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Summer in Sardinia inspires Famici Wine Co. in the Snake River Valley in Idaho

CJ and Janet Northrup opened Famici Wine Co. in the Snake River Valley on Sunnyslope in Idaho in fall 2022. (Richard Duval Images)

CALDWELL, Idaho – A career as a geoscientist at Boise State University that included 20 years of summer teaching in Sardinia led CJ Northrup to create an Italian-style gem in Idaho’s Snake River Valley – Famici Wine Company.

Northrup's idea and inspiration became reality after he married Janet, a lifelong educator and self-proclaimed “rock collector.”

“We both love Italy and Italian culture, art and wine,” he says. “A common question in the tasting room is whether I am Italian. Well, my body is of Viking descent, but my heart is Italy.”

Due to his early work as a winemaker and viticulturalist, including with the Sardinian white wine variety Vermentino, Famici is an absolute sure choice for the title of “Idaho Winery to Watch 2024”.

The Northrups named their winery and vineyard a combination of the Italian words for family (famiglia) and friends (amici), and it's no coincidence that they have a talent for creating award-winning proprietary blends.

Last fall, Famici won his first platinum with the 2020 Vineyard Blend Red Wine ($45) at Great Northwest Wine's 24th Annual Platinum Awards.

Grown exclusively in Bordeaux, this red wine, led by Petit Verdot, won a gold medal in the platinum category at Cascadia International 2023 – the largest international wine evaluation of Northwest wines, held in the Pacific Northwest and where the majority of the jury is made up of winemakers.

This jury also awarded double gold to the 2020 Famici Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) and gold to the estate-grown Vermentino ($26).

“In the world of science, peer-reviewed publication is the gold standard – it's not a friend reading your manuscript,” he says, “so awards like this mean a lot. And the Vermentino and Cabernet Sauvignon are the wines I'm most proud of.”

At the 2023 Idaho Wine & Cider Competition, Famici earned Best in Class honors after his 2018 Meritage-inspired Winemaker's Reserve Vineyard Blend Red Wine ($68) earned a double gold medal. At this point, the Northrups have planted seven varieties on their 6-acre property purchased in 2012.

CJ's studies in geoscience, his desire to become an educator, and some parallels between the Snake River Valley and his hometown in New Mexico made a job opening at Boise State University in 1998 attractive to him.

“Until then, I was an occasional and sporadic wine drinker,” he says. “My interest and passion for wine only developed during my time in Italy. Wine is an integral part of the culture. It seems as though every small town has its own unique grape variety.”

Planting for Famici began in 2014. Bordeaux is represented by Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot. There is the Spanish grape Graciano and the Italian varieties Primitivo and Vermentino.

“I taught a geology course in Sardinia for years in the summer,” he says. “We grew Vermentino because there is Vermentino di Gallura in the north of Sardinia, where we enjoyed chatting over calamari and a glass of Vermentino. I joke with my friends there that because we won a gold medal for our first Vermentino, a DOCG from Idaho is on the way.”

Sardinia's two most popular varieties now have a success story in the Snake River Valley: Vermentino and Grenache, also known as Cannonau.

“We would have to use Grenache or Garnacha on the front label because Cannonau is not allowed in our country, but we could tell our story about Cannonau on the back label,” he says. “That would be fun.”

Sangiovese is another variety that has proven successful for the Northrups, as is Primitivo.

“I would say Primitivo has the most natural affinity with our location,” he says. “I just get out of its way and let it make the wine.”

However, it was a 2021 rosé wine from Graciano that earned Famici its first gold medal at the 2022 Idaho Wine & Cider Competition, a panel of distinguished judges from California and Florida.

“When I was a kid, my parents encouraged us to be curious. Being a scientist means asking questions and then trying to find the answers to those questions,” says CJ. “Geology is actually a combination of physics, chemistry and biology applied to the history of the Earth. My training in chemistry has served me well in winemaking.”

“The gold for this rosé was a confirmation that we are on the right track to produce wines of reasonable quality,” he adds.

When Janet met CJ, he already had a vision for Famici, having taken winemaking classes with Martin Fujishin of Fujishin Family Cellars at Treasure Valley Community College. The hands-on training began with working at Hat Ranch Winery for Tim Harless and with Will Wetmore at their production facility in downtown Caldwell.

“Martin is a fantastic winemaker and viticulturist, and he’s just a great person too,” says CJ. “And it’s been an incredible opportunity to help Will and Tim a little bit over the years at Hat Ranch and Vale and learn the ropes.”

Famici opens 2022 with gold medals in the cellar

Famici Wine Co. prides itself on award-winning food pairings and wines offered on Sunnyslope west of Caldwell, Idaho. (Photos by Richard Duval)

Janet, a third-generation Idahoan, spent three decades as an educator, first in middle schools and later as a teacher using technology in the classroom. Now that she's retired, she manages the tasting room they opened in fall 2022 and helps in the vineyard and cellar.

“The vision and energy for Famici came after Janet and I came together,” said CJ. “We built the brand as a collaborative, creative effort.”

“It's been a turbulent few years, but Janet's feet aren't gathering dust,” he added.

She proves this when she decides to take over the management of the Sunnyslope Wine Trail.

“We need better signage and more wineries along Highway 55,” says Janet. “Even though we are only 30 miles west of Boise, 50% or more of the population has no idea that an award-winning wine region is so close.”

And now she is also one of the winemakers for Famici, starting with Cabernet Franc in the 2022 and 2023 vintages.

“Starting next year, she will be adding a few more wines to her portfolio,” says CJ. “I am available to advise her, but she is the winemaker for these projects and makes all the decisions.”

Currently, the densely planted vineyard – with a distance of 1.80 m between rows and 1.20 m between vines – produces around 800 cases of wine per year.

“This is the highest vineyard density I know of in Idaho, but it’s quite normal for small, family-run wineries in Europe,” he says.

For the remainder of their planned annual production of 1,800 cases, they will contract with people like the Williamson family.

“We believe this is the optimal location for our winery to maintain the quality of the estate wines,” he says. “We still have a small area to plant,” he says. “It is not yet clear whether it will be Sangiovese or Grenache.”

He also wonders what potential the Sicilian star wine Nero d'Avola has in view of the increasingly warmer summers in the Snake River Valley.

“It's a good time to be in the Idaho wine industry, and we're standing on the shoulders of some giants,” he says. “Awareness of Idaho wines is growing.”

As for joining Janet as a retired educator, CJ has not made any plans for that yet.

“One of the first pieces of advice Martin Fujishin gave me was, 'Don't quit your job,'” says CJ. “So much is reinvested in the first few years of a winery, so we'll see – perhaps in a relatively few years – that working in the vineyard is a beautiful, therapeutic way to end a day.”

  • Famici Wine Company, 21026 Hoskins Road, Caldwell, ID 83607, FamiciWine.com, (208) 991-1152.

Anna Harden

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