Idaho wine industry honors Sawtooth Winery’s Meredith Smith

by Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman, Great Northwest Wine

We all enjoy receiving recognition for a job done well. However, when an award and applause come from colleagues, it’s a special moment.

The Idaho wine industry recently voted Sawtooth Estate Winery winemaker Meredith Smith as its first Distinguished Member of the Year. And to think it all started in 2009 for the Boise High grad when she went to the Nampa winery seeking a $10-an-hour job shoveling grapes on the crush pad.

“The 2016 harvest will be my eighth harvest,” Smith said. “That’s crazy. It’s gone by so fast, it’s unbelievable. I’m happy as can be. I love the work, and I love the relationships I’ve made through being a part of the industry. I didn’t see this career for me for many years, even though it was right there in front of me.”

The announcement and award presentation took place this winter during the Idaho Wine Commission’s annual convention at the Riverside Hotel in Garden City.

“I tried to just walk away, but Gregg Alger (of Huston Vineyards) wouldn’t let me,” Smith said with a chuckle. “I still kind of can’t believe it. It’s nice to gain that level of respect from peers in your industry.”

Mentor becomes promoter

Walla Walla, Wash., winemaker Bill Murray can take the credit for hiring Smith when he headed up Sawtooth, but he believes she would have shined anywhere. And he applauded the industry for recognizing her.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all considering what she’s done for that industry,” Murray said. “She works with winemakers in the vineyard. She’s working on this grant for the industry (the proposed Idaho Vineyard Cooperative Project). She’s involved with the wine commission on wine education. She spends time out in the market with consumers. She covers every angle.

“And she does it as if she was the owner of Sawtooth,” Murray continued. “She takes such personal pride in it, but that’s just her. Meredith is just a very special person.”

The wine commission handled the nominations for the Distinguished Member of the Year Award, and Executive Director Moya Dolsby said the results didn’t come as a shock.

“She will volunteer her time, always answer my phone call and help me whenever I need it,” Dolsby said. “Everybody loves her.”

Smith’s down-to-earth, friendly and thoughtful approach made her such an easy hire for Murray and a great fit for vineyard manager Dale Jeffers, Dolsby said.

“Meredith is relatively new to the industry because she did a career change,” Dolsby said. “She pretty much volunteered — working for next to nothing for Bill and Dale — because she wanted in the industry. She was persistent and would not take no for an answer. She got a job out of it, and look where she is now.”

From intern to winemaker

The rise has been remarkable, going from harvest intern to winemaker, and Smith has begun to compile gold medals at a rate that could start to rival the collection of hardware won by her golfing mother, Jean Smith, the 1995 U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Champion.

“Boy, I don’t know,” Meredith chuckled. “There’s my decanter as the Distinguished Member, but she has trophy after trophy.”

In 2014, Sawtooth earned five gold medals at the Idaho Wine Competition. Last year, she was one of three Pacific Northwest winemakers to pour at Vinexpo in France — one of the largest exhibitions for the wine and spirits industry in the world — a first for Idaho. Smith’s 2012 Trout Trilogy Syrah was nominated for the event by the industry’s premier magazine, Wine Spectator.

There’s a delicious bit of irony between mother and daughter. Tennis — not golf — was Jean’s first love. Meredith spent two decades in real estate development and accounting before finally listening to the siren song of the vineyard.

“I didn’t know where my life was going, but I had read that you should ‘Pay attention to what you are paying attention to’ and head down that road,” Smith said. “You might find that it’s not going anywhere, but it’s better to go down that path than not going down it at all.”

So in 2006, she entered Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program and graduated with a viticulture certificate in 2008. Along the way, she reached out to Dr. Jan Krupp. He’d sold his practice a decade earlier to launch Stagecoach Vineyard and Krupp Brothers winery along Napa’s Silverado Trail.

“I asked him what he thought of the Idaho wine industry and what he would do,” Smith recalled. “He said Idaho sounds like a great place, so I should spend as much time as I can drinking Idaho wines and Northwest wines and try to get around people who have an excellent palate and are passionate about wine.”

And yet, the seed for Smith’s love affair with grape growing and winemaking began decades prior.

