Have you ever found yourself wondering how you got where you are? I did last summer as I wobbled up a Mt. Everest incline astride a ten pound steel appendage.
It began last spring. As the snow slide off the slopes at Bogus and ski equipment headed for storage, my partner proposed a tour of the Snake River Wine country__ by bicycle. I goggled at the idea; then I laughed, snorted, and howled. When I came up for air he presented his logic.
- Being recently retired from a very physical job, I was fretting over one increasing bottom line and the other decreasing bottom line.
- We were attempting to live more sustainably; driving less, eating, and recreating locally.
- My friend’s passion for assembling fine country bikes from assorted parts had produced a quiver of bicycles that taunted us to use them.
- By biking from winery to winery, we’d avoid the risk of driving under the influence.
During our planning stage classic early summer weather nurtured the Treasure Valley. We selected the second weekend of July, hoping to avoid heavy holiday traffic. Our date also coincided with both the Green Expo and the Twilight Criterium. Warm, sunny days with polite temperatures marched by while I tried to whip my unathletic body into shape. A few days ahead of our trip, the first batch of triple digit forecasts loomed.
Our arrival in Kuna coincided with an ominous jump in temperature. We wandered into a coffee shop to regroup. Twenty minutes later, we stepped into heat pulsing off the tarmac. Stalwart vendors hunched under the shade of their canopies at the Farmer’s Market. We sampled delicious corned beef and cabbage, smelled pungent, freshly-baked bread and pastries, and mugged in custom-made hats. Next, we lunched at Peregrine Steaks and Spirits where mountains of clams poked through the top of delicious home-made chowder. We were delighted to see Indian Creek wines—our next stop— featured on the menu. After learning of our mission, our server treated us like royalty, providing us with several pitchers of ice water from which we topped off our Camelbaks.
Back on the road again, fields of corn, hay, mint, and wheat quilted the views. We hugged the eight-inch shoulder as traffic whizzed by. Heat accentuated roly-poly hills, imperceptible by car. We escaped Kuna Road, turned onto McDermott and then onto a gravel road to Indian Creek Winery.
Tom Mckinstry, Indian Creek’s sales and marketing manager, led us through an array of red wines and explained how the Snake River Valley Appellation has given weight and respect to Southern Idaho vintners. The 2006 Pinot Noir and the 2005 Star Garnet rose to the top of our favorites list. The Star Garnet is a special Bordeaux blend that also includes a spicy splash of Syrah. Tom offered to case and deliver a selection of our favorites at no extra charge. As we prepared to mount up, we spoke with the next visitors who were surprised to learn that we had biked all the way from Boise. We mentioned that we were headed to Sawtooth Winery, nearly ten miles down the road. They gasped and promised to peel us off the pavement as they drove by later.
Then mounting misgivings:
Now, after sipping wine in air-conditioned comfort, it was approaching one o’ clock and the temperature felt like it had quadrupled. We pedaled up soft air currents that brushed our sweaty skin I swear I never knew there were so many mountains between Kuna and Marsing! They may look like ant mounds to you, but to me they were the Great Pyrenees. I thought of the awful heat that Tour de France riders encounter as they tackle old world mountains. I tried to be Lance Armstrong. Visualization worked for, oh, maybe 30 seconds, and then I was just plain hot again. And tired. Cars whooshed by taunting their air-conditioned bliss. Tiny pockets of cool air teased for one or two pedal strokes then dumped us back into the blistering heat. Bicycle travel forces eye contact with road kill and a kaleidoscope of odors. During this trip I saw everything from flattened finches to a dead coyote. The smell of alfalfa fields was refreshing. Mint fields abound in this part of Idaho; not a fan of mint, my stomach curled at waves of mint hanging in the warm air. With the sun directly overhead, the picturesque landscape flattened; I turned my head to the side less often, eyes focused on the road ahead, the hill ahead, and the next hill. At last I noticed a faded sign for Sawtooth Winery. Ahead of me, a car waited on a side street…Ah yes, it was the turn off to the winery. I dimly recognized the car that waited overly long at the intersection. The window hummed down and I imagined a cool breeze. Our friends from Indian Creek whooped. “We told them all about you guys. They’re up there waiting for you! But, be careful of this road…good luck, you guys are amazing!”
Charged by this support, I regrouped, grinned maniacally, and headed for the winery sprouting atop a hill about three-quarters of a mile away. The road. Oh the road. Our admirers were correct; the road was thick, choppy gravel that began straight enough, but at the halfway point began to writhe skyward. It was a double-black diamond in reverse. I down-shifted to gears I’d never used. Then there were no more gears left and my legs jellied. I succumbed, staggered off the bike, and gazed at the beautiful grape vines beside the road. My camera was the perfect excuse for a break. My eyes wouldn’t focus and my hands were shaking; the Canon did all the work. Meanwhile, Don had passed me and continued to scale the peak. He dropped his bike at the top and backtracked to rescue me. He pushed Pinky and half-pulled me up to the summit where Pinky and I collapsed under a shade tree. I guzzled water and walked in dizzy circles for a few minutes before we headed into the tasting room. The first stop was the bathroom where I dunked my head and arms in cold water and considered climbing into the sink for a bird bath.
