Karl Umiker was wet and shivering under several layers of old wool sweaters in North Lewiston when his wife of 10 years, Coco Umiker, took his picture.
It was well past sunset and long before dawn on a chilly late-fall night when the two of them had been processing some of the more than 50 tons of grapes from the 2014 harvest, the highest volume ever for their winery, Clearwater Canyon Cellars.
They were using a manually powered press that required their combined strength to push and pull back and forth, frequently leaving their hands bloody. They did all of the work outside because their warehouse had no drains, and labored at night so they could handle the business side of the winery during the day, such as making sure restaurants received their deliveries.
The Umikers were supporting themselves on a modest profit from Clearwater Canyon Cellars, but largely because they did everything themselves and lived frugally.
“I had this feeling we were in this pivotal moment,” Coco Umiker said. “We both knew we couldn’t go through another harvest like that. We had hit our max of suffering.”
Coco was correct. Clearwater Canyon Cellars turned a corner in the following year, accelerating its climb in what soon became the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticulture Area.
Sales boomed with recognition from Wine Press Northwest as Idaho Winery of the Year. The Umikers bought a mechanized wine press, one of only eight made by its manufacturer each year, that produced wine of quality equal to the manual one.
They also hired Mike Haberman, who is now the cellar master and viticulturist as well as the first employee in their tasting room.
“Having good help was life changing,” Coco said.
The momentum has continued since then, seeming almost so automatic that it’s easy to overlook the decades of work put in by the Umikers to secure their success and the growing prestige of the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area, which debuted in 2016.
At the same time, Clearwater Canyon Cellars has earned even more honors, including being named the winery of the year in 2020 for the Pacific Northwest by Wine Press Northwest and awards for individual wines such as its highly regarded carmenere.
What is happening now at Clearwater Canyon Cellars has its roots in a trip Coco Umiker took before she finished high school in Boise.
In the spring of her senior year, she participated in the Washington state road bicycle championship and approached Karl, a University of Idaho graduate student, just after he placed second in the race.
She was drawn to him, not because he finished second, but because of how relaxed and confident he looked, laughing with members of the bicycle team from UI, the school she would be attending that fall, Coco said.
She told him she wanted to be on UI’s bicycle team and they exchanged telephone numbers.
“There’s only seven years between us, but it seemed like an eternity at the time,” Coco said.
Still, they began dating not long after she enrolled at UI and were soon talking about opening a winery.
In 2003, they leased a quarter-acre from her grandfather on the family’s Idaho Century Farm in Lewiston and planted the first vines in their vineyard, which is now adjacent to their winery.
“We always felt very passionately that you can make wine anywhere, but to really be a focal point, a respected wine region, you have to begin with the grapes,” Coco said. “For wine connoisseurs, it’s most interesting to go to a region and taste that place.”
In 2004, they got married and started the winery with three other couples, who they eventually bought out in 2010. From the beginning, Coco and Karl have the roles they do now. A soil scientist, he is the vineyard manager and owner, overseeing the grapes. A biologist, biochemist and food scientist, she is the lead winemaker and owner.
“Science is your paint brush,” Coco said. “You use science to push the grape growing and winemaking in the direction that you want to create this masterpiece.”
In 2004, their vines were too new to produce fruit, so they bought grapes for four barrels of a blend they called Renaissance Red from Phinny Hill Vineyards, owned by Dick and Cheryl Beightol near Prosser, Wash.
A few years later, when the Umikers were looking to expand production, the Beightols suggested they try carmenere.
The Umikers were skeptical about the relatively obscure grape. It was thought to have gone extinct when almost all of Europe’s wine grapevines were eaten by an outbreak of phylloxera insects in the late 1800s. Then about 50 years ago, small numbers of plants were discovered hidden among other varietals in places like Chile.
But they decided it might be a way to grab some attention. They were right. The carmenere Clearwater Canyon Cellars makes from Phinny Hill grapes is the most awarded carmenere in all of Washington and more than once has been named the best overall red wine in competitions, Coco said.
Wine lovers sample the carmenere and then go on to try their other wines, she said.
“Carmenere is unique and delicious,” Coco said. “It certainly helped us kind of break through the fog kind of into the limelight.”
The Umikers credit the Beightols.
“It has more to do with the amazing grapes they grow than any magic Karl and I are imparting to that wine,” she said.
During that period before the Umikers acquired full ownership of the winery in 2010, they and the other three couples shared ownership and each made equal financial contributions and divided the work.
Karl and Coco both had other jobs. He was a research support scientist at UI and she was on the faculty at Lewis-Clark State College.
Behind the scenes, the Umikers, along with Mike Pearson and Melissa Sanborn from Colter’s Creek Vineyards and Winery, were working on establishing American Viticultural Area status for the region.
The designation is drawing wine tourists to north central Idaho and southeastern Washington. It also allows wines that meet certain criteria to be identified on the label as being estate grown or from the Lewis-Clark Valley American Viticultural Area or both.
