Ketchum, Idaho may be best known as the town next to the Sun Valley Resort and the home to Bald Mountain, Idaho’s premier ski hill. But tucked at the end of 9th Street underneath the shadow of Knob Hill, Frenchman’s Gulch Winery and Tasting Room – elevation 5,750 feet—occupies a site that defines high altitude wine making.
On a bright winter day, few places can compare to the intimate tasting room in this picturesque stone and wood building with oak barrel hoist affixed to the gable.
Here Paul Hosefros, my wife Royanne and I sampled their award-winning 2005 Cuvée, a Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, all 2005 vintage, and the 2006 Chardonnay. After each pour, we clinked glasses, swirled, sipped and swallowed. In the open courtyard we watched skiers corkscrew their runs down Baldy.
Next door we toured the barrel room and warehouse where the craft and patient art of wine making occurs. Frenchman’s Gulch ages their wines in French, Hungarian and American oak barrels.
A Chicago transplant, winemaker Steve “Mac” McCarthy first experimented making wine 25 years ago when he tended a half-acre vineyard in Michigan not far from the lake. He and his wife Tracey moved to Ketchum 15 years ago. A boutique winery, Mac and Tracey began their endeavor in 1998 in their garage, the first release was in 2000. He quips, “I started in my garage with two tons of grapes and 14 barrels, stayed there until my wife kicked me out.” Tracey designed the two-storey building using the earth colors of Knob Hill on the exterior and creating an inviting and cozy tasting room. Mac built it and created the 1300-square foot winemaking operation across the courtyard.
The grapes come from Washington vineyards including Dwelley and Horse Heaven Hills. Mac visits the vineyards often, buys by the acre, prefers modest yields of two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half tons and has developed a business by hand-shake relationship with the growers.
Everything is done by hand. After he picks up the grapes from Walla Walla and Yakima, he drives them to Ketchum on a flat bed truck; once the grapes arrive the process becomes a community affair. Friends and family help crush, hand-punch and basket-press the varietals and finally the juice goes through fermentation, and is barrel aged usually for two years. The labels are applied, the bottles corked and sealed with wax.
Mac sees advantages to high country wine making. He believes “the wines are softer and easier drinking because of the altitude.” They often press in the snow, and less oxygen contributes to flavor too. He smiles when he says “there’s no protein” in his wines (fruit flies can’t live at high altitude). Frenchman’s Gulch has evolved. In 2003 the winery produced just 180 cases. The 2005 releases, which are out now, added up to about 1200 cases.
Two thousand and eight was a good year for this mile high operation. Frenchman’s Gulch brought home three medals from the Northwest Wine Summit held at the Timberline Hotel in Mt. Hood, Oregon. The 2005 Ketchum Cuvée took first place for “best Bordeaux blend under $30”; the 2005 Syrah won a silver medal; and the 2005 Merlot won a bronze.
The name is not the only reminder of Old World wine making. Frenchman’s Gulch makes red wines in the Bordeaux style; the 2005 Cuvée blends cabernet sauvignon (52%), merlot (28%) and cabernet franc(20%). Wine Press Northwest made it their wine of the week on May 6, 2008. Taste this, the Merlot, Syrah or Chardonnay and experience hand-crafted Northwest wines made in thin air.
The Frenchman’s Gulch Winery and Tasting Room is located at 360 9th Street, Suite 9 and 10 in Frenchman’s Place in Ketchum. Tastings: Wednesday through Saturday from three to six p.m. or by appointment. 208.726.0118. And Frenchman’s Gulch.
Alan Minskoff, writer and wine drinker, lives in Boise, teaches in Caldwell and logs in hundreds of road miles visiting wineries and writing about it.
VANTAGE POINT – an artist’s statement from Paul
Throughout the course of this year, this photographer will endeavor to portray the wine country’s rugged vistas, its fascinating vastness and “big sky” feel. The scenes are near, they are far. They have texture and even nobility. Their scope hints at details: crunchy, sandy, timeless volcanic grains; soft greens and tempered browns. The details–Nature’s and Man’s–mark the winemakers’ and grape growers’ craftmanship and care, expertise and passion. Together, scene and detail fomr the background for a story of effort and sometimes of loss; a story of endurance and success.
It is a marvelous American story in the Western tradition.
It is firmly in the tradition of wine makers the world over.
NICE AS A VINEYARD DOG from Paul
I’m going to be rash and declare there’s nothing nicer than a vineyard dog. No junkyard creatures, they. Rather, they seem genuinely joyous and proud representatives, energetic in their welcoming woofs and spontaneous (although perhaps well-practiced, maybe even rehearsed) nuzzling. Their hyperkinetic spirals and leaps…just happy to see you. Soit le bien venu. And were they so inclined, they’d be the first to bound from the tasting room with a glass in paw of ruby Merlot, offering to make you feel quite welcome. Ah, what a photo. Bo, chief dog in residence at Frenchman’s Gulch Winery is such a chap. Although he moves rather slowly.
But, there is a problem. Yes. Yes, there is. A warning to all photographers who pine for photographic glory (“Trust the lens, Luke”) and search for that enduring, timeless photo beloved by all: getting even a Westminster show dog to do the right thing, in the right place and right time would be a challenge. Vineyard dogs have a mind all their own.
The dogs, of course, are unaware of the (your) problem. Cats, by contrast, are unmistakably, utterly aware. They just don’t care.
It’s just that dogs, however amiable, just don’t seem to understand the artistic endeavor. I suspect that the dogs of more sophisticated pallete are willing to respond to French commands. You know, sauter! revenir! retourner! assuming you use a Bordelaise accent. But when it comes to getting their cooperation for that perfect alignment of animal and plant, mountain, sunlight and stream…well, get down low and a flopping tongue lathers the lens. (I suppose you could call the result, “art.”) Move to the right, your out of composition; move left, the furry wonders think it’s time for a treat.
Photographing them is harder than it looks. Maybe I should pour them a generous Malbec.