Since it earned the nickname the Gem State, Idaho has been attracting fortune-seekers who see untapped value in the West. During the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, new residents flocked to the state, giving it the biggest pandemic population bump in the nation.
The capital, Boise, has led the boom (with a surge in housing prices to match), as remote workers migrated east from the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest in search of more space, cheaper rent, and a quieter lifestyle. New residents brought infusions of cash and interest, but they’re building on the area’s endearing underlying character. Boise is funky, cool, and friendly, while the surrounding foothills and nearby Boise National Forest put the great outdoors at the city’s doorstep. Plus there’s a thriving food scene powered by a strong Basque community and chefs quickly gaining national recognition. And then there’s wine. Really great wine.
Idaho is considered a newbie on the U.S. wine scene. Some of the first grapes planted in the Pacific Northwest were grown in Lewiston in 1864 — about three decades before statehood — but it took until 2007 for the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to approve the Snake River Valley as the state’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA). Over a thousand miles long, the Snake River was formed more than 4 million years ago, overlaying the prehistoric Lake Idaho bed that creates the valley’s boundaries. The AVA centers on a stretch of southwestern Idaho with the largest density of vineyards and wineries, along with bits of eastern Oregon. At 8,000 square miles, it dwarfs Napa and Sonoma, which together have 34 AVAs packed into just 2,500 miles.
The designation, which put Snake River on par with more established wine regions, couldn’t have come soon enough. In recent years winemakers have transplanted from California to apply their experience in the up-and-coming region — but there are also a lot of Idaho natives among the vintner ranks, including some on land handed down for generations. Overall, the Idaho wine industry feels refreshingly direct and laid-back compared to the exceedingly polished scenes in California and Oregon.
The Snake River Valley winemaking community is young, but vintners make up for their lack of years with ambition and energy. You won’t find a lot of pretension or stuffiness. You will find a lot of downright delicious wine. Here’s your guide to everywhere you should drink, eat, and stay in the nation’s buzziest new wine region.
What to know before you go
Basque Block: Boise is home to one of the largest communities of Basque Americans, including some who trace their roots back to a wave of Basque immigrants in the 19th century. Get your fill of chorizo, pintxos, and paella in downtown’s Basque Block.
Boise: You’re probably saying “Boy-Z” when really it’s pronounced “Boy-See.”
Sunnyslope Wine Trail: Visitors looking for great wine should start with this collection of 17 wineries and vineyards. Located about 30 miles west of Boise, the trail works its way through Meridian, Nampa, and Caldwell.
Ste. Chapelle: The first Idaho winery to open after Prohibition, Ste. Chapelle was like the big bang for the region’s wine industry when it opened in 1975. The winery is still kicking too, earning awards and national attention.
Huckleberry: This small berry is Idaho’s state fruit, so you’ll see it on menus across the region. Similar to a blueberry, the huckleberry is more sweet than tart, especially when baked or cooked. Look out for huckleberry salad dressing, ice cream, cocktails, and even as a glaze for beef and other meats.
Potatoes: You probably associated Idaho with this tuber long before grapes, and for good reason. The state harvests 13 billion pounds every year, 90 percent of which are russet potatoes.
Fry Sauce: This simple mix of ketchup and mayo is excellent for dipping fried spuds. Its given name in Boise is slightly more dignified than Heinz’s “mayochup.”
Syrah, Viognier, Riesling: Grape growers plant lots of varieties, but syrah, viognier, and riesling excel in Idaho, which is on the same latitude as the Rhone Valley in France and Rioja in Spain. Plus, with California’s vines under the very real threat of frequent wildfires, Idaho is becoming a go-to for varietals like chardonnay and merlot.
Garden City: Located across the river from downtown Boise, Garden City has become an increasingly popular area for small wine producers to set up shop — including a few folks who make some of the best bottlings in the region. From downtown Boise you can jump in a car and be there in about 10 minutes.
The Greenbelt: This beloved urban trail celebrated its 50th birthday in 2019. The paved pathway snakes along the river and connects downtown Boise to Garden City, with plenty of wineries, restaurants, and green space along the route. Though it’s a tourist hot spot, you’ll also see plenty of locals fishing and zipping by on bikes and scooters.
Where to drink
The eponymous Snake River supplies the region with abundant water, while its ancient volcanic sediment makes fertile, well-draining soils that give grape growers greater control. Cold winters also allow vines to go dormant (naturally ridding plants of pests and disease), while the combination of a dry climate, hot days, and cold nights balances the fruit’s acids and sugars. All that adds up to beautiful, laser-focused wines worth a serious tour.
Sunnyslope: The gorgeous tasting room at Koenig Vineyards is a must-visit. Take a seat on the expansive patio or start up a game of life-size chess as you sip the dry rosé (a juicy blend of sangiovese and merlot grapes) or cabernet sauvignon (full of vanilla and cherry). Climb the tower out front to enjoy views of the vineyards when you’re done. Sawtooth Winery and Ste. Chapelle are next door to each other and feature the same winemaker, Meredith Smith. Both boast tasting rooms overlooking lovely vistas and serve wines that aren’t readily available elsewhere. Look for the Trout Series at Sawtooth, and Panoramic and Treasure Valley Series at Ste. Chapelle. Patio-hop your way to Hat Ranch for a lively afternoon scene. As you admire the rows of grapes behind the tasting room, you’ll notice hats of all different shapes and sizes adorning the fence posts — a quirky nod to the winery’s name. Winemaker Tim Harless also produces for the Vale Wine Company, which is available to try at the tasting room.
