FRESHMAN REPUBLICAN senator from Idaho, individualist and a staunch believer in the free enterprise system, Steve Symms eschews compromise on major issues. The fact, the last time Symms compromised on a major issue may have been in 1971, when he and his family agreed to grow 20 acres of concord grapes and 20 acres of vinifera rather than all vinifera or no grapes at all.
The Symms family have been in the fruit business in Idaho for nearly 70 years. They're grown mostly apples (red delicious), but also cherries, peaches, pears and plums at their farm 35 miles west of Boise. In 1970, Symms Fruit Ranch considered growing grapes to diversify further. Steve Symms' brother and uncle were for growing quality wine grapes; he and his father were more skeptical, first opting for no grapes, then for growing concords. They compromised.
In February 1971, Steve Symms, his wife, Fran, and two of their four children drove their pickup truck to the Wente Bros. Winery in California and returned with enough cuttings to plant 20 acres of chardonnay, cabernet sauvigon, pinot noir and johannisberg riesling. After a few days in the nursery, they were transferred to the vineyard, and Ste. Chapelle Vineyard in Sunny Slope, Idaho, was off and running.
Soon after the vines were planted, they were hit by the brutal winter of 1972, which killed some of the vines. A few other farmers had put in vines, but they all gave up in the early 1970s. Symms attributes his family's tenacity to the difference between fruit farmers and grain farmers, which the others were. Fruit farmers are used to waiting years for a return; also, Symms explains proudly, "there is no government subsidization of apple growers."
While the vineyard remained, Symms moved on to be elected to Congress in 1972.His move to politics surprised a few, since he majored in horticulture at the University of Idaho while his brother, Dick, majored in political science. Fittingly, his brother now runs the fruit business.
When in 1976 the vines were mature enough to produce sound grapes, Ste. Chapelle began making wines at a small winery at Emmett, Idaho, owned by Bill Broich, giving him an interest in the enterprise as part of the arrangement. Broich also became the winemaker. After two years, the winemaking operation was transferred to Sunny Slope, where a large winery had been built. Skeptical as ever, Symms' father, now 81, called the winery "Symms' Folly" during its construction.
Today, Ste. Chapelle, which is named after the Parisian chapel for which the Broich and Symms families have an affinity, and to which the winery bears a resemblance, is still the only winery in Idaho, although a second is on the way. Broich explains that the Ste. Chapelle name also conjures up favorable and hopefully applicable visions of France and French wines.
Ste. Chapelle produces half of its wine from Idaho grapes and half from Washington State grapes, which it buys. But there is no blending of wine from Idaho and Washington grapes; it makes, for example, an Idaho chardonnay and a Washington chardonnay. At present it bottles 50,000 cases, planning to increase to 80,000 or 90,000 within five years, most of them Idaho wines.
To those who greet the idea of Idaho wine with mock, or real, surprise (if not shock), winemaker Broich points out that the Idaho vineyard is located in a sheltered valley near the Snake River with a latitude that would place it about 100 miles south of Bordeaux. (Napa Valley is even with northern Sicily.) The altitude is 2,300 feet and the climate is very dry. Rainfall averages eight inches a year, and there is usually no rain at all during the growing season. Naturally, irrigation is extensive. Daytime temperatures are moderate and the nights are always 35 degrees cooler.
Now, Ste. Chapelle looks like anything but Symms's Folly. Its wines are securing increasing respect and medals. The 1978 Idaho chardonnay and 1979 special harvest johannisberg fiesling won gold medals at the World Fair in Bristol, England. Ste. Chapelle also won four of the six gold medals awarded at the 1980 competition of the Pacific Northwest Enological Society.
The 1980 Idaho chardonnay is a moderately big wine (13 percent alcohol) with more than a hint of oak, reflecting storage in limosin or nevers barrels for six months and then blending. The 1980 Idaho riesling bears a resemblance to a German kabinett -- low on alcohol (8.9 percent) and with sufficient sugar and acid. All in all, about a dozen wines are produced by Ste. Chapelle, including an experimental brut sparkling wine made from pinot noir grapes.
Ste. Chapelle is catching on in Idaho, a state that has not previously been known for its interest in good wines. Soom Symms hopes, people will not snicker when they hear "Idaho wine."