If you had to sum up Split Rail Winery in a word, chances are "wacky" wouldn't be the first one to come to mind. But if you're Jed Glavin, Split Rail's owner and winemaker, it's exactly the word you'd use. In fact, it's a word he uses a lot when discussing wine, grapes, winemaking and life in general.
He doesn't mean it in a bad way. In Jed's world, being weird or wacky is the highest compliment you can give. And according to his calculations, it's where we all want to be.
"A huge part of keeping consumers interested is creating weird stuff that they're like, 'Whoa! I've never seen this! I just want to try it because I'm curious," he explains, summing up both his philosophy and his wines.
And this is where Split Rail really shines—applying unconventional methods to produce wine that is as thrilling to behold as it is to taste.
Not the status quo
To understand and enjoy Split Rail Winery, you have to unlearn everything you've ever been taught about traditional wine culture. Wines are categorized as White, Red, Bubble (sparkling) or experimental. Forget about low-lit tasting rooms in stone cellars. Welcome bright neon colors, bold patterns and industrial furniture.
"We want to make wine cool and hip," Jed explains. "A place where people can go in and not feel like it's too stuffy for them to understand, or any of that stuff."
Split Rail is more tatted up than buttoned up. And don't look for overly technical tasting notes about pH, acid levels and the rest. Here each wine tells its own weird story or wild fantasy.
Consider the tasting notes for Swamp Donkey, "a massive blend of about everything you could ever think of" and Split Rail's most widely distributed flagship wine.
The Donkey is a witch-brew cellar blend that we produced as a doff of the hat to the cellar rats that lurk in the deep dark shadows of the barrel room. Dry like a lakebed, but pruney and supple like a grandmother’s kiss, this vintage gets tattooed all over the flanks as the donkey gets down and dirty. Let it be your beast of burden; you know, the fuel that will carry the pack.
Speaking of animals, you'll find quite a few of them on Split Rail's bottles. In addition to Swamp Donkey, there's also a Horned Beast and a Laser Fox, which you'll find running amok on the labels, along with a supporting cast of fun and funky characters.
They don't so much as quietly sit on the shelf, waiting to be picked; more like, they jump out screaming at you, challenging you to take them home if you dare.
"If I see a bottle that, like, explodes off the shelf, that speaks for itself," he says. "Some people, they're just like, 'Hey, I'm looking for something cool. I'm just gonna grab it, go.' You know what I mean?"
He goes on, "Our whole goal is to differentiate. So I want to A, look a little different and B, I want wine to be cool and cater toward a younger generation, so it doesn't seem like this old fashioned kind of thing."
But don't let the label fool you. Split Rail may not look or sound like any winery you've seen, but it's what's inside the bottle that counts. And Jed takes the craft of winemaking as seriously as anyone.
Here's a wacky idea
Like many Idaho winemakers, winemaking wasn't Jed's original career choice. Although growing up, wine was always in the equation. "My parents were big winos," he notes playfully, "So there was always wine around."
It wasn't until college that wine began to dig into his psyche. He and his now-wife, Laura, would pair cheap bottles with whatever cheap food they were cooking. Soon they were driving up to Walla Walla—which at that time was in its heyday—to buy by the case and attend tastings.
"We're there one fall and I just started randomly talking to one of the winemakers like, 'Hey, would you ever sell us some grapes?" Jed recalls. To his surprise, the winemaker agreed.
"My wife was like, 'What the hell are you doing? We don't know how to make wine.' I was like, 'If we never try, we'll never know." So with a Tupperware filled with grapes, they headed back to Boise to start the great experiment.
Collaboration helps build a business
After a couple of years of making wine out of their garage, Jed began to make connections into the burgeoning Idaho wine industry.
Along the way, he met up with Mike Crowley, who's now the owner and lead winemaker of Syringa Winery. At the time, Mike had just purchased a bunch of winemaking equipment and needed help paying for it. Jed, who was looking for ways to expand his own winemaking operations, came up with an idea that would be a win-win for them both.
"So we approached him and we're like, 'Hey, can we just pay you to use your equipment and start making wine in your facility?'" Jed relates. "And he was like, 'Yeah, that's perfect that'll work out great.' So we teamed up."
It's the kind of story you hear a lot in Idaho—especially among winemakers. "We're still a really small industry," Jed explains. "To be successful, you have to kind of work together."
The collaboration was beneficial to both. And after just a few short years, Jed's was busy enough with orders coming in that he realized he could quit his main gig as an urban planner to start making wine full time. And in 2010, Split Rail Winery was born.
Go with the flow
Looking back at the past decade, Jed is philosophical about his success.
In the beginning, he was like a lot of Idaho winemakers, carefully crafting traditional styles of wine. And to be sure, Split Rail still makes familiar favorites that any casual wine lover will recognize. But as his skills increased, so did the possibilities. Soon, Jed began playing with non-traditional materials – including concrete, clay and even sandstone – to give classic-style wines a new twist.
"I'd be lying if I was like, 'Oh! I know exactly how this thing's gonna be executed, how we would evolve,'" he says. "It took a while to get the confidence to really start experimenting to the level that we're doing today."
For example, last year Jed skin-fermented their white wine–which, simply put, is fermenting the skin of the grapes along with the juice–resulting in a delightfully dry and tannic wine that's as far from wacky as you can get. It was so popular, "the second year, we fermented in carbonic maceration and it added this super interesting 'orange' tannic quality to the wine."
This, in a nutshell, is the essence of Jed's vision. Beyond the flashy 80s-style neon, the wild labels and imaginative stories, what you have is a seriously skilled and talented winemaker who's not afraid to shake up the game to make wine more accessible to the next generation.
And while Jed's main goal may be to attract a younger demographic, there's no denying Split Rail's broad appeal. "I'm always blown away to walk through the tasting room and be like, 'Wow! Look at the diversity of people that we have here," he notes, continuing, "You know, baby boomers, older folks, people my age... just people interested in seeing what's going on in the wine scene."
So what's in store for Split Rail's second decade?
"I mean we're always going to continue to experiment and try new things," Jed explains. And new collaborations too, he adds. "When we find somebody that has a cool product we can blend with ours," he says, "that's always super intriguing because it just shows it two different creative minds are kind of working together."
Beyond that who knows.
Not even Jed.
"We're trying a lot of the stuff that's super interesting to me right now, but ask me two years from now and my perspective will probably change." he says, adding, "I do have a little bit of ADD."
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