by Sally Colby
Gregg Alger and his wife Mary didn’t always realize the importance or value of soil in the winemaking process, but they’ve learned that it’s one of the keys to making drinkable wine that brings customers back for more.
The Boise, Idaho couple had a late start in winemaking business. Gregg had a successful business career, but wanted to do something more. “I reached the age of 40 and realized that I wasn’t getting any younger,” he said. “My partners bought me out, and I left the office products business.”
The Algers purchased 273 acres of farmland near Boise, Idaho, which was the start of a second career in farming — a business Gregg said he’d never do. “There was a contract on the land when we bought it, so for six or eight months we had nothing to do,” said Gregg. “The farmer finished out his crops, and we bought a motorhome and took off.”
Gregg, Mary and their two young sons traveled in Canada and the United States and fell in love with the wineries in the Alexander Valley of northern California. Gregg decided that he wanted to explore the idea of starting a winery when they returned home. “The week we got back from that trip, the viticulture area went live,” said Gregg. “The state of Idaho had been working on its first AVA, the Snake River Valley, and everything had been submitted to the TTB.”
Unfortunately, that’s when the anthrax scare occurred in Washington, D.C., and all of the state’s paperwork for the AVA submission was destroyed. “They had to restart and resubmit,” said Gregg. “It was eventually approved in 2007. A new AVA launch was exciting for Idaho, but at that point, I couldn’t have told you what an AVA was.”
The timing turned out to be perfect. Gregg knew he didn’t know much about wine, but realized the potential and signed up for Oregon State University’s viticulture and enology program. At the same time, he started preparing to plant the vineyard that would become Huston Vineyards. Although the formal education proved to be useful, Gregg says that the practical experience of learning in his own vineyard was even more valuable.
The Algers planted their first vines in 2007 while Gregg was still in school, and made wine the following year. “We walked every vineyard in the Snake River Valley,” said Gregg. “I hand-picked a few sites and crafted our first wine, a reserve red blend, which is still in our lineup today. We made 100 cases of that, and at $40.00 a bottle, we sold out in 90 days.”
The first vines were reds, including four varietals to determine which would do best on the site. “I planted Cab, Merlot, Syrah and Malbec,” said Gregg. “I knew we weren’t going to grow Zinfandel or Pinot Noir, and I didn’t think it would get warm enough for Barbera to burn off some of the acid. I grew what I knew was marketable and would do well on that site. I thought Cab might be a long shot because we’ve always been told that in Idaho, Oregon and eastern Washington, Cab should go on south-facing, steep slopes. I was tentative on Cab but it’s the number one selling varietal and I wanted to have it in the line-up. All four have been phenomenal.”
Gregg describes the soil at Huston Vineyards as a relatively fertile sandy loam. There’s a lot of seed production in the region, and the same soil that’s good for seed crops is also highly suitable for grapes. “If you look at high production seed areas around the world,” said Gregg, “you’ll find viniferous grapes close by.”
Although the Algers have ample acreage for vines, they rely on a number of off-site properties to grow grapes. Gregg isn’t a fan of estate wines; instead he believes that grapes blended from multiple sites can bring complexity that a single varietal can’t offer. The majority of sites are in the Snake River AVA, although Gregg says that the extreme weather in 2014 forced him to source grapes from Washington.
“Each relationship with off-site cooperators is a bit different,” Gregg explained. “Some are growers and I purchase the grapes, and I rent ground from others. I also own some of the ground, and others are tonnage contracts.” But because Gregg’s passion is the process of growing, he is very particular about the grapes from each source, and spends time with each grower, on each farm, to define what he wants.
“I have sites with soil that’s virtually all sand,” said Gregg. “I also have sites that are on volcanic soil that goes down eight feet. There are sites that have a gravel layer with granite ranging in size from eggs to small river rocks. We also have basalt soil. The soils are very diverse, and it makes our wines beautiful.”
Because the region is suitable for viniferous varieties, those have become Gregg’s focus. “We have higher growing degree days than a number of other regions, but our heat is spiky,” he said. “It’s relatively cool, then there are long days of heat. Certain varietals, like Malbec and Merlot, love that environment. Pinot Noir, not so much, and Zinfandel needs long days of heat.”
At harvest, Gregg brings in fruit from 37 lots, and takes extraordinary care to keep lots separate. He recalls spending 12 hours crafting the base reserve red blend. “We spent four hours just creating the Syrah,” he said, adding that nine different lots of Syrah were used. “The nuances in different sites, soil structures, orientations and slope all bring a uniqueness to each lot, and blending them brings a complexity that is unbelievable.”
Gregg says that since its initiation, the winery has redefined its brand strategy and now offers two labels: Huston and Chicken Dinner. “I’m a major advocate for the Snake River Valley and the uniqueness we have here,” said Gregg. “For our Huston lineup, we’ve made a commitment that those will be 100 percent Snake River Valley wines.” Gregg explains that the vineyard’s name Huston honors the small community they’re part of. “It was a point of entry onto the narrow-gauge rail line for the farm region,” he said. “They shipped fresh produce, fruit and meat into Boise — that’s how they fed the community. We are passionate about wine being an extension of the meal.”
The Chicken Dinner label was almost too easy. It’s the name of the road the winery is on, and Gregg realizes that they couldn’t have spent money and come up with a better label. “Our Chicken Dinner theme, which has grown extremely fast, may include fruit from other AVAs,” said Gregg.
In addition to overseeing the growing process and making wine, Gregg enjoys the business and marketing side of the winery. The Algers self-distribute, and have worked with local chefs to get Snake River AVA wines into area restaurants.
“My heart is in the farming side,” said Gregg. “There’s nothing more beautiful than bringing that fruit to the winery. Working with sites that blend well, managing the canopy to bring better fruit in — that’s exciting, and it’s something we can take that to market.”
Visit Huston Vineyards on line at www.hustonvineyards.com .
Fine soil, fine wine
by Sally Colby