Garden City: Owners and winemakers Carrie and Earl Sullivan started Telaya Wine Co. as a way to work together (Earl was previously the COO of a pharmaceuticals company and Carrie a veterinarian). Now their tasting room is one of the most popular spots on the Greenbelt. On nice days, every table on the patio is occupied by wine drinkers (and their dogs) watching the action on the Greenbelt, maybe with a glass of 2020 Aman II “Clash,” a blend of Idaho-grown gruner Veltliner and viognier that has tangerine and tropical notes. On cooler afternoons, you can stay toasty by one of the firepits or by sipping the winery’s Turas bottling, which hits the sweet spot between earthy, fruity, and spicy. If you’re a fan of pet-nats, co-fermentation, and funky, experimental wine styles, check out Split Rail Winery. In the tasting room, you might find a Spaghetti Western playing on TV while the Cramps drift through the speakers. Winemaker Jed Glavin uses locally grown grapes and doesn’t often make the same wine twice, and he finishes in concrete eggs and sandstone vessels along with the usual oak barrels. Finally, Cinder Wines owner and winemaker Melanie Krause named her winery after the Snake River Valley’s volcanic soil. The vast tasting room has outdoor and indoor seating where groups gather for guided wine and chocolate pairings.
Buhl: On the eastern tip of the Snake River Valley AVA, Holesinsky Vineyard & Winery makes excellent rosés and a smooth, rich pinot noir. The energy is young and fun, and they host frequent wine-centric events like outdoor movie nights, yoga classes, and a yearly harvest party and grape stomp with live music and food trucks.
Boise: Caldwell’s Scoria is run by Sydney Nederend, who started planting vines in 2014 (at the age of 21) on her family’s volcanic-rich, century-old farmland. She quickly established a local reputation for great grapes. If you can’t make it out to the vineyard, check out the tasting room in Boise, which boasts the sleekest design in the city, where groups of relaxed locals hang for hours over bottles of chardonnay and estate merlot. Coiled Wines has a tasting room and production facility in Garden City, but you’re better off pulling up to the bar at the downtown tasting room where you can enjoy small plates, happy hour specials, and the vibrant, friendly crowd.
Where to eat
Boise: As Idaho’s biggest city, Boise is the gravitational center for the state’s culinary scene. Just look at Kin, where the tasting menu offers a fresh, modern spin on fine dining, complete with a cocktail hour in the lounge before a seasonal five-course meal with optional wine pairings. White subway tile, velvet banquettes, and floor-to-ceiling windows set the scene over at Trillium, the all-day restaurant inside Boise’s Grove Hotel. You can pair your locally sourced bison meatloaf or huckleberry-dressed smoked trout Cobb salad with a great Manhattan or a pick from the Idaho section of the wine list. The Wylder specializes in pizza made with a 50-plus-year-old sourdough starter, veggie sides like cacio e pepe street corn, and excellent cocktails.
If you’re after some classic meat and potatoes, check out Chandlers, a steakhouse adjacent to Hotel 43, where the move is Snake River Farms American wagyu paired with the restaurant’s famed 10-Minute Vesper (submerged in an ice bath to make it extra crisp). Or try local favorite Barbacoa Grill, which specializes in open-fire cooking and tableside theatrics — think made-to-order guacamole and filet mignon served with flaming cognac sauce. Boise Fry Company lets you customize spuds by potato and cut (we like the curly yam fries) and also serves a variety of burgers that range from bison to vegan.
Taco lovers have two great options. At the Funky Taco, try the crispy, panko-dusted cauliflower tacos and a plate of fried rice nuggets, which are dressed with shaved fennel, pickled cucumber, mayo, and homemade chile crisp. And at Madre Boutique Taqueria, chef John Cuevas gives tacos his own spin with preparations like sweet and sour carnitas and al pastor with blue cheese and mojo.
Although Boise is a hub for meat, Lemon Tree Co. turns out some of area’s best plant-based sandwiches, like a massaman curry banh mi with yams and mushroom, or an artichoke cheesesteak. Before relocating to Idaho, Kibrom Milash and Tirhas Hailu operated a restaurant at the Shimelba refugee camp in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Now they’re serving traditional East African cuisine at Kibrom’s Ethiopian & Eritrean, where a veggie plate served with injera is one of the best meals in the city.
You can’t visit Boise without stopping by the Basque Block. The Ansotegui family of Ansots Basque Chorizos has been in Idaho for more than a century. Their chorizo plate is a must and pairs perfectly with patatas bravas, marinated peppers with anchovies, and a glass of Spanish wine from the well-rounded list. The Basque Market, which sells Basque ingredients and wine, also serves expertly made pintxos, as well as big pans of paella on the patio every Wednesday and Friday at noon. Stop by Bar Gernika’s corner patio for a cold beer and the Boise-famous lamb grinder.
