants in the world. You can enjoy some of that cuisine at Boise’s Leku Ona Basque restaurant just around the corner from the Basque Cultural Center.
As entertaining as Boise is, it’s not the only destination in southern Idaho. A three-hour drive east will bring you to the Sun Valley resort on the outskirts of Ketchum Idaho. Recently renovated, with large, luxurious rooms, the resort boasts a spa, a golf course, and the best skiing in Idaho.
Ketchum is also home to the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. For the past 20 years thousands of tourists have flocked to Ketchum in October to see a herd of 2,000 sheep run through the center of town. Sheep once outnumbered humans in the state. Though only a fraction of their former population, sheep still have an important place in Idaho agriculture. Each year shepherds follow their herds into the mountains following the greening of the grass, ranging about 125 miles per season, then back down to the valley floor in the late fall when the weather turns cold.
I spent less than a week in Idaho, but it was enough to seriously pique my interest. I suggest the next time you think about “passing through” on your way to somewhere else, make a point to spend a few days instead. Experience the restaurants, wineries, brewpubs, inspiring scenery and friendly people. Who knows — you might even choose to stay.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel 43, 981 W. Grove St., Boise, ID 83702 (www.hotel43.com)
Sun Valley Lodge, 1 Sun Valley Rd., Sun Valley, ID 83353 (www.sunvalley.com/lodging/sunvalleylodge/)
WHAT TO DO:
Pedals and Pints for a “cycle pub tour” (www.pedals-pints.com)
Ste. Chapelle Winery Vineyard and winemaking tour: 19348 Lowell Rd., Caldwell, ID 83607 (www.stechapelle.com)
Cinder Wines: (http://cinderwines.com) 107 East 44th Street Garden City, Idaho 83714 Phone (208) 376-4023 Email: email@example.com
Idaho has the most undammed rivers in the lower 48 states, and is the largest producer of trout. If you find yourself near Twin Falls, you might want to make a side trip to Clear Springs to visit the world’s largest trout farm: Clear Springs Foods, 1500 E. 4424 N. Clear Lakes Rd., Buhl, ID 83316 (www.clearsprings.com)
Trailing of the Sheep Festival: (www.trailingofthesheep.org)
WHERE TO EAT:
Bodovino — (www.bodovino.com) 144 wines by the glass
Chandler’s — a high end steakhouse connected with Hotel 43
The Dish (www.thedishboise.com)
Flatbread Neapolitan Pizzeria (www.flatbreadpizza.com)
Leku Ona — Located on the Basque Block in downtown Boise, next to the Basque Cultural Center, Leku Ona offers authentic Basque food and wines from the region (www.lekuonaid.com) 117 S. 6th Street, Boise, 83702, Phone: 208.345.6665