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Coeur d’Alene Cellars brings Washington wines to Idaho

Coeur d’Alene Cellars makes award-winning wines from Washington grapes. The winery recently moved its wine tasting bar, Barrel Room No. 6, to the winery.
Coeur d’Alene Cellars makes award-winning wines from Washington grapes. The winery recently moved its wine tasting bar, Barrel Room No. 6, to the winery.

One of Washington’s great family wineries isn’t in Washington at all.

For a decade, the Gates family has been hauling Washington grapes across the state line to make award-winning wines in Coeur d’Alene. Kimber Gates, who owns the winery with her parents, Sarah and Charlie Gates, said they’ve been humbled by the local support. At 10, Gates said they feel like the winery is starting to thrive thanks to that enthusiasm.

They work together to put wines into the bottles. Kimber Gates has slowly added more winemaking duties and oversees the wines with a team of help. Sarah Gates, a Coeur d’Alene artist, concentrates on wine and food pairings, creating all of the recipes that are on the winery’s website. Her artwork appears on the winery’s labels and she maintains the gardens at the winery. Charlie Gates serves as emotional support and wine advocate, said Kimber Gates.

We sat down with her last week to talk about a decade of winemaking.

S-R: When did Coeur d’Alene Cellars open?

Gates: We started making wine in 2002, so this is our 10-year anniversary. This location opened in 2004, so this is our ninth harvest in this building.

S-R: What was your dream for Coeur d’Alene Cellars?

Gates: I had worked for Waterbrook winery in Walla Walla and I saw their family business. I also lived with a French family in Burgundy, France. They didn’t make wine, but they certainly made wine a part of their everyday life. My whole family is from Coeur d’Alene and I saw that there was no winery here. I had great contacts from my work experience, particularly grape growers and equipment … so the dream was to start something and see if it would work here.

We knew the winery had to start small because it is pretty capital intensive. The first two years we produced just 250 cases each year, but we got 90 points on our red and 90 points on our white from the Wine Enthusiast, both vintages. So, we thought we had a chance of making really great wine here in Coeur d’Alene. We’ve increased production gradually since then and we’re at 3,000 cases now.

S-R: When did you know it was going to work?

Gates: Probably after the second harvest, in 2004. It was when we built this facility. There have been moments all along the way where I find myself wondering how it got to be the way it is. So, there’s still a sense of awe there. I feel the same way when I leave at the end of the day. When that happens regularly, it is probably a good sign – that things are thriving.

I am always worried that the sky is going to fall, but I think that is part of being a business owner and being responsible not only for the wines and the winery but also for the family and all of the people who work for us.

S-R: Did you set out to be a winemaker?

Gates: I don’t have a formal degree in winemaking, but I do a lot of the winemaking duties here. I am going to be driving the truck tomorrow to the vineyards to pick up our viognier from Millbrandt Vineyard. Then, I’ll be stopping at Stillwater Creek Vineyard to take our grape samples and drop off some picking bins. I also help in the cellar during harvest – sorting and punch downs and pump overs, taking brix and temperatures. I do a lot of the product planning. Most of the wines you see here were made by a team of people, but I am the one person who puts the product into its bottle, so that is more the business side of it, which is where I have most of my influence.

S-R: Do you have a winemaker who does the rest of those duties?

Gates: Yes. I have a team and it changes periodically. Right now, I have five people who are working with me. (Winemaker) Warren Schutz is still working here, but he is more part time now. He’s focusing more on his art.

S-R: Would you eventually like to take over all of the winemaking duties yourself or do you think you’ll always work with a team?

Gates: Maybe later in life, but I have two young kids right now, so I rely on my team here.

S-R: The winery used to have a tasting room downtown. When did that close?

Gates: We opened Barrel Room No. 6 in 2005 and just moved it to the winery in March. It took me a long time to make that decision. I wish I had done it earlier. The surprising thing is that we’ve always had more walk, in traffic here than downtown Coeur d’Alene.

S-R: You’ve had a lot of success with wine awards over the years. What are the wines that are earning Coeur d’Alene Cellars respect right now?

Gates: There are some surprises. … The Switchback is a great example of a wine that we thought was more of an everyday drinking wine and we priced it very modestly at $25 a bottle. It ended up getting a 91 in the Wine Spectator.

Opulence has always received above 92 points and as high as 94. Then we have vineyard-designated syrahs that have gotten up to 94. Our Alder Ridge Vineyard Syrah last year was named one of the top 100 Northwest wines … There are 500 wineries in the state of Washington and each winery produces an average of six wines. To be one of the top 100 wines is really a pretty nice achievement when you think about the competition.

S-R: Coeur d’Alene Cellars indentifies more with Washington wineries because your grapes are from Washington?

Gates: That’s right, and because we’re on the same time zone. When people think about Idaho wines, they are actually referring to Southern Idaho, which is on Mountain Time, and it takes us four times longer to get down there than it does for us to get to the Columbia Valley.

S-R: Coeur d’Alene Cellars is still the only winery in Coeur d’Alene. Does that surprise you?

Gates: A little bit. I think people have a really hard time with that state line concept. I just tell people that I smuggle grapes across the border. Making wines in Idaho that are from Washington fruit doesn’t always seem right to people, but we’re closer to the vineyards than all the Woodinville wineries in the Seattle area and we don’t have Snoqualmie Pass to drive over.

S-R: What has been the key to maintaining the quality of the wines?

Gates: I think grape sourcing. It is a total priority for us. My opinion is that great wine is made in the vineyard, so as long as we’re sourcing those great grapes and continuing to nurture those relationships with our grape growers, I see those scores continuing. We’re also continually improving our grape sourcing.

S-R: How do the grapes look this year?

Gates: This year looks good. Really good. It started out a little hairy because we had a very wet spring and early summer, so we thought everything was going to be late. We had such a nice late summer and early fall it has really brought things along quickly. We just brought in our first load of chardonnay. … We brought it in on the 12th and our average has been Sept. 10, so I imagine with this great forecast that we’ll just catch right up to normal. Yields look very good, along with grape quality, and flavors are great.

S-R: What has been the biggest surprise of being a winery owner?

Gates: The most pleasant surprise is the amount of dedication and enthusiasm we get from our wine club members, who actually become family and friends. In the end they come in and help make wine and even come to our harvest party and celebrate the season with us. They are so dedicated to winemaking and the culture it provides. I thrive off of it. It is part of the reason I wanted to move the barrel room back in here. I love making wine, but it is just as important to me to be sharing it.

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