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Wine Lovers Put Down Roots in Wine Country

  • Guy Hand

Americans who are passionate about golf can buy homes in planned communities built right next to the fairway. Skiers can live in snow-covered resorts. And now wine lovers can move next door to their favorite varietals. America's growing interest in wine and wine culture has uncorked a new kind of real estate development, as Guy Hand reports from the Idaho wine country in the Northwest.

Idaho grape grower Ron Bitner drives along rolling hills lined with Chardonnay and Riesling grape vines, describing what the landscape will look like in just a few years. "This is going to be the site of the custom crush facility and from here you get 360-degree views of the valley."

The valley is part of a well-established wine-producing region in the southern part of Idaho. It will soon produce a stunningly ambitious vineyard-real estate hybrid called Polo Cove. The 650-hectare development will include hotels, restaurants, a school and adult learning center, and homes. "We're going to build between 65 and 70 vineyard bungalows or condominiums that will actually be built into the vineyards," explains Bitner, who is working closely with Polo Cove developers. "We'll continue to farm those vineyards, 'cause we know how to farm it, but people can have their weekend homes and be in Idaho wine country."

Some homes will even come with "wine pods," a small, high-tech winemaking machine that tracks fermentation, sugar levels and temperature for the amateur vintner. Dump in 13 kilos of grapes, a little yeast, hook it up to your computer, and a month later you've got a passable chardonnay.

This grape-infused lifestyle is sprouting up all over America, wherever vineyards are flourishing. The New York Times says at least ten so-called "vineyette" developments have been built in the last three years, from Rhode Island on the east coast to Washington state in the northwest.

The Vineyards, in Washington's Yakima valley, is a 200-hectare development with close to 600 planned home sites, a boutique hotel and a vintner's club. Gary Scott, who manages the community, says the whole project is themed around wine country. "There'll be between 20 and 30 acres [8-12 hectares] of active vineyards on the property. In fact you'll be playing golf through the vineyards!"

But all this wine and vineyard living is giving some long-time Northwest locals a hangover. Dan Clark, an attorney in Walla Walla, worries about the rapid cultural changes wine has wrought on his once-sleepy town. "There's excitement through all sectors about the vitality of the community and yet there's concern about sprawl into the fields, about being overtaken by a culture that is in effect driving out working people because they can't afford to live here, although they do need to work here. The question is: how much is enough?"

Back in Idaho, though, Ron Bitner thinks wine-centric development will actually help rural areas stay rural. "Because if it was just more golf courses and homes all over this, I would be totally opposed to it. But I think this project is going to protect a lot of that land." Bitner says roughly half of the land slated for Polo Cove development will remain agricultural.

He admits it will bring more traffic and people to the valley, but compares it to the alternative of having residents leave the valley. "It's going to be a destination, but it's better having a tourist type of economy out here where people come and leave their dollars, because I grew up in the little town of Midvale, and you have to leave those towns, you have to leave these towns because there's nothing left for the kids. But if we can develop agriculture or tourist-related [industry] or the hotels that allow people to stay and live here, I think that's great."

But it remains to be seen whether this hybrid of bungalows and Beaujolais, of condos and cabernets, will age as well as its developers hope.

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