Indian Creek Produces Pinot Noir: The Heartbreak Wine

Featured Article, Odd Jobs, People
on December 16, 2001
Pinot Noir

They call it the heartbreak wine. They say it’s temperamental, fickle.

It’s Pinot Noir—or red Burgundy, a medium-bodied, delicate wine that is the specialty of the Burgundy region of France. The Pinot Noir grape is so difficult to grow that it’s seldom grown anywhere else. So why would a small, family-owned winery in Idaho’s high desert choose it for their signature wine? Perhaps because southwestern Idaho is at the same latitude as France’s Burgundy region—the 44th parallel.

“Idaho has a fantastic growing season—long, sunny days and cool nights. It’s perfect for cool climate grapes like the Pinot Noir,” says Bill Stowe, 62, wiry owner of the William Neville Stowe Winery, commonly known as Indian Creek Winery, outside the small town of Kuna, Idaho (pop. 5,382).

“When I started, I didn’t realize the Pinot Noir was a difficult grape,” Stowe says. “All I knew was that it should do well here, given my growing conditions. I looked at 15 years of weather records here and then chose my grapes. It’s the most difficult red grape because it isn’t at all forgiving. Its flavor reflects the most subtle cultural variations, from year to year or even from one side of the hill to the other.”

Unforgiving could describe Idaho and its cold winters.

“I had three bad years, when I lost all my grapes. It hit minus 30 degrees in 1991,” admits Stowe. “But most years, the winters are pretty mild.”

According to the Idaho Grape Growers and Wine Producers Commission (IGGWPC), a cold period is actually an advantage, killing plant pests and diseases and allowing the vines to take a winter rest.

“It also adjusts my inventory,” Stowe adds wryly.

During the growing season, Idaho’s cool, high-desert nights help maintain grape acidity—an important element for crisp flavor. This provides a perfect balance with grape sugars, which also stay high thanks to warm days and a dry climate requiring controlled irrigation. Production areas with warmer nights or ill-timed rains have more difficulty maintaining a good balance.

Idaho’s growing wine industry includes 11 wineries and more than 1,500 acres of vineyards. But no other winery approaches Stowe’s level of success with Pinot Noir. “I think it’s the soil,” he says. “My soil is different than the other vineyards in Idaho, even those only 10 miles from here.”

Most vineyards in Idaho are on sandy loam underlaid with volcanic ash. In contrast, the Indian Creek vineyards are rooted in silt loam supported by lava rock and caliche (a hard mineral layer.)

While this meant Stowe had extra preparation work prior to planting—he dug the site to 36 inches to ensure adequate drainage—it also means his grapes grow in soil that is water-retentive and naturally high in nutrients. In fact, he irrigates just twice a season—despite an average annual rainfall of less than 10 inches.

Stowe, a retired Air Force major who grew up in Idaho, first became interested in wines when he was stationed in the Saar wine region of Germany, near the French border, in the 1960s. Back in the States years later, with his wife, Mui, and their three children, he began looking for acreage for a vineyard. They found the perfect site on this southwest-facing slope and started planting in 1982. The winery opened in 1987.

Indian Creek Winery usually produces five wines each year, totaling about 3,000 cases. White Pinots, or blushes, are the most popular. Stowe’s red Pinots won gold medals in national competitions in 1988, 1994, and 1996. He also makes Rieslings, Chardonnays, Cabernets, and an occasional Gewürztraminer.

“Bill’s expertise in wine and grapes is second to none in Idaho,” says Bob Corbell, IGGWPC executive director. “Every new winery that gets started, they come talk to Bill. He’s done a lot of experimenting over the years, but one thing’s never changed. He’s always made good wine.”