Andy Perdue

Wine lovers should explore Mount Baker foothills

Among my favorite corners of the Pacific Northwest is the Bellingham area, a mere 90 miles north of Seattle. It is the quintessential Northwest, with views of Puget Sound, the west-side forests and the region’s natural beauty.

There’s nothing quite as great as getting lost along the roads of the Nooksack Valley on the way to Mount Baker. The drive up Chuckanut Drive south of Bellingham is among the classic byways in the Pacific Northwest, as iconic as driving down the coast on Highway 101.

My introduction to the region came in the early 1980s while I was in journalism school at Western Washington University.

The campus is nestled among the trees of the Sehome Arboretum, so walking to class each day was like strolling through a nature reserve. On clear days, Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan loom on the horizon with the same grandeur that Mount Rainier holds when it peeks through the clouds around Seattle and Tacoma.

 I loved exploring the shops and eateries in the funky Fairhaven section of town and admiring the outdoor sculptures scattered around the WWU campus. The Salish Sea salt air filled my lungs and made me glad to live there.

 Of course, one of Bellingham’s greatest benefits is its proximity to Vancouver, British Columbia, one of the world’s great cities. I didn’t appreciate that enough during my college years.

 My first introduction to alcohol was in Bellingham with Rainier Beer and later with my first favorite winemakers, Bartles & Jaymes — an ignominious beginning for sure, but memorable because of the good times surrounding them then and perspective that I can appreciate now.

 My last visit to Bellingham included a stroll along the waterfront’s boardwalk, followed by leisure time warming up with a steaming espresso in a nearby coffee shop. There’s a reason a cup of fancy coffee is one of the most clichéd Northwest experiences: because it’s fantastic.

 I will always remember April 2016, when Eric Degerman and I staged a wine event at Semiahmoo Resort north of Bellingham. That Northwest Wine Encounter experience along Birch Bay dripped with luxury, deliciously executed meals and great local beer and wine. Bring your clubs and take advantage of the Arnold Palmer-designed golf courses on the property. Among my favorite memories was sipping a fortified wine next to a campfire on the beach in front of the resort. Looking for a regional post-COVID getaway? This is it.

 Those visiting the region specifically for wine touring now will find plenty of delightful options, starting near Lake Stevens with Bayernmoor Cellars — a young program led by decorated winemaker Brian Carter — and continuing north through the Skagit Valley to the border near storied Samson Estates.

A number of the wineries that I chronicled two decades ago in The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer’s Handbook are no longer in business. However, their work helped provide hope and inspiration for others to follow. Among my favorites to visit was Mount Baker Vineyards, a fascinating site in Deming established in 1978 by Al Stratton.

Stratton produced plum wine that he found a market for in Japan and sold the winery to Randy Finley a decade later.

Finley, a former movie theater owner, made Mount Baker Vineyards successful with cool-climate grapes such as Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe while also working with noble varieties grown in Eastern Washington. Before he retired in 2016, Finley grew the operation into a 6,000-case brand just 20 minutes from the border crossing at Sumas.

British Columbia has traditionally welcomed the wine tourist with the Fraser Valley, a grape-growing region that follows the course of its namesake river, and with luck and COVID-19 willing, soon will again. Some of the grapes are grown here, and some are brought in from the Okanagan Valley over the Cascade Mountains.

This might even lure you to visit the Okanagan, which is rich in wineries, restaurants and wine culture. If you purchase any wines in British Columbia, be prepared to pay a small amount of duty upon your return to the United States, but this beautiful region is well worth the effort to visit.

 But back to Bellingham. We are noticing small vineyards popping up in Skagit and Whatcom counties.

These are traditionally agricultural areas, so the inclusion of wine grapes is an extension of the culture already in place. With climates similar to the Willamette Valley, it seems natural that this is the next region of the Northwest for grape growers to explore by taking cues from the work done in Oregon the past 30 years.

Ample wide-open spaces and available resources could lead to this being an exciting new viticultural area. Work already has started as a jumping-off point, so expansion alongside an infrastructure of winemaking expertise could quickly spur more development.

 Wineries near Bellingham and on Bainbridge and Whidbey islands could be the leaders in a new chapter in Washington’s winemaking history.

The region bears a striking resemblance to California’s Anderson Valley, which also could be a source of expertise and

inspiration. Additionally, the region already is part of the Puget Sound American Viticultural Area, so much of the hard work has been done.

The next decade should be quite interesting in the north end of the Puget Sound, and there are plenty of wine lovers in Western Washington looking for emerging regions to explore.

Andy Perdue is the founding editor of Wine Press Northwest. A stroke survivor, Andy lives in the heart of Washington wine country with his wife, teenage daughter, three cats and a pandemic rescue dog.

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