It acknowledges that the area has conditions that allow producers to raise wine grapes with unique, desirable characteristics.
“It’s a game-changer in terms of marketing,” Coco said. “If you’re going to be a world-renowned winery, you absolutely have to come from a recognized grape-growing region.”
The Umikers, Pearson and Sanborn contributed private matching money to a grant the Clearwater Economic Development Agency obtained. Together, they succeeded in getting the designation from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
The money was used to hire a soil scientist who had no investment in or employment with any regional winery or vineyard to develop the boundaries, something that was important to make sure the boundaries were objective, she said.
Generally the boundary is 600 meters above sea level on the Snake and Clearwater rivers and their tributaries ending on the Snake River to the south and west where the terrain gets too steep to grow grapes.
The Palouse and Camas Prairie aren’t a part of the area because cold winters would kill grape vines.
“When you’re one of the first, you also have this amazing moment to help shape it,” Coco said. “It costs money to do that. It takes time to do that, but what a beautiful thing to have been here at the time and had the opportunity.”
At Clearwater Canyon Cellars, the Umikers are continuing to refine their approach, but they have no aspirations of getting large.
They prefer to be a boutique winery and take pride in the fact that most of their wine is sold to club members, more than half of whom live more than 40 miles from the winery.
“We have room to make a little more wine, but we’ll never grow beyond the point of being able to have the close connection to the wine and the grapes like we do, because that’s where our joy comes from,” Coco said.
One of the wines introduced this year, the Umiker Estate Reserve, sold only to wine club members, takes full advantage of the American Viticultural Area designation.
The idea is to have a wine every year that represents the best from their vineyard from that year’s harvest. In this instance, it’s made from 2019 red grapes including cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petite verdot and a little syrah.
The aromas billow from the glass and the tannins are rich and round, reminiscent of whole milk, Coco said.
“This vineyard is at a little higher elevation,” she said. “The grapes get plenty of time to hang and slowly ripen through the season and just create a kaleidoscope of aromas and flavors.”
The Umikers co-own Cleawater Canyon Cellars, where he is the vineyard manager and she is the winemaker.
The Umikers were married in 2004. They have a 4-month-old daughter.
Hiking, mountain biking and enjoying food and wine with friends and family.
The Umikers planted Umiker Vineyard in 2003 and started Clearwater Canyon Cellars in 2004 with three other couples. In 2010, they became sole owners of Clearwater Canyon Cellars. The winery was named Idaho Winery of the Year in 2015 by Wine Press Northwest magazine. The same publication named Clearwater Canyon Cellars the Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year in 2020.
Karl Umiker: Research support scientist, University of Idaho, 2000-11, prior to being full time at Clearwater Canyon Cellars.
Coco Umiker: Research aid, University of Idaho, 2000-04; enologist, Whitman Cellars, Walla Walla, 2004; research assistant, Washington State University, 2005-11; faculty, Division of Natural Sciences, Lewis-Clark State College, 2009-12.
Karl Umiker: Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry, University of Arkansas; master’s of soil science, UI.
Coco Umiker: Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology as well as molecular biology and biochemistry, UI; doctorate in food science, WSU.
Karl Umiker: Dean’s advisory board for UI College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Coco Umiker: Board of directors, Lewis-Clark Valley Wine Alliance. Volunteer guest lecturer at area colleges and universities.
The couple are members of the Lewis-Clark Valley Wine Alliance, Idaho Wine Commission, Visit Lewis-Clark Valley, Lewis Clark Valley Chamber and Liberty Theater.
BUSINESSPERSON OF THE YEAR SELECTION
Karl and Coco Umiker, owners of Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston, were selected as joints winners of the Lewiston Tribune’s 22nd Businessperson of the Year. He is the vineyard manager and she is the winemaker. They are the first married couple to be chosen.
The selection committee followed the same criteria that has always been used for the honor: “This person should be successful in business or management with his or her success not necessarily measured by annual income, but by the principles demonstrated in the business and civic arenas. This person should be a role model for others and someone who is thought of as a leader in our region.”
The selection committee included A.L. “Butch” Alford Jr., president of TPC Holdings, the parent company of the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily News; Nathan Alford, editor and publisher of the Tribune and Daily News; Craig Clohessy, managing editor of the Tribune; Matt Baney, city editor of the Tribune; and Elaine Williams, business editor of the Tribune.
Here is a list of wineries in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington:
906 Port Drive, Clarkston
Clearwater Canyon Cellars
Colter’s Creek Vineyards and Winery
301 Main St., Suite 106, Lewiston
3107 Powers Ave., Lewiston
1300 N.E. Henley Court, Pullman
21622 Rivaura Lane, Juliaetta
25844 Old Spiral Highway, Lewiston
30531 Thiessen Road, Lewiston
800 Main St., Suite 6, Lewiston
202 S. Montgomery St., Uniontown