Our friends at the bottom of the hill had set us up with high expectations. The vision of a dripping-cold glass of water and hearty congratulations lured me up the steep stairs leading to the tasting room. Huge windows revealed heat shimmering over a delicious landscape.
Instead of dewy glasses of water, we had to cough up $3 each for the privilege of tasting three wines. Oh yes, we would receive a $3 rebate for each bottle purchased, but come on, where would we strap a couple of bottles of wine? We asked for water, which arrived at no extra charge. I refrain from commenting on the wines we tasted at Sawtooth that day. I know I was too rummy to make intelligent distinctions. After the enormous effort we had expended in getting to this winery, we left deflated. The two young women behind the counter seemed more interested in their own conversation than engaging with us or in promoting their wine. The impression was that they were employees, not stakeholders in the establishment. The one bit of information we got was the sad news that the distinctive Sawtooth label is on its way out, replaced by a more formal and trendy design.
Stepping outdoors was like walking into a pizza oven. Don warned me to be careful descending the gravel black diamond. Who me? Careful? “Its downhill, let ‘er rip!!” Blessed with good luck rather than skill, I coasted as long as I could. Then we were back on a paved shoulder again. About eight miles separated us from the next winery. The agony resumed. Each new hill initiated another internal argument. What had possessed me to agree to this torture? At one point Don stopped in front of an ingenious, full-sized sculpture of galloping horses fabricated of horseshoes. I looked at him in complete confusion. Why had he stopped? There was no winery here. There was no shade here. Did he have a flat? Did I have a flat? He directed my gaze to the sculptures but I was so rummy that I didn’t even see them. When I finally understood that he expected me to snap a photo, I handed him the Canon. I couldn’t even stand up straight, much less frame a photo.
Salvation came unexpectedly. One section of the road we had chosen was being resurfaced. I expected the steaming blacktop to incinerate me. Instead, the road crew smiled sympathetically as I struggled by; their camaraderie infused my legs with just a bit more energy and lifted my spirits ever so slightly. The lone travelers on this road, we crested the top of a hill and a magical view of fertile green farmland unfurled below with a hint of the Snake River glinting in the distance. Best of all…a gentle downward slope conducted us to the posterior of Lizard Butte. Pulling hard on my nearly empty Camelbak nipple, pain disappeared as the thrill of speed rejuvenated my soul. The blacktop was smooth as the ebony keys on a piano. Pinky was eager and I was carefree. I up shifted and pedaled till there were no more gears. Then I relaxed and gave Pinky her head. I dared to drop my eyes from the road long enough to sneak a peek at the speedometer and when it passed 30 MPH, I began to gently test the brakes¬¬__just in case, mind you. What a thrill!
We were closing in on our next stop. After the typewriter ribbon road, we had a few more hills to climb. Wine bottles pirouetted above a shimmering lake that hovered, ever out of reach. Hey, what’s a lake doing on Symms Road?
It was close to 4 PM by the time we arrived at Hells Canyon Winery. The driveway leading to their Swallow’s Wine Bar was at a merciful down grade. We coasted over gravel, rounded the bend to the right, and landed in the welcoming greenery of a flag-stoned sitting area nestled under immense shade trees; a manufactured brook added ambiance and moisture to the air. A spigoted crock falsely advertised water. Imagine being disappointed at finding a spigot of wine! Three gentleman huddled around a café table mentioned that Leslie was on her way out with a pitcher of fresh water. Don and I collapsed at a table beside the brook, savoring the shade, the teensiest breeze, an awesome view of vineyards in the foreground, and a patchwork of farmland extending eastward to the Owyhee Mountains. Neither of us was in a hurry for wine. Amazing, but true!
Leslie bustled out with perspiring glasses of icy water. We drank like camels. Eventually we mustered into the air-conditioned wine bar to select our flights. Here, too, we paid for our tasting experience; but Leslie’s interest in our endeavor and a copious supply of fresh water mitigated the sting of a few dollars. Hells Canyon Winery bristles with pride of ownership. It is a family run operation from which Steve and Leslie’s daughters have branched into their own brand of signature wines under the Zhoo Zhoo label. I have always been a fan of Hells Canyon’s award winning labels, which vary from bird-hunting themes to old black and white snapshots of big game hunting from a bygone era. When I’m looking for a special wine to serve out of town guests, I often gravitate toward the award winning Hell’s Canyon Deer Slayer Syrah or their Seven Devil’s Red, which is their signature blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, each of which is a top quality home grown grape. The nurturing reception we received validated my warm spot for Hells Canyon.
We enjoyed our flights and the quiet ambiance of the patio so much that we stayed for an additional glass of wine. By then, Leslie was offering to drive us to Marsing. I wanted to hug her, but I was too salty.
