SANDPOINT – Stephen Meyer was so eager to break into the wine industry that he took the first job he found: catching gophers.
“After I proved myself in the vineyard and they saw I had a good palate, they made me cellar master,” Meyer said.
Eventually he worked his way up to assistant winemaker while crafting his own wines on the side. “My first was a 1987 cabernet sauvignon that won a gold medal at the Santa Cruz County Fair.”
Meyer left California for Sandpoint, his wife Julie’s hometown, and together they opened Pend d’Oreille Winery in 1995.
He described the challenges and rewards of making fine wines far from the Northwest’s renowned vineyards during an interview at the couple’s downtown production facility and tasting room.
S-R: Where did you learn about wines?
Meyer: In college, I worked in nice restaurants in the Santa Cruz area – my first job was restocking the wine bar – but I didn’t know the difference between a riesling and a cabernet sauvignon. This was the early ’80s, and people in California were just starting to make more than zinfandel and jug wine. The restaurant’s general manager really expanded my knowledge of wine. And then going to France was really a renaissance for me – it changed my direction.
S-R: Tell me about the French connection.
Meyer: In 1985, I was between college majors and decided I should travel before I settled down. So I bought a one-way ticket to Paris, and took all my ski gear. My goal was to go to the Alps and be a ski instructor. Along the way, I ended up in Meursault, a town in Burgundy that specializes in chardonnay. I stayed there for six months, and when I got back in the States, I took a job at Roudon-Smith Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The only job they had the day I showed up to interview was catching gophers. As I worked my way up at the winery, I started taking courses from UC Davis Extension, learning more about managing the technical side of winemaking – how to keep the process going.
S-R: What brought you to Sandpoint?
Meyer: My wife is from Sandpoint. I made my first visit in 1982, and fell in love with the skiing, the town and the people.
S-R: Yours is the only winery in town. Are there advantages to being in Sandpoint?
Meyer: We have two wonderful boys in high school, and this is where we chose to chase our passion because it’s a place to plug into the community. And the skiing, of course.
S-R: Any disadvantages?
Meyer: It takes more effort to get to the vineyards. But over the years, growers have come to understand Pend d’Oreille Winery. We contract by the acre, which lets us control some of the viticultural practices – for instance, how much crop is allowed on each vine.
S-R: What distinguishes your approach to winemaking?
Meyer: Our forte is working with the lesser-known varietals and telling their story. That’s what a winery should be – a place where you go to expand your wine experience. When we moved from an industrial park to downtown in 2002 and gained direct access to the public, that allowed us to diversify. So we introduced some vineyard-designated wines, like the Meyer Reserve from the Lawrence Vineyards on the Royal Slope (near Royal City, Wash.). Part of our Terroir Series is a Malbec from the Yakima Valley, and previously we also had one from the Snake River Valley. The whole idea was to taste those wines side by side to see the true impact of terroir (from the French terre, or land).
S-R: What other varietals do you offer?
Meyer: Primitivo has been a lot of fun. It’s the parent grape of zinfandel. So this next September at our Harvest Festival, we have a really exciting release, a zinfandel from Coyote Canyon Vineyard in Horse Heaven Hills (near Prosser, Wash.), the same vineyard as our primitivo. We used identical methods to make the two wines – same yeast strains, same type of barrels. People can see how these two grapes share commonalities but also have their own unique character.
S-R: What are you best known for?
Meyer: Probably our chardonnay, which I have a great affinity for because I got my start making wine in Meursault – the cradle of chardonnay. Whenever I make that wine, I’m tipping my hat to my dear friends in France.
S-R: Your website extols your traditional French winemaking methods. How does that differ from what you learned at UC Davis?
Meyer: The UC Davis approach is very technical. They put wine in a spectrometer to see what’s going on. The French rely on their palate. Like them, we pride ourselves on our ability to identify and blend standout wines to make really great wines.
S-R: Who does what here?
Meyer: Jim (assistant winemaker Jim Bopp) and I taste the wines and organize the blends. The smaller varietals give us a lot of artistic latitude. Julie’s role is more the vision: how the tasting room should feel; what the gift shop should look like.
S-R: How has the industry changed since you started in 1995?
Meyer: Appreciation for boutique wineries has really gained traction. When I first started, there were only 17 wineries in Idaho. Now there are 35.
S-R: Were you successful from the start?
Meyer: I kept my day job (accounting) for a lot of years.
S-R: Has the recession had an impact?
Meyer: Oh, sure. Pre-recession, restaurants were booming, so the on-premise business was really important. All of a sudden we noticed our higher-end wines, which were typically on wine lists, starting to slide. But sales of our Bistro Rouge, our table wine that is primarily sold in grocery stores and wine stores, picked up.
S-R: Tell me about your refillable wine bottles.
Meyer: To battle solid waste going to the landfill, we started offering our Bistro Rouge in 1.5-liter bottles with a generic, silkscreened label: red table wine. It gives us more flexibility in terms of the wine we put in the bottle. Customers pay $27 for the first bottle, wash it and get it refilled for $17.50. It’s been such a big hit, we’ve added a Bistro Blanc. We refill more than 400 bottles a month. To my knowledge, we were the first winery in the country to do this.
S-R: Anything you wish you’d done differently over the years?
Meyer: Sometimes I wish our ZIP code were closer to the vineyards – there’s a lot of synergy that happens there. But I love Sandpoint. I’m proud we were able to create this business, and that it’s gotten the community support it has.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who wants to open their own winery?
Meyer: Be passionate, but also be honest with yourself. Skepticism is an important part of any business plan.