Road Holes — 17 May 2017 by Bob Sherwin
Golf and wine: Winning combination

LEWISTON, Id. — Things are changing here, almost imperceptively, but it’s becoming clear to folks in the Lewis-Clark Valley that this is not merely ”the gateway to Hells Canyon” anymore.

The twin cities – Lewiston (Idaho) and Clarkston (Wash.) – are essentially one community, separated by the Snake River, famous for its jet-boat, white-water tours through the deep 10-mile Hells Canyon south of the region.

It’s also famous in some parts of the world as a paper town. The region’s largest employer, Clearwater Paper, supplies all sorts of paper products to all sorts of consumers around the globe.

Another highly-sought-after items abundantly produced in the valley are bullets – 23 million of them a week by Howell Machine, the nation’s largest manufacturer of ammo.

Hunting, fly fishing, camping and hiking are huge draws here as well as historical tours of the Lewis & Clark expedition (arriving here in October 1805 in canoes down the Clearwater River) and their peaceful interaction with the Nez Perce tribe.

However, there’s a fledgling industry in town. It’s a product that could greatly embellish the image of these proud backwater communities – wine. And where there is wine, golfers follow.

Even though it’s relatively early in the game, folks in the Lewis & Clark Valley may not recognize just how far along they are. In just a little more than a year ago, the federal government recognized the region with an AVA, American Viticulture Area, the newest in the country. An AVA means that the soil, climate and conditions are distinctive enough for growing a certain variety of grapes that contribute fine wine-making.

It took nine years and at least $25,000 to earn that designation and today there are six quality wineries churning out award-winning cabs, Malbecs and Sangiovese. The six are: Clearwater Canyon Cellars, Colter’s Creek, Basalt Cellars, Lindsay Creek, Woodie Cellars and Vine 46 (the latitude).

One of the ways of getting the wine word out has been to reach out to the golfers. There are two country clubs in the area, Lewiston CC and Clarkston CC, and both have paired up with wineries. Both understand the connection between golf and wine.

A Vine 46 Cabernet is poured into glass

“We do a lot of clinics and leagues for women and with that a lot of times we incorporate a drink and usually it’s a glass of wine,” said Corey Brown, head professional at Lewiston Country Club. “What we recently started to do was feature some of our local wineries. They support us so we feel we should support them. It’s a win-win situation for the entire community. Golf and wine make a great blend, I think.”

Lewiston CC, situated on the valley’s eastern slope, is the region’s premier layout. Opened in 1974, the course flows naturally through canyons above the Snake River.  The course features a man-made lake for a driving range and a handful of memorable holes. Among the choice holes is the 150-yard, par-3 fourth hole, with its elevated tee that requires a precise swing over a pond. There are several other breath-taking holes, primarily on the back nine, that are straight and narrow and require the same from your club.

Venerable Clarkston CC, which dates back in some form to 1934, is in the valley. It’s an old-school course, switching back and forth while weaving through and around 800 trees and four ponds.  It’s tight and flat and, again, there are some holes that will leave with you.

Trees aplenty at Clarkson Country Club

Clarkston has held various regional events over the years and the final two holes likely have produced some drama. For the par-3, 162-yard 17th, you’ll need to club up to reach a pin you can barely see at the top of a long slope. Determining distance and club choice are critical. Then the short par-4, 297-yard 18th can be tricky because it’s a blind shot, the trees on the left can knock down your drive and anything right can push your ball among the 16th fairway trees.

What’s great about both private clubs is that they offer public play anytime, at a good price, $50. And anytime means virtually all year, since the area gets little snow and is in a rain shadow, just 12 inches a year.

The 17th hole at Clarkston Country Club, straight up.

There are also decent public tracts. Quail Ridge in on the valley’s western slope – directly across the Snake from Lewiston CC. It features small greens, uneven lies and elevated tees. Bryden Canyon GC is not far away in Lewiston while the heralded Palouse Ridge, on the WSU campus, is just 23 miles up and outside the canyon rim.

 You can come for the golf – buddy trips, couples and family trips – but the wine may bring you back. The wine is very good and the wine-makers are better. They’re eager to show off  their handiwork. They want to please. They know they may have something here.

“It’s a really good combination,” Brown said of the wine/golf combo. “It brings people in to this area to play golf and test our wines. Everyone who visits Walla Walla plays Wine Valley and that is starting to be the trend here.”

Any discussion of wine in this valley has to begin with a dynamic millennial couple, Coco and Karl Umiker, co-owners of Clearwater Canyon Cellars in Lewiston. They have devoted themselves to the art, as she earned a doctorate in wine microbiology from WSU while Karl has a masters degree in soil sciences and spent 11 years in agricultural research.

“It really is our passion to unlock the magic of this valley of grape growing,” Karl said. “That’s why the immigrants were so impressed with this area, the Germans, the Italians, the French. They were fully committed to the area, fully committed to making the best wine possible. That’s what we’re striving make, that perfect wine. It’s an unattainable goal but something great to strive toward.”

Karl and Coco Umiker, owners of Clearwater Canyon Cellars

Wine-making here goes way back, long before any golf courses or paper plants or munitions factories. Back in the late 1800s, European immigrants recognized that the region – on the same plane as Bordeaux, France, had great wine potential. The wine they produced in the early 1900s was, in fact, prized but Prohibition put a lid on the local wine-making industry.

Coco’s family was part of that wine-growing era. More than 100 years ago, her grandfather owned and worked the land, the same plot where the Clearwater Canyon Cellars building sits today. The couple moved into their new facility last year after struggling with the business for a decade.

That’s also about how long their struggle was to earn the AVA. The Umikers along with Mike Pearson and Melissa Sanborn, co-owners of Colter’s Creek Winery, were the driving forces  behind the AVA designation. The other wineries, as well at least two more coming on line next year, are beneficiaries of their AVA pursuit.

What all the wine-makers look for each year is what Coco calls “the zone of goodness,” when the grapes are just right to pick in the fall and the wine is just right to bottle.

Coco added that there has been “a definite shift (of interests). People are coming to our community. You’re feeling this momentum.”

The golf courses have benefited as well as a number of growing businesses, guided wine tours and new restaurants, such as the organic Mystic Cafe in downtown Lewiston. There is even a hotel, the Quality Inn in Clarkston, that features a newly remodeled driving range in back (see related story) and Dave’s Valley Golf Center.

“A lot of businesses are doing things to give visitors more things to do when they’re here. We’re all working together,” Lewiston CC’s Brown said. “There is a great rapport within these two cities. Everyone is willing to work together, which I think is something you see in smaller cities. It has been kind of a team effort in a lot of ways.”

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 44th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 10 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. He won't win the club championship any time soon with his 14 handicap and default-swing slice but he does have a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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