Sip a bit of Washington wine history with Whidbey's Port

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue, greatnorthwestwine.comFebruary 26, 2014 

One of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' smallest-production wines has a history that goes back to its earliest days as a company.

For the past 30 years, one of the company's little-known projects is a red dessert wine called Whidbey's Port. But its roots run much deeper.

Soon after Prohibition was repealed in late 1933, two wineries started in Seattle: National Wine Co. and Pommerelle.

One of Pommerelle's founders was John Molz, a German immigrant who began making apple juice before Repeal. When alcohol production became legal, he switched to hard cider and wine.

In the '40s, Molz bought Greenbank Farm, a dairy on Whidbey Island west of Everett, and planted 125 acres of loganberries. Naturally, Molz made loganberry wine.

Pommerelle and National Wine Co. were fierce rivals for 20 years until Molz bought out his competitor prior to World War II. In 1954, he merged his wineries into American Wine Growers, then ran it for another 18 years before selling it to Wally Opdycke, who changed the name to Ste. Michelle Vintners. By the mid-1970s, Opdycke sold the company to U.S. Tobacco, which built a grand manor in Woodinville and called it Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Through the ownership changes, the loganberry farm came with the winery. In 1984, Ste. Michelle launched Whidbey's Port and tapped Doug Gore, then a young winemaker for the new Columbia Crest brand, to make it. Gore, now a senior executive who oversees winemaking and viticulture for the company, had no experience making Port-style wine. It is produced by adding brandy partway through fermentation, with the resulting wine being sweet and high in alcohol.

"Making that Port the first time was nerve-wracking," Gore said. "It's a little touchy. You want to have the right amount of alcohol and sweetness in the wine."

He even called his winemaking mentor back in California for tips.

"He encouraged me to do it," Gore said. "He warned me that the first time you do it, you won't sleep -- and he was right. It's fun, it's interesting and I enjoyed the heck out of making it."

In 1987, Ste. Michelle decided to add a second product under the Whidbey's label: a loganberry liqueur using fruit from Greenbank Farm. It was thick, rich, sweet and a hit with fans. The company even built a tasting room at the farm on Whidbey Island.

By the mid-1990s, the liqueur no longer was sustainable to make because growing the loganberries was expensive. In 1997, Ste. Michelle sold the farm to the Port of Coupeville, Island County and the Nature Conservancy. Today, it is an agriculture training center, with the barn built in 1904 still in use. The former tasting room now is a wine shop where local wines are sold. Included on its shelves are Whidbey's Port and a couple of loganberry wines made by Pasek Cellars in Mount Vernon.

By 1987, production of Whidbey's Port transferred from Gore to Gordy Hill, who later would be the winemaker for Northstar Winery. He made the Port-style product at the company's winemaking facility in the Yakima Valley town of Grandview. When Hill left the company in the mid-2000s, longtime winemaker Joy Andersen took over the label and finds it one of her most gratifying projects.

"I enjoy making it, and the crew does, too," she said. "It's definitely fun to be part of this legacy."

The wine is made primarily with Cabernet Sauvignon, and the spirits are distilled at the company's Prosser winemaking facility. Total production is limited to 3,500 cases.

The wine is available at the Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle wine shops, as well as a number of wine merchants throughout the state. The current vintage, 2009, retails for $20.

Find a bottle and sip a bit of Washington wine history.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company.

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