If a restaurant is looking for a recipe on how to survive a global pandemic, Robert Pinkley developed one at Leader Block Wine Co. & Eatery.
Pinkley owned the fascinating Leader Block Building, circa 1909, for nearly two decades before he began to transform his passion for wine into a retail concept. Then, he hired sommelier Amberleigh Brownson and recently added executive chef Doug Elliott, who continue to transform Leader Block into a culinary destination that showcases ingredients from a network of surrounding farms and nearby Puget Sound.
“This is definitely a new flavor, a new idea for the town of Ferndale in terms of food and wine,” Elliott says. “I was born in Victoria in a house that was built in 1908, so I appreciate things that are older and have character. They don’t build them like this anymore.”
Ferndale is about 20 minutes north of Bellingham in an often-overlooked corner of the state. Pinkley had a sense the time was right to attract residents and pull in tourists from Interstate 5 — a mile from Leader Block.
In 2002, Pinkley purchased the two-story building on Main Street with a colorful past, particularly during the Roaring Twenties, when the basement served as a speakeasy. It wasn’t until the fall of 2018 when it became Leader Block Wine Co. & Eatery.
“It’s been a grocery store, a pharmacy, a saloon — and it’s been a brothel,” Pinkley says. “Everything was hush-hush at that time during Prohibition. And Ferndale was very separated by the Nooksack River, which was quite a bit bigger then than it is now. It was a real ordeal to get across.”
Pinkley bought the building from the City of Ferndale, and the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce also was a tenant before the wine bar. Now, Pinkley winks at part of the building’s history by operating the second-floor flat above the restaurant as the Leader Block Lovers Suite on AirBNB.
“This started for a year as a cozy and cool wine bar, but then I met Amberleigh and decided to turn it into a full-fledged restaurant,” Pinkley said. “We’ve made a real connection with the community, and I think Amberleigh has done that with our wine club, our winemaker dinners and just staying in touch with people, which includes hand-written note cards. That personal touch takes a lot of effort and a lot of time.”
Pinkley grew up in Issaquah, and while the Ivy Leaguer graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in international finance, he has deep roots in Washington state. His ancestors farmed in the Yakima Valley starting in the 19th century, and his relatives include some famous figures in the food world.
“Members of my family have a background in hospitality, but I hadn’t until this,” Pinkley says.
In fact, Leader Block sources its cured meats from Coro — the Seattle company founded as Salumi by the father of celebrity chef Mario Batali. Considering who his cousins are, the menu’s theme at Leader Block seems to have been served by destiny.
“Italian is the most popular nationality for a restaurant, but we wanted to be Northwest, too,” Pinkley said. “It’s been nice to become THE restaurant in the community for a lot of people in a short period of time.”
Pinkley’s employment with the U.S. Department of Commerce led to a career exporting Washington state agricultural products, including wine. His passion for skiing and interest in wine prompted him to buy recreational property in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, yet he’s content to have Brownson spearhead his wine list and run the wine club.
“I participate, but she’s the best at what she does and to get in the way of that would be just foolish,” Pinkley said. “She’s won awards for her work.”
Initially, Pinkley brought in Brownson on a short-term basis under her consulting business — Restaurant Success — but her enthusiasm and vision for Leader Block made her a permanent fit. A dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., Brownson pays attention to the wine industry on both sides of the border and judges international wine competitions staged throughout the Northwest. That expertise led to Leader Block earning Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence in 2019, 2020 and 2021.
“Being able to feature Northwest wines, whether it be in the wine club or as a glass pour of the month, that’s really exciting for me,” Brownson said. “And before Covid, we had a winemaker dinner every month. It’s been a way for our chefs to spread their wings.
“And when I sit down with a distributor and taste through a series of wines that I like from a particular winery, I always ask, ‘What’s the potential of me being able to get them for a winemaker dinner?’ ”
Brownson’s rise within the Northwest wine industry began at nearby Semiahmoo Resort, where she helped manage several of the restaurants and worked alongside French chef Eric Truglas, featured in the Match Maker series in 2015.
“My first ah-hah moment with wine was in 2010 at Semiahmoo when I was a server and discovered a bottle of Apex Cellars 2007 Merlot,” she says with a smile. “I still remember my descriptors as blueberries and chocolate. It was beautiful, and I ran it as a special at $18 a glass. The guests loved it. I sold every single table on it — by myself — all two cases in one night. I thought, ‘OK, maybe there’s something for me with this.’ ”
In recent years, she’s served as a volunteer sommelier at the Auction of Washington Wines staged on the grounds of Chateau Ste. Michelle. Few in the Northwest wine industry have a page on IMDb.com - the Internet Movie Database site — but there is Amberleigh Kuyek as Amy Bloom in The Artifact, a sci-fi production released in 2018. In the Canadian thriller Breeze in the Storm, filmed in Vancouver in 2017, she had a role as a 911 dispatcher.
While no sequels are in the works for either, the success in Ferndale has the somm and her owners thinking of Leader Block 2.0 in downtown Bellingham.
“A second location, same concept — excellence and trust,” she said. “We have survived because of our local support. When you are only driven by money, the atmosphere is not genuine. And it’s not fun.”
Pinkley says the focus on local ingredients and regional wines continues to resonate as the Northwest looks to emerge from the shadows of the pandemic.
“It’s all right to put on a shirt that’s not made locally. Who cares?” Pinkley said. “Food? We are putting that in our bodies. And we are continuing to ingratiate ourselves to the local community. You always have to make that connection, even if you are tired.”
Pinkley hired Brett Wiltse as the contractor for the transition from a coffee shop and wine bar into Leader Block Wine Co. & Eatery. It didn’t take long before Wiltse wanted to buy into the restaurant, and he’s now co-owner and general manager.
“I’ve plumbed a lot of restaurants, but after I saw the concept and how it was turning out, I didn’t want to leave,” said Wiltse, born and raised in Whatcom County. “Plumbing is fun, but it’s not as fun as the restaurant industry, and I could see Amberleigh’s enthusiasm and how driven she is.”