It was past 5 PM when we’d recouped enough to approach our bikes, too late to visit another winery. Five mostly downhill miles ahead of us lay the heavy question of our room for the night. If you are planning to spend the night in Marsing, you have one choice__the White House Drive-In and Motel. The White House looks like one very long, single-wide mobile home, partitioned into about 6 rooms. When Don had called a week earlier to make a reservation, the conversation had gone like this:
Don: I’d like to reserve a room.
WH: We’re full.
Don: I didn’t mean for tonight; I need a room for next Saturday.
WH: Oh, ya, sure. No problem. (pregnant pause)
Don: My name is Don __.
WH: okay (another pregnant pause)
Don: Do you need a credit card or something?
Don: How much is the room, by the way?
Don: (stunned) Well, okay. Thanks.
WH: No problem.
Based upon this information, we had worried all week about accomodations. Would the mattress fold up around us? Would the air-conditioner work? Would there be an air-conditioner? Did we really have a reservation or would we roll in to discover the place was full and we were out of luck?
We noted with relief that there were no cars out front. After deducing that guests check-in at the drive-in, Don returned with a key and a baggie full of crushed ice, which was a start, but not large enough to crawl into. We each took a deep breath and held it as the door creaked open. Tandem exhalations. “Its not bad, kind’a cute actually__in an old-timey sort of way.” It was hot in the room so I rushed to the window air-conditioner and cranked it to full blast while Don gingerly tested the bed. “I think it’ll do,” he announced. I checked out the bathroom and noted with pleasure that it had running water, an iron-stained toilet, a shower, towels and two wrapped bars of soap__along with a used bar lying in puddle in the shower. The place was a little rough around the edges, but it was three stars ahead of the Anchorage International Hostel, where I had spent a wary night the month before. And for $29.16, tax included, I didn’t expect a Best Western.
A leisurely mile and half later we rolled up to the still locked gates of Koenig Distillery and Winery on Grape Lane. Koenig property dips its toes in the Snake River. The tall building resembles a Tuscan yellow barn with a manicured lawn to the west, orchards and vineyards on all other sides. We found an unlocked gate and huddled under a row of apricot trees for reprieve from the sun till the gates opened.
Just inside the building, huge copper stills stand guard, looking like visitors from another planet. Koenig produces European style fruit brandies that are clear, colorless, and due to a double distillation process, are subtly flavored by the fruit. These brandies are worlds apart from the treacly-sweet, fruit-flavored American-style brandies. My German relatives, with their highly evolved palates, found Koenig’s Grappa to be comparable to the finest Italian Grappa that they enjoy. Since 2006, Koenig has also been producing Idaho Potato Vodka.
Due to our early start and the miles ahead of us we declined the brandy and went directly to Koenig’s Merlot, Cabernet, and Sauvignon wines. In addition to their own grapes, Koenig incorporates fruit from Williamson, Albers and Bitner vineyards. Their 2006 Ice Wine, made from Riesling grapes, is a lovely dessert wine that pairs well with cheese. Ice wine fruit is picked and pressed after a natural fermentation process on the vine. The first frost of the season freezes the water in the grapes but not the sugars and solids. Timely pressing results in small amounts of very sweet wine. Producing a good ice wine requires an extraordinary serendipity of the perfect weather conditions, paired with the perfect soil and growing conditions, and exquisitely timed picking.
It was close to 1 PM when we left Koenig. The long trip home loomed with a heat index to match the previous day’s. We had time for just one more winery. Since Ste. Chapelle lay in our path home and at the top of the worst hill we would encounter for the day, we decided to make that our last visit.
Again, I stared at a mile of gravel pointing to the blue sky. I had worried some about this stop. I remembered that Ste. Chapelle often has a music venue on Sundays so it would be crowded and there might be some sort of entrance fee. Don, as usual, reached the winery entrance ahead of me. I watched him dismount and speak with the gate keeper. Then he remounted and began pedaling the rest of the way up the hill. When I finally caught up with him in a patch of shade cast by the neighboring orchard, he explained that we would have had to pay $15 each just to enter the premises. He had explained to the gate keeper that we simply wanted to taste a few samples and be on our way; we could spare no more than about half an hour. No matter. The full charge was required. We were steamed. We had saved what we thought the best for last only to be shut out because St. Chapelle puts their music venue ahead of their wine tasting. We were prepared to pay to enter, but not $30 for two people who would not be taking up a parking spot or a blanket site on the lawn.
So we left the vineyards behind and began the over 30 mile trek home. In my camera fumbling, I flushed a blue heron from marsh below the embankment dam at Lake Lowell.
For a great deal more money, Bitner Vineyards is slated to open a Bed and Breakfast in August of 2009. This would dramatically increase the price of our adventure, but the added comfort might be worth it, particularly if our Sideways by Bike expands to include friends and family. Meanwhile, we both need to sharpen our knowledge and palates about wine.
This trip was a great adventure, an introduction to country cycling and to wine tasting. At times, I plumbed the depths of my soul, questioning my sanity and my stamina. Sideways by Bike reminded me, above all, that personal glory and satisfaction don’t come from dreams, they come from a place deep inside that can only be reached through maximum effort.