Clearwater Canyon Cellars: a legacy of land and love

Posted by Idaho Wine Commission on Oct 29, 2020

Her name was Irene.

She is the great grandmother and muse of Coco Umiker, co-owner, along with her husband, Karl, and head winemaker at Clearwater Canyon Cellars.

Without Irene, there would be no Clearwater Canyon. And even though Coco never met her, Irene's presence is felt everywhere. So much so, even the winepress is named "Irene."

And that's not all. In November, the Umikers are releasing a new wine in Irene's honor, a red blend, simply called "Irene Nichols."

"I have often found strength in her," Coco recounts. "There are many hard times here still and she’s like the rock I never knew, but who lives very vibrantly in me."

Ahead of her time

The story of Clearwater Canyon actually begins way back in 1916, when Irene and George, a typical farming family of the time, did an unusual thing: they decided to move out from the prairie closer to Lewiston "so that my family would have greater access to education," Coco explains.

It wasn't easy.

The previous owners had built a modest house and little else. The land needed work. Over the next four years, they raised animals, planted a small orchard and grew a whole lot of grain – the primary crop.

Then, disaster came. After four hard years of work, George passed away from appendicitis, leaving the farm, a mortgage and four kids to Irene alone.

"I heard many stories about people trying to take advantage of Irene and the situation," Coco recalls. "She was a pretty shrewd businesswoman. She could think on her feet pretty quickly and obviously was a very tough lady to make it through all that."

"The struggle she went through to keep the farm going with four kids during those times... most people probably would have given up, but she didn’t. She kept it rolling."

Passing the torch

Despite, or maybe because of, those many hardships, Irene lived to the old age of 94. During that time, she passed all her knowledge of the farm to Coco's grandfather, who himself lived to be 96.

"He lived to be so old that we had plenty of time to have that transfer of knowledge between him and us – just like he had between him and his mom," Coco says. "And I think that’s probably a big reason our farm is still here today."

It was Coco's grandfather who steered the farm into a new direction for the first time, using the land to start a Hereford Cattle ranch. So, when Coco and Karl came to him with a new vision for the future, he could relate.

Not everyone was as understanding.

"I think a lot of people thought we were insane," Coco says. The Idaho wine industry had died with Prohibition in 1920. Back in 2003, there were no wineries in Lewiston and the idea of an Idaho wine industry, as a whole, was still gaining ground.

But her grandfather had seen for himself the years when Idaho wine was booming and remembered the days when sprawling 80-acre vineyards dotted the countryside.

"He actually helped us put in the first vines," Karl adds.

A labor of love

Just as her family's land has made unsuspecting pivots from one generation to the next, Coco's life has taken many turns as well. She didn't originally set out to be Idaho's glass-ceiling-breaking "Queen of Platinum" – having won 17 Platinum Awards from Wine Press Northwest, more than any other woman winemaker in the 20-year history of the award.

Her original plan, after beating ovarian cancer at just 11 years old, was to become a medical doctor. But while pursuing an undergraduate degree in microbiology at the University of Idaho, she met Karl and suddenly plans changed.

"It was the realization that life is short. I think cancer definitely taught me that. And you could spend your life running around chasing something only to realize the very place you should have been all along was right here at home with the people that you love."

At the time, Karl was pursuing a master's degree in soil science. Faced with the prospect of two very demanding careers that would require many personal and professional sacrifices, they began looking for alternatives that would allow them to be together.

It didn't take long for the plan to fall in place.

"We wanted to be together," she says. "And we both had an amazing love for wine and science. We both love to be outside. Then you couple that with the incredible amount of love that I had with my grandfather and my mom. And Carl ended up having that same connection. So, it all just kind of started to kind of come together. And it happened slowly, which I think is partly why it happened so well."

Where science meets wine

Today, Clearwater Canyon is known for its premier wines, but like most success stories, there was more grit than glamor in the beginning.

"When we first started, all we had were awesome grapes and a lot of know-how," Coco recalls. They began with four barrels and a quarter acre of grapes. "The four barrels were in a garage," Coco points out.

There they toiled for three years before moving to an incubator unit in an industrial park – helped along with a subsidy to foster small businesses like theirs. Eventually, they earned enough to build the winery back on the farm. "So our home, our farm, the winery, the vineyard are all in one spot," she says.

For Coco and Karl, there was never any question of what type of wine they wanted to produce. "When you work that hard for anything, it's hard to do it like part-way, especially for us since we're both scientists," Coco explains.

"The motivation isn't to like figure out how to make an okay wine and a lot of it. The intellectual motivation is: how do we make the very best thing. The most interesting. The most dynamic. The most creative."

As their operation grew, so did their accolades, including 2020 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year in March – a first for Clearwater Canyon, a first the Lewis-Clark Valley AVA, and a first for Idaho wine.

For the couple, it was a moment of pride and reflection.

"When we started the winery, we lived in a trailer for $250 bucks a month. And, and we're from Idaho so like nobody expected anything from us ever," she adds. "We are proof that you can literally have nothing but really good grapes and rival the best."

Based on this year's harvest, 2021 is already shaping to be another award-winning year.

"The quality is amazing this year. I mean, amazing. It’s the best the vineyards and the fruit have ever looked coming into harvest," says Coco.

"What we’ve brought in is extraordinary. It makes my job as a winemaker super easy. I mean, honestly, if you were to write like a script for how Mother Nature could be helpful in terms of rain, it was pretty perfect."

The Queen of Platinum

In the 20-year history of Wine Press Northwest's premier competition, Coco is only the second female winemaker to be awarded Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year, but she hasn't let the honor go to her head.

"I'm not one of those who throw the girl card often," she jokes, "But it doesn't mean I don't take pride in it."

One thing standing from the top has taught her is, there's nothing about winemaking that makes it a men-only world.

"Even if I was a giant guy. I would still be on the floor with a clipboard and someone else would be driving the forklift. So, it doesn't matter. And I think that's the reality of winemaking; it's very much conducive to being a female," she adds.

The legacy continues

For nearly a century, the land on which Clearwater Canyon now stands has managed to succeed where others have failed. For Coco, the key to their success can be traced all the way back to Irene and the knowledge she handed down from one generation to the next.

"There are many reasons why small farms die," Coco instructs. "Family squabbles and everything else. But death and that lack of transfer of institutional knowledge is the biggest issue. The full weight of owning a farm is so much larger than knowing how to grow something. More than anything, it's about how to cope."

"My grandfather told us there was a huge transfer in knowledge between my great grandmother, my grandfather, my mom and now me," she continues. "If I hadn’t had all that, I promise you I wouldn't be sitting here right now."

And one day, she and Karl will pass that knowledge to their children. What new thing he or she brings to the land is yet to be seen.

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