Through the years, I have loved traveling the backroads of the Puget Sound appellation, an American Viticultural Area dripping with Washington state wine history.
I admire those who carved out a viticulture opportunity, using grape varieties that fit the climate and cuisine of the region. The interaction of these ideas has helped to forge concepts that benefit those who are willing to explore that history and embrace it. It adds to the richness of the wine culture of the Pacific Northwest.
My favorite stories to write have been those that prompted a look back, and old wines that exude the flavor of history are among my favorite to drink. I earned my journalism degree and history minor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, and have lived nearly my whole life in Washington, so I am a sucker for pulling back the cobwebs on Pacific Northwest history.
I have spent many years tracking down old vineyards, old buildings and other echoes of our region’s rich wine history. I love how the Walter Clore Wine & Culinary Center in Prosser pays tribute to our past. Among my favorite books is Vashon Winery owner Ron Irvine's 1997 book on Washington wine history, The Wine Project, which he wrote with the late Walter Clore.
My first experience with Puget Sound viticulture came on Bainbridge island in Kitsap County, near where I grew up. The vineyards there grow such varieties as Müller-Thurgau, Pinot Noir and Siegerrebe — grapes that can’t tolerate the searing heat found east of the Cascade Mountains. They taste delicious and serve as a way to honor the pioneers who took what nature gave them and nurtured it into something more.
These conversation-starter wines should inspire a sense of regional pride with wine consumers and prompt them to also look beyond popular and successful examples of American favorites Merlot and Chardonnay.
The Bainbridge Vineyards Late Harvest Siegerrebe is among the best sweet wines I’ve tasted in the past 20 years. Gerard and Jo Ann Bentryn founded Bainbridge Vineyards in 1977, nearly two decades before the Puget Sound AVA was approved by the federal government. They were the first to plant the aromatic German grape in the U.S., and their longtime friend, Betsey Wittick, has taken over as the winemaker.
The continued excellence with Siegerrebe stands as a testament to the ingenuity of those risk-takers. The late harvest is comparable to the quality of an ice wine and reminds me a bit of Italy's vin santo dessert wine.
There's a vine on Stretch Island, south of Belfair and near the aptly named community of Grapeview, that may be the oldest in the state. The vine dates back to Prohibition, yet it still produces grapes. Its resilience inspires me. It's a variety known as Island Belle, thought to be indigenous to Stretch Island. The vines did well, to the extent that three wineries and two juice companies sprang up on Stretch Island.
Alas, at one point, even the name was once endangered, but thankfully Hoodsport Winery in the rural Olympic Peninsula has preserved and protected the Island Belle with a trademark.
The old St. Charles winery building on Stretch Island has served as an informal museum for Puget Sound and Washington wine. The winery closed in the mid-1960s, yet its lab stored intriguing artifacts, including old bottles of wine from along the West Coast. Apparently these bottles were analyzed to see what was in them. The last time I was there — more than five years ago — I was struck by a box of bottles and roll of old labels that were sitting in a corner. I got the sense that one day they ran out of wine and simply went home.
A few years ago, before strokes took away my ability to amble easily on uneven ground, I walked through a vineyard just up the hill from Belfair, in Mason County. It was a beautiful vineyard, every bit as picturesque as those in Oregon's Willamette Valley or California's Anderson Valley. This hobby farm was planted with clones that thrived in cooler climates. It was surrounded by tall pine trees that reminded me of nearby golf courses I wanted to play.
Peeking above the distant horizon were the Olympic Mountains, offering a magnificent view of The Brothers Mountains in the Olympic Range just beyond Hood Canal, the same view I grew up with in nearby Bremerton.
It’s easier to grow wine grapes in Eastern Washington, where the skies are cloudless and land is plentiful. It takes an extra dose of fortitude and resolve to grow them under gray skies in pockets of moist land, bordered by tall trees and using delicate grapes — some rarely mentioned outside a Jancis Robinson book.
Wine continues to be woven into our rich tapestry, making up a thin slice of our culture here, enriching our love for the region as well as our history. Once we all are able to get out again, I encourage you to catch a ferry and visit the wineries of the Puget Sound. The wines will be clean and delicious, made of grapes that are out of the mainstream and inviting you to embrace the rustic nature of this unexplored wine region.
ANDY PERDUE is the founding editor of Wine Press Northwest magazine. He lives in Richland, Wash., with his wife, teen daughter, a new rescue dog, and three unhappy cats.