Article and photos by Gerry Tsuruda
The words may evoke images of a fancy new subdivision in an exclusive neighborhood, but nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than just a catchphrase, there really are terraces at 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards. These cascading horizontal platforms of soil are lined with rows of grapevines, and are all courtesy of Gary and Martha Cunningham, co-owners of the well-established winery. The Cunninghams have been visionaries in establishing a growing number of vineyard properties throughout Eagle’s foothills.
If there’s a precedent for where one’s vision can lead, maybe it is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Jefferson meticulously considered his natural surroundings and planned his new homestead accordingly. He carefully consulted “the genius of the place”, initially considering what his environment would provide him. He pondered and planned extensively before a single shovel ever pierced the ground. His successful cultivation of food producing plants at his Virginia home is now an eternal legacy.
Jefferson wisely recognized a common mistake made by many, that is, adapting places to our uses rather than adapting ourselves to our places. He worked with, rather than against, the world in which he lived. He assembled a collection of vegetable novelties, culled from virtually every western culture known at the time. Then, he disseminated seed. But instead of leveling his hilly surrounds to house his produce experiments, he terraced the slopes on his place, using its natural contours with historic planting success.
With sizeable acreage of grapevines on their property, it is only recently that the Cunninghams started thinking critically about possibilities for the steep two-acre elevation above their house. They planted their first grapevines in 2005 and have steadily increased their plantings since. In the beginning, explains Gary, “people thought I was crazy as a loon,” as he and Martha converted their horse ranch into the vine-covered property we see today. Since then, many others have followed suit. Today, there are a dozen vineyards in the foothills.
But thoughts of tearing up the hillsides didn’t happen overnight. The Cunninghams had been staring for years at the same incline, each time they walked out their front door or sat on their back deck. The base of this particular south-facing ascent is about pitching wedge distance from their house. There are more hills that rise above this one. Living next to this particular hill, Gary and Martha observed how the sunlight moved and disappeared prematurely over the western slopes early in the afternoon. They observed how a cascading evening breeze cooled their hillside much earlier than the flatlands below.
After years of empirical observation, a 2016 trip to France’s Rhone Valley finally made the light bulb flicker in Gary’s brain. Terraced vineyard elevations were cascading throughout the famous wine region. The northern most appellation of the valley known as Cote Rotie is revered for extraordinary Syrah vineyards resulting in highly-regarded, pricey wines. The terracing on south-facing slopes contributes heavily to the successful cultivation.
There are many reasons why terracing is not a reasonable goal. If it’s not the cost of commandeering equipment and expertise to create rows of stair step mini-platforms, it is the logistics and physics of getting water to where it needs to go. But facing challenges happens to be a Cunningham trait. Gary was convinced that terracing would not only work but would be more than just a novelty in the future of Eagle Foothills vineyards.
Currently, Idaho has no other terraced vineyards to date, but his vineyard failures and successes taught him the importance of “aspect”, and he could see the potential staring at him. Vintners world-wide know the meaning of “aspect” and it is critical in the production of quality grapes.
Aspect is all about vineyard placement and the effects of climate on grapes. In the simplest terms, the south-facing descents optimally affect how much sun hits the vines and when. Heat, wind, and length of growing days/seasons profoundly affect how grapes develop. Acidity and sweetness are components that co-exist with the ultimate goal being a balance between the two. Good wines come from grapes benefitting from a magic combination of aspect, soil, vine management, and winemaking.
In addition, Gary is quick to point out that the hillsides are otherwise marginal land in agricultural terms. They are not highly useful for growing potatoes or sugar beets. Until now, they have been largely untouched, except for occasional cattle. But these inclines are prime candidates for vines. Add back some nutrients into virgin soil and watch what happens.
Anticipation is great for grapes now growing on 3 Horse Ranch’s new terraces, carved in early 2018, and planted shortly thereafter. After this year’s normal winter into spring, things are looking literally looking up.
Why are the Eagle foothills good for viticulture in the first place? After years of making wine from grapes on their property, it became apparent that they were onto something special. In 2015, Martha petitioned the Tobacco Tax Bureau for American Viticulture Area (AVA) status, noting the distinctive soil and climate conditions that made this area like no other in Idaho or anywhere else. TTB’s acceptance validated her efforts, resulting in a 50,000 acre area, all contained within the boundaries of Eagle’s foothills.
There are currently a dozen grape varietals gracing the 3 Horse acreage. Gary has planted Malbec and Merlot on the lower tiers of the new terraces, already successful in other areas of his vineyards. On an extended flat area at the top of his terrace structure, he has planted a very curious varietal, Pinot Noir. Others have tried their hand at growing Pinot Noir in Idaho, but results have been mixed.
The Pinot Noir grape is extremely touchy. It’s thin skinned and grows well in climates where daytime sun transforms into cooler evenings. Tight clusters of grapes, hindering airflow, make for susceptibility to a variety of ailments. But Gary’s observation of his hillside sun angles, the sun’s early disappearance over the high ridges, and cooling afternoon breezes has made the Pinot Noir varietal one worth attempting. The success of this grape could be a future calling card for all of those elevations strewn about the many AVA hillsides.
So, here’s to the Cunninghams – Eagle wine pioneers who continue to forge new ground by consulting the genius of the place.