Nicole “Coco” Umiker started young, so young—in fact—that when she and her husband, Karl, began planting their first wine grapes on her family’s century-old Idaho farm she was only 21.

She was still in college—studying microbiology, molecular biology, and biochemistry—when she convinced her grandfather to let them plant a quarter-acre of Merlot at his ranch.

“We were nerds trying to be farmers,” she says. “I was barely old enough to drink.”

Coco Umiker examines a wine making tank
Nicole “Coco” Umiker ’11 (Photo Kim Fetrow)

The couple launched Clearwater Canyon Cellars in 2004 with four barrels. Since then, they have helped put Lewiston on the wine map, working for nearly a decade to establish an American Viticultural Area (AVA) for Lewis-Clark Valley. The wine grape-growing region, which straddles the Washington-Idaho border, received the federal designation in 2016.

This year, Clearwater Canyon is Wine Press Northwest’s 2020 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year. The award, which a winery can only win once, honors not only the Umikers’ exceptional wines but their efforts in establishing the AVA. It also marks the first time an Idaho winery has received the regional award. “It’s very exciting,” says Umiker (’11 PhD Food Sci.), a WSU Alumni Achievement awardee. “We always believed we could produce wines that were every bit as exceptional as the wines we admire.”

“It’s validation for all our hard work,” her husband says. “When we first started, there was nobody doing this in Lewiston. We were in no man’s land. The AVA was really instrumental in adding credibility to what we do and gave so much added value to the grapes grown here.”

The Umikers—he manages vines, she makes wine—grow about half of the grapes they use at their estate vineyard, now six-and-a-half acres. Umiker’s grandfather, the late Ralph E. Nichols, was just a year old when his parents purchased the wheat and cattle ranch in 1916. Today, Nichols Family Farm spans 60 acres, including Umiker Vineyard and a 5,000-square-foot winemaking facility, completed in 2016.

The Umikers and two employees now produce 4,500 cases of wine per year. Seventy-five percent of the grapes they use comes from the Lewis-Clark AVA. “Our goal is to celebrate the terroir of this area,” says Umiker, who enrolled at WSU in 2005, a year after their first vintage. “Every year, we looked to see how we could make our wines more interesting and creative. We have no aspirations of getting big so that we can really focus on creativity and quality.”

This isn’t the first time Wine Press Northwest has acknowledged Clearwater Canyon. The publication named it the 2015 Idaho Winery of the Year.

In all, there are about 2,000 wineries in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Idaho. “We’re inspired by so many of them,” Umiker says. “To be honored at the top of that list is kind of mind-boggling. It’s only going to feed our fire. I can’t wait to see what other wines we’re going to come up with in the future.”