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Bringing the Lewis-Clark Valley’s wine industry back to life

Co-founder of Clearwater Canyon Cellars and Umiker Vineyard, Coco Umiker is a new recipient of the WSU Alumni Achievement Award. She is the School of Food Science’s first graduate to build a vineyard and winery from the ground up.

Walking rows of syrah on a late winter afternoon, Coco Umiker takes in the panorama from her Lewiston, Idaho, vineyard.

Bare, pale golden vines slope toward the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers, whose brown valley walls rise more than a thousand feet in the distance.

“We’re standing on my family’s century-old farm,” says Umiker.

Many locals thought she and her husband Karl were a little eccentric to plant grapevines in a bare field that had seen only wheat and cattle since 1916.

But, thanks to conversations with her farmer grandfather and dedicated local wine hobbyists, Umiker knew the Lewis-Clark Valley’s secret—that it’s actually a great place to grow European wine grapes.

Uncommon ground

“Look at the lay of the land,” says Umiker. From the river to the hills lies evidence of ancient megafloods that spread sediment across the lower valley. In higher places, like her farm, silty loam dominates, much like the rich soil that fuels the Northwest’s Palouse breadbasket.

These soils, called Mollisols, formed in grasslands where fine grass roots die annually, creating a thick mantle of organic matter.

“Our soil is amazing,” Umiker said. “Pick it up, and you can see and feel how it defines this valley.”

“As a scientist and a history lover, that gives me, and my grapes, a great sense of place,” she added.

Sense of place means a great deal to Umiker. She was the driving force in the 2016 establishment of the Lewis-Clark American Viticultural Area, or AVA, a federally designated, unique wine grape-growing region.

With a 2011 doctoral degree from the WSU-UI School of Food Science, Umiker is the school’s first graduate to build her own vineyard and winery from the ground up.

For her effort to promote Idaho’s fastest-growing wine region, and contributions to the wine research community, Umiker received the 536th Washington State University Alumni Achievement Award. 

A legacy reclaimed

Coco and Karl, self-described “science nerds,” founded Clearwater Canyon Cellars and Umiker Vineyard nearly 15 years ago in Lewiston, learning to become farmers along the way.

She grew up in Boise, Idaho. A cancer survivor at 11 years old, Umiker faced down schoolyard bullies as she recovered from the illness that nearly killed her.

Planning to become a doctor after being inspired by the people who saved her life, Umiker studied microbiology, molecular biology and biochemistry at the University of Idaho. But ultimately, she changed her plan. What she really wanted was a career that combined science, creativity, and social connections.

A wine course at WSU furthered Umiker’s interest in wine, and in 2002, she and Karl attended an Asotin County Master Gardeners workshop on wine and grapes aimed at backyard farmers and hobbyist winemakers.

There, they heard Robert Wing, a Valley weatherman, writer and backyard winemaker, speak on the history of the Valley’s wine industry.

“It was perfect timing,” she said. “We were trying to figure out what we were going to do, and Bob came into our lives.”

Wing’s backyard vines were part of the WSU Wine Project—an effort, led by WSU researcher Walter Clore, to discover the best grape varieties and growing practices for Washington state.

“We would bring dinners down from Moscow to Bob’s house near the Lewiston airport, and he would pull wines from the cellar, made with grapes from his experimental vineyard,” Umiker said. “Bottles with detailed notes on the weather that year and how he had made it.”

Over dinner, Wing would share the history of winemaking in the Lewis-Clark Valley.

Vines had been planted in the valley in 1872, and by 1908, more than 50 varieties were being harvested from vineyards as large as 80 acres. Two years later, however, the local temperance movement successfully led a ban on alcoholic beverages, nearly a decade ahead of national prohibition. The industry crashed, its memory lingering on in the backyard trellises of hobbyists like Wing.

“His stories inspired us so much,” Umiker said. “We made a couple vintages with him from his backyard grapes. And we started our own research, looking at the possibility of developing a vineyard and winery on our family’s farm.”

Umiker walks along a row of established vines at her Lewiston, Idaho, vineyard. She and husband Karl founded their award-winning winery after learning the Lewis-Clark Valley’s secret—that it’s actually a great place to grow European wine grapes.

Building the farm

Umiker’s grandparents still ran their 500-acre Lewiston farm, but no one in the younger generation seemed interested in taking over. The 21-year-old Coco talked her grandfather, Ralph Nichols, into letting them rent a quarter-acre of land. In 2003, they planted it with Merlot.

Working with business partners, they bottled their first vintage the next autumn, in the partner’s garage. Coco suspects that she was the youngest winemaker in Idaho, and likely the entire Northwest, at the time.

“Most people looked at us like we were a couple of crazy kids,” Umiker said. “But Grandpa was old enough to remember the old vineyards and orchards.

“When people asked him about our vineyard, he’d say, ‘That’s the kids’ project,'” she added. “In his defense, we were just nerds trying to be farmers. We’d never driven a tractor before! We’d come down on the evenings and weekends to tend the vineyard.”

To extend her knowledge, Umiker took a research assistantship in the WSU-UI School of Food Science, putting herself through graduate school. She studied the properties of Dekkera bruxellensis, a yeast that can severely impact red wine’s flavor. Collecting a library of Dekkera cultures from Washington wines, Umiker met with many Northwest wine producers and grape growers.

Her research took her to Chile, where she shared advances in detection of bacteria and yeasts, and to the triannual Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Seattle, where she shared WSU research ideas with more than 500 top players in the international wine research communty. She was also a regular presenter at Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers meetings and American Society for Enology and Viticulture conferences.

Carving out the terroir

Meanwhile, the Umikers were expanding, moving from the garage to a business incubator space at the Port of Lewiston. Between nascent gunmakers and sandpaper manufacturers, the Umikers crushed, fermented, bottled—and learned how to run a business. Umiker credits the atmosphere of the port, where neighbors freely shared resources, with the winery’s success.

“I don’t think we could have made it anywhere else,” she said.

At the Port, Umiker began the nine-year effort to create the AVA. Even with its deep history, she knew that the Lewis-Clark Valley’s wine industry would never prosper without the stature of an official AVA.

“Prior to that, we could only put ‘Idaho’ or ‘Washington’ on our wine labels,” she said.

Assisted by the Clearwater Economic Development Agency, the Idaho Wine Commission, the Ports of Lewiston and Clarkston, state agencies, and a partner winery in nearby Juliaetta, Idaho, the Umikers raised funds and hired scientific consultants to create the boundary.

Poring through soil data and temperature history, their cartographer-geologist set the boundary at 600 meters of elevation. The defining factors: Climate and the rich grassland soil.

The abundance of Mollisol soils is what makes this AVA stand out, says Umiker. It’s helped her win Wine Press Northwest’s 2015 Idaho Winery of the Year, and become the first head woman winemaker to earn 10 Platinum awards from that publication.

“Revitalizing the wine industry was about getting grapes growing here again, making wine from those grapes, and getting people to experience that taste of place,” Umiker said. “The only way to do that was to get the boundary made.”

“Now, we can say, ‘These are Lewis-Clark Valley grapes.'”