In the morning, go for Guru Donuts, where specimens emerge with lightly crisp exteriors and pillowy centers, as well as gluten-free doughnuts made with Idaho potato flour. Ā Cafe serves hearty scrambles and Acme Levain toast topped with avocado and veggies or butter and homemade fruit compote. Come to Neckar Coffee for expertly made cappuccinos, cortados, and pour overs, and don’t miss the not-too-sweet house-made oat and buckwheat granola with einkorn berries and white miso. Certified Kitchen and Bakery is known for sandwiches served on pillowy English muffins crafted from a 52-year-old sourdough starter. Kick back for a lazy lunch on the patio at Diablo & Sons Saloon, where you can pair a chimichurri steak salad, crispy chicken sandwich, or oyster and bacon tacos with a glass of Idaho wine.
After dinner, stop by the STIL (which stands for Sweetest Things in Life), which serves homemade ice cream with a nice roster of traditional and dairy-free flavors. Don’t miss boozy varieties like honey bourbon and red sangria. Meanwhile, pastry chef Moshit Mizrachi-Gabbitas helms the delightful Janjou Pâtisserie, serving croissants, fruit tarts, and flan parisien.
When you need a break from wine, head to the Modern Bar for tasty snacks and creative libations, like Midnight to Midnight (like if an Italian amaro met a pineapple daiquiri), and Iceberg Slim (a delicious combo of gin and macadamia nut). Ride a secret elevator to Press & Pony (the bar will send you instructions when you make a reservation) for signature drinks like the Turn Off Your Blinker, made with rye, grapefruit, raspberry-rhubarb oleo-saccharum, Peychaud’s bitters, and cherry.
Garden City: If you need nourishment while exploring the Greenbelt, Push & Pour has a small but mighty menu of sandwiches, coffee, and other provisions. The iconic Stagecoach Inn hasn’t changed much since it opened in 1959, and the restaurant is still known for its crispy hand-breaded prawns, prime rib, and steak and beans.
Caldwell and Meridian: If you need to fill up on your way to the Sunnyslope Wine Trail, stop by Amano. The restaurant is inspired by chef-owner Salvador Alamilla’s upbringing in Michoacán, Mexico, and Southern California, and it features dishes like mole coloradito and braised lengua tacos, all on tortillas made in house from heirloom Oaxacan corn. The beverage menu leapfrogs between agave spirits and local Idaho wines. Or go for Grit, which serves American comfort food like lemon-brined fried chicken and a bacon-jam grilled cheese on sourdough. Though it’s outside the Basque Block, Epi’s has been serving Basque food west of Boise for 20 years, since it was founded by sisters Christi and Gina Ansotegui. You can’t go wrong with seasonal specials like crab toast or solomo, baked pork loin topped with pimentos, and garlic chips.
Twin Falls and Hagerman: It’s worth a day trip southeast of town for the scenery (and a visit to Holesinsky Vineyard in Buhl). For a delicious meal with sweeping views of the surrounding area, snag a patio table at Elevation 486, where the menu focuses on steaks, chops, and fish from local purveyors, as well as Idaho wine and spirits. Snake River Grill is known for its alligator bites and Idaho sturgeon.
Where to picnic
One of the best things about visiting Boise is getting to experience the surrounding nature, and you don’t have to travel far outside the city to enjoy it. Grab breakfast or lunch takeout and a bottle from your favorite winery, and head to one of these locales to enjoy your meal in the great outdoors.
Idaho Botanical Garden: Nestled in the Boise foothills, this lush 15-acre garden features beautiful flora, sculptures, and a shaded meditation garden with a koi pond.
Camel’s Back Park: This 11-acre park has several trail systems, and a short uphill climb offers sweeping views of the city.
Esther Simplot Park: Bike or walk along the Boise Greenbelt to reach Esther Simplot Park and Quinn’s Pond where you can swim, paddleboard, and kayak.
Table Rock Trail: Save this unshaded, 3.7-mile hike for a cool, clear day when you’ll be able to catch a breeze and great views of Boise and the surrounding area.
Shafer Butte Loop: If you have access to a car, drive one hour north into the Boise National Forest to enjoy this scenic 5.2-mile loop.
Where to stay
Boise has a number of great boutique hotels that offer local flavor. The Grove Hotel (starting at $169 per night) features sizable, well-designed rooms, a huge fitness center with lap pool, and one of the best meals in town at lobby restaurant Trillium. Expect friendly service and charming, cozy accommodations at Hotel 43 (starting at $188 per night), which is connected to steakhouse Chandlers (steak and martini room service, anyone?). Modern Hotel and Bar (starting at $93 per night) is a renovated Travelodge with a minimalist, midcentury design, a fabulous complimentary breakfast, and some of the tastiest cocktails in town.
Amanda Gabriele is an avid eater, cook, martini lover, and vintage glassware enthusiast. She writes about food, booze, and travel, and you can follow her adventures on Instagram @amandameatballs.