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Water Into Wine


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Settling down for the night in a gorge 1,000 feet deeper than the Grand Canyon, I realize how far I am from civilization. There are no roads, no towns. I’ve spent my day kayaking the Salmon River, braving rapids so perilous that 200 years ago Lewis and Clark said, “No, we don’t think so,” and went the long way around. But in this case, “remote” does not necessarily mean “rough.” “Would you like the pinot noir or the cabernet sauvignon?” winemaker Jon Bolta inquires as he hands out wine glasses around the campfire.

I’m here on what can best be described as luxury adventure-a six-day Idaho whitewater trip with Salmon River Outfitters, covering some 80 miles of the river from Salmon to Riggins. Yes, we’re running Class III to V waters. But instead of gorp, we’re going gourmet. Along with delicious meals, we’re enjoying vintages from one of the world’s most acclaimed wineries: Napa Valley’s Caymus Vineyards.

Like me, the other guests who signed on for this Salmon River adventure have heeded the call of wine-in-the-wild. “We wanted to do a boys trip,” explains Bob Dent of Seattle, who is traveling with his 17-year-old son, Alex. “The concept of gourmet camping with wine appeals to me, while Alex wants the thrill of whitewater. There’s something in it for both of us.” Our group of 22 includes five families, with kids ages 11 to 17. “It’s hard to find a vacation that teenagers want to do with their parents,” says Kay Collins, who is here with her husband and two kids. “This is a great combination: outdoor adventure, plus wonderful food and wine.”

In terms of wine acumen, group members range from Pete Bosco, an aficionado who frequents elite events like the Napa Valley Wine Auction, to Russ McCahan, who quips, “This is the first time I’ve gone rafting where the wine doesn’t pour out of cardboard boxes.” Most come from stressaholic professions-our group includes three lawyers, two real-estate developers, a doctor and a pilot. We’re all looking for a slower pace, a weeklong break from the clutter of our lives. “Cell phones don’t work here. That’s what sold me,” one fellow adventurer confides.

Leading our river wine odyssey is Jon Bolta of the Caymus affiliated Conundrum and Belle Glos labels. Regarded as one of California’s premier winemakers, he’s as down-to-earth an expert as you could hope to find. The first evening, he conducts a tasting. While we sip the Mer Soleil chardonnay, Bolta doesn’t mumbo-jumbo about corks and nose and malolactic fermentation. Instead, he shares a simple rule: “If you try a wine and it still tastes good to you 30 seconds later, that’s the best testimony you can have.”

In the morning our attention turns from wine to water as we put in on the Salmon. We have a choice: ride with guides in six-person oar boats or pair off into two-person kayak teams. Wanting a challenge, I generally kayak, and I enjoy joining up with different trip-mates. In particular, I like paddling with Alex, the teen from Seattle, who’s a strong athlete. Coming down one rapid, we see a wall of water eight feet high. “A hole-let’s go for it,” he calls, steering for the swirling vortex. We buck and smash through waves, then thread a line between two rocks the size of Aspen trophy homes. “Another one!” Alex yells, and we plunge through a second watery whiteout before the river flattens. It feels like making turns with a best ski buddy-the one who’s just a little better than you are and who inspires you to tackle chutes and moguls you’d never attempt on your own.

During calm stretches, I admire landscapes that alternate between sprawling meadows and sheer-walled canyons. Sixty-foot pines cling to chinks in the granite. Bighorn ewes with their lambs pause from grazing to gaze at us, and a golden eagle keeps us company overhead. But I’m most surprised by beaches with fine, Caribbean-esque sands that caress our feet when we pull ashore.

By the end of the first day on the Salmon, we’re no longer journalists or winnemakers or lawyers or teens. We’re a group. River rats. For our overnight we pull in at Motor Camp, named for a rusted engine that tumbled off a boat decades ago. We form a human chain to unload gear from the rafts, then help each other poke poles through grommets on the dome tents.

I get my first inkling of how much attention goes into the trip’s food prep when I investigate an odd clanking noise coming from the riverbank. Since we’re surrounded by the 2.2 million-acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area, our head guide, Dave vonEssen, resorts to using an old-fashioned rotary beater to whip cream for tonight’s lemon-mousse dessert. Every cooked-from-scratch meal tastes great: grilled salmon, fettuccine with shrimp, beer bread, peach pan dowdy. Breakfasts include pancakes and frittatas.

Each evening, we relax around the fire, sipping and discussing the wines. In addition to the traditional varieties, there’s the very untraditional Conundrum, a specialty wine that blends five grapes: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, semillon, viognier and muscat canelli. It pairs especially well with spicy food, such as the chicken enchiladas we savor one night. “Here we’re enjoying wine on a whole new level-low key, relaxed, sitting with our feet in sand,” Bolta says. “With the twilight on the hills, the sound of the river below, drinking a glass of killer cab-that’s a good deal in my book.”

My wine-tasting acumen improves, along with my paddling. Each day I get better at easing into the current and reading where boulders lurk beneath riffles. The names of the rapids reflect the hardscrabble history of the Native Americans, hunters and gold miners who first dared this untamed river: Whiplash, Devil’s Teeth, Gold Rush Bar, Gunbarrel. “Have fun-and keep your mouth closed,” Dave advises before we plunge into the toughest runs.

Good advice, because at an ornery rapid called Dried Meat, Bob and I suddenly become river chum, spilling out when a colossal wave stands our kayak on end. We earn cheers from the guides when we manage to “self-rescue,” hauling ourselves back into our craft. After a few days, I have a riverman’s tan: brown all over, except from knuckles to fingertips, where my hands clasp the oars. Adventure on the Salmon ripples far beyond the riverbanks. Pulling into shore, we hike to see ancient pictographs, explore an old homestead built from hand-split logs and soak in a mountainside hot spring. We hear tales of Polly Bemis, a woman won in a poker game by a saloon keeper, and Buckskin Bill, who settled on the Salmon during the Depression and made his tools, cooking utensils and guns by hand.

To celebrate the trip’s final evening, Bolta brings out the biggie: bottles of the Caymus Special Selection 2000 cabernet sauvignon ($136 a bottle). With extravagant flavors of black cherry and blackberry, it easily passes Bolta’s 30-second rule. We hasten back for second glasses. The wine goes perfectly with the grilled steaks our guides have prepared, the wood-charred meat intensifying the cab’s robustness. Listening to the Salmon race toward its next rapid, I understand that wilderness means more than wildness, and that luxury can lodge under the Milky Way.