“When I graduated from high school in ’86, I received a bottle of Ste. Chapelle Reserve Chardonnay, and it was a big deal for me,” she said. “I had moved on from Riesling. I just didn’t recognize at the time how much I loved wine.”

Ideal disciple for Idaho wine

When Murray hired Smith, her thirst for knowledge was apparent. That she was coming from a career that didn’t involve wine made her a better fit in many ways.

“She was the most perfect assistant for me because she was someone I could teach from the ground level up,” he said. “She hadn’t worked for some other winery with ideas or game plans from other places, and she had no formal education in wine and had finished her Washington State University degree in viticulture online. She just had this passion and desire to make and learn about wine. I still have never met anyone so consumed with her interest in wine.”

Despite the recent critical acclaim and consumer love for Sawtooth wines, Smith doesn’t take any of it for granted as Sawtooth moves ahead with its annual production of 8,000 cases and her own responsibilities grow within Seattle-based Precept Wine, which owns both Sawtooth and Ste. Chapelle.

“I’ve never met anyone who obsesses over every blend and every addition so much,” Murray said. “And I’ve worked with Larry Brooks and Mike Richmond — great California winemakers — and John Abbott (of Abeja fame in Walla Walla). Meredith worries about every ounce of wine, and I say that in a good way, in a positive way. She’s just so passionate about it.”

In 2013, Precept transferred Murray to take over as winemaker at Canoe Ridge Vineyard in Walla Walla. He continues to serve as Smith’s mentor and they remain connected, commiserating as winemakers often do about logistics, budgets, bottling schedules, research and industry trends.

“I talk with Meredith almost every day,” Murray chuckled. “I was just trying to get ahold of her 10 minutes ago!”

Sinking roots in Eagle

Anyone who spends much time around Smith will learn she loves Pinot Noir, a finicky grape variety native to Burgundy, France. It thrives in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, not in the Snake River Valley. And it remains a blank spot for Smith as a winemaker and viticulturalist.

Fortunately for her friends, colleagues and fans, Smith and her family — Russ Merrill, and their son, Lane, 4 — recently purchased several acres overlooking the town of Eagle. Soon, Smith will do gardening both at work and for pleasure.

“We were camping in McCall and my brother called me about a gentleman who wanted to sell this property,” she said. “A real estate developer was looking at it, too, but we told the owner that we weren’t looking to develop it. We didn’t think we’d have our offer accepted, but he had a soft spot for his property and not wanting to see it subdivided.”

Neighbors can expect to see a few vines, probably some Rhône varieties, but Smith also will be developing it as a garden.

“I used to own an herb business and sold potted basil and chives to the Boise Co-op a long time ago,” she said. “I’ve always loved agriculture, which is why I chose viticulture over enology.

“I’ve had a great opportunity to work in the vineyard and make wine from those vineyards,” she continued. “That’s why I think it’s important for you to head down that road and try things that interest you. Opportunities open up you don’t always see. Things work out, but you have to take some risks.”

“Russ has always supported me, and my family believed I could do this,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to come across people like Bill Murray — who has been a huge impact on my career — and Dale in the vineyard from day one. And Precept has given me opportunities.”

Wine award will become Idaho tradition

Inspiration for the Distinguished Member Award struck Dolsby while she was attending the Low Input Viticulture and Enology annual meeting in Oregon.

“Industry members were recognizing one of their own, and I just loved that idea,” Dolsby said. “So I came back and put it out to our members.”

There were about a dozen nominations from the 51 wineries in Idaho for their inaugural Distinguished Member Award. The final vote wasn’t really that close.

“These votes weren’t from the commission, the board or staff; these were from Meredith’s peers,” Dolsby said.

“She was so surprised,” Dolsby added. “And I know she hates talking in public, but she did such as great job and was so gracious.”

During the acceptance speech for the Distinguished Member Award, Smith talked about an item she’d recently stumbled across in her personal files — a 1998 magazine clipping about Idaho wine that featured labels from that era. She used that example to cast the spotlight back upon those who nominated and voted for her.

“These are the true pioneers, and this is why I get to stand up here and take credit for what a lot of these people have been working on for many years,” she told the group. “I appreciate the time and courage that it took them to get Idaho to where it is today.”

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