It happens all the time: a woman sits down at a restaurant with a man and the person waiting on the table – male or female – assumes that the man will order the wine. Call it a cultural default in a world where we traditionally ask men to be connoisseurs and gatekeepers of fine taste. And the stereotype has a basis in the reality of viniculture in America today. In the world of wine, women may account for more than half of the consumer base and be frequent commentators on wine, but they do not so easily ascend to the rank of mover and shaker – or winemaker.
Although they have been prominent on the scene since the 1960s, in 2011 fewer than 10% of winemakers in America are women. That puts female vintners in the same exclusive club as police officers (where women hover at 13% nationally) and physics professors (also about 12%). It’s still momentous when a woman breaks the wine-glass ceiling to blend her own grapes and even more noteworthy when she is one of a handful of vintners making a name for an underdog region.
Meet Gina Davis (not that Geena Davis) of Marsing, Idaho: unassuming, inventive maven at the helm of Davis Creek Cellars, recently voted the Wine Press Northwest 2010 Idaho Winery to Watch. “I do get some strange looks from people when I travel outside of Idaho and tell them what I do for a living,” this WYSK admits. One of a growing number of women winemakers in the state of Idaho, Gina rose quickly to prominence after she founded Davis Creek Cellars winery in 2007 and sent her first vintages to competition. Eight of the nine wines she entered into the Idaho Wine Competition in 2009 won medals. She’s especially crafty with grapes that are tough to balance and struck gold with her Malbec and Tempranillo. The Malbec earned her a “double gold” for unanimous excellent scores from the judges. Her Pinot Grigio fetched an “Outstanding” rating. But the real prestige came with recognition in Wine Press Northwest as the 2010 Idaho Winery to Watch. The magazine covers all wineries in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia and their best-of-state pick is a winery that stands to put the state on the national map. They recognized with this award that Davis Creek Cellars is poised to take Idaho wining to the next level.
The woman behind the extraordinary wine has a perfectly ordinary story: she grew up around Boise, majored in horticulture and crop science at the University of Idaho, started working for the vintners at one of the largest producers in Idaho’s Snake River Valley, and eventually struck out on her own. Gina blends and her parents sell her wines at Boise’s Capitol City farmers market. She quilts for fun.
In fact, the humility of the whole affair seems to be the secret to her success. In much larger, established wine regions where competition is fierce, it is harder for women to break into the business and harder for anybody to take risks. Case in point: Napa/Sonoma only made it to around 15% women after 120 years of winegrowing, and Southern California, home of the Santa Barbara Pinot Noir region made famous in the movie Sideways, boasts no more than 4% women among its vintners. Idaho is different. Of the 29 wineries in the Snake River Valley, 5 are run by women, including the state’s largest producer, Ste. Chapelle, now headed by veteran vintner Maurine Johnson, and a “winery incubator” (to cultivate new talent) run by Angie Riff. In the words of Ron Bitner of Bitner Vineyards, what they do is “not just for ourselves. You know the 5 wineries around me, we do work together and we talk about, what should we do to attract more people here? So you know if people come to Bitner Vineyards, I’m going to have signs here at my place showing them how to get to the next 5 wineries around me.” It’s a welcoming, non-competitive place.
Davis Creek Cellars is a relative newcomer to the group of Snake River Valley winemakers. Some have been planting the Valley for the last 30 years and succeeded in earning it the state’s first official AVA (American Viticultural Area) appellation in 2007. That’s when Gina burst onto the scene. As for adventure, it’s what Idaho does best. Gina’s mentor Brad Pintler of Sawtooth Winery with Ron Bitner of Bitner Vineyards (the Wine Press Northwest 2009 Idaho Winery of the Year) and Greg Koenig of Koenig Winery (where Gina also worked) made a name in the West by turning southern Idaho’s volcanic soil, variable temperatures, and early cold snaps to their advantage in small-scale production. They cultivated grapes that reach great potential in this rare combination of conditions: Tempranillo, Malbec, and Syrah for reds, Semillon and Viognier for whites, among others. Nowadays, the region can’t grow enough to satisfy their vintners’ needs. Davis Creek Cellars’ punchy “Up a Creek” Late Harvest Syrah is a testament to this kind of ingenuity.
Gina credits diversity with her winery’s success: “What we’ve done to really differentiate ourselves is that we do a really wide variety of different wines. Right now we’ve got 14 different wines in the tasting room and we actually make, I believe it’s 17 different wines. And there’s not a lot of small labels that are making 1,500 cases that are that diversified, where you walk in our tasting room and we’ve got something that meets almost every flavor profile you could be looking for.” At the time of this post, the Davis Creek Cellars has just opened their new and improved tasting room. Making room for more bottles with gold metals on their necks?
Snake River Valley AVA labels you will likely find at your wine shop are Ste. Chapelle and Sawtooth, and if you live in the West you may stumble upon 3 Horse Ranch, Cinder, Cold Springs, Hell’s Canyon, Indian Creek, and Zhoo Zhoo. Most will ship. Davis Creek Cellars and others are available through Erickson’s Fine Wines. But to experience the full pleasure of wine grown in the rich sulfites of the high desert, you should visit the grapes where they live about 30 miles NW of Boise. The drive through their valley home – nicknamed Treasure Valley – is stunning and as wine countries go, very affordable. With the tallest hills at just over 3,000 feet of dry elevation, conditions mimic the sunny days of Sonoma and the evening chill of Tuscany. The beautiful road through the valley was recently designated Idaho’s first agriculture scenic bypass – quite a feat in a state that was Hemmingway’s choice for scenery. And that’s only the beginning of the fun. This is big crop country – you can pick up a map that guides you through them – with cheese and bread makers to round out your local picnic fare. On your way over the hills to Gina’s tasting room at 409 Main Street in Marsing, stop off for nouvelle cuisine in nearby Nampa at Brick 29: perhaps the only restaurant in America located in an historic Masonic temple.