You don’t have to speak French to enjoy wine from Pend d’Oreille Winery, but it does add a little je ne sais quoi (a certain something) to the whole affair.
First, there’s the name: Pend d’Oreille, roughly translates to “hangs from the ear,” named for pendants worn by the native people who lived along Pend d’Oreille Lake, which itself, some say, looks a bit like a giant ear.
Then, there’s the phrase, Réve ta vie. Vis tes Réves (“Dream your life. Live Your dreams”), which you’ll find inscribed on every cork of every bottle you open. And trust us… you’re going to want to open quite a few.
But mostly, it’s la méthodologie that’s used to make the wine: applying French techniques to grapes from around the Northwest.
Put it all together and what you have is the original dream of Francophiles Steve and Julie Meyer—who founded Pend d’Oreille in 1995—one that’s paid off in a number of award-winning, French varietals, including Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Today, lead winemaker and co-owner Jim Bopp and co-owner Kylie Presta—who purchased Pend d’Oreille in 2017—are the custodians of that dream. Along with Will Cannon, a wine-industry veteran, they’re carrying on the traditions that Steve unearthed decades ago in the heart of French wine country.
The making of a winemaker
Long before dreaming up Pend d’Oreille, Steve Meyer was just a broke college graduate backpacking across Europe hiding from a 9-to-5 existence, which back then was très à la mode.
Somewhere in the Burgundy region of France, he ran out of funds and started looking for something to do. Lucky for him, it was harvest.
He met up with a winemaking family and fell in love with the craft. When he returned to the U.S., he headed straight for California wine country to practice what he learned that summer—keeping in close contact with his mentors in France.
The sum of all that experience, he eventually poured into Pend d’Oreille Winery, which embodies the rich winemaking traditions of the Old Country that Jim and compatriots now closely guard.
The maker makes the mentee
Much like Steve, Jim never set out to be a winemaker. The first time he came to Pend d’Oreille was to work Harvest. He too was just a college student looking for some extra cash.
He returned to school and graduated with a degree in education. But after graduating, “I just decided that maybe my heart wasn’t completely in that,” he says. After working in the fields, something else was planted inside him.
So, when Steve called and asked if he was interested in working for him. “It was perfect timing for me,” he observes. “I jumped on the opportunity. And so, I’ve been here ever since.”
The relationship quickly took off. “He really took me under his wing,” he continues. “He was a great teacher, taught me a ton of stuff in the first year or so.”
And so did the responsibilities.
“I just kept taking on more, taking on more, taking on more. I wanted to. I just felt like that was sort of the natural progression,” he remembers. “It kept me interested. It kept me motivated and challenged to continue to do that. It didn’t seem like I was overwhelming myself. I found that I was really interested in it and started to find the same kind of passion he had for it.”
Eventually, as Jim became more and more familiar with the business, Steve began giving him more and more control—even encouraging Jim to start his own label, which he did in 2009, and named Cottage Island Wines.
Ten years later, his Cottage Island Petit Verdot has developed a loyal following. “I’m not just saying it 'cause it’s something I started,” he’s quick to point out, ”It’s just one of the most balanced wines that we have here.”
Balancing the Old World with the new
Making balanced, outstanding wine without compromise to character is what Pend d’Oreille is all about, which has a lot to do with how it’s made.
“We definitely, I would say, use more of old-school methods,” Jim explains. “We try to make our wines a little bit more old-world style.”
Which is, to say, a bit more subtle and more understated than their New World counterparts.
“We’re not looking for big, super-high alcohol, residual-sugar wines,” he continues. “We’re more interested in having dry reds. And following the more balanced-style approach on our reds—versus a big in-your-face bold red.”
Just don’t take that to mean boring. Pend d’Oreille’s wines have been lighting up some of the most prestigious wine festivals in the west since 2007.
The future of Pend d’Oreille
Back when Jim first arrived at Pend d’Oreille for Harvest, he estimates the winery was producing somewhere between 500 to 1,000 cases a year.
“We’ve grown quite a bit since then,” Jim says. Today, they produce around 6,000 cases per year.
To handle the growth, Jim, Kylie and Will control every aspect of the day-to-day operations. “The three of us are pretty much the nuts and bolts of the winemaking crew,” Jim explains. “We just really work off of each other and we know what each other are all about.”
Outside of the change of ownership, devotees of Pend d’Oreille will be relieved to find few other changes. At the Tasting Room in downtown Sandpoint, you can still hear live music from local artists, still fill up your growler through the Bistro Rouge refill program, still grab local beer on tap and still enjoy some small plates — including fresh 11-inch pizzas — any time of day. Even regulars may not notice some new art on the walls or the few extra chairs on the patio (socially distanced, of course.)
One sizeable change no one can miss: a beautiful rosewood Decker Brothers 1873 concert grand piano. It belonged to Jim’s family when he was a kid and had been sitting idle for more than 25 years. “We took it out of storage,” Jim says, “and on Sundays we have someone come in and play for three or four hours.”
But one thing that will never change: l’ambiance.
As Jim explains, the mission of Pend d’Oreille will always be the same. “This is a place just to come and relax. Take a load off. Try to put all of the worries of the world outside the door," he says. "Just have a glass of wine, relax, and taste some interesting, well-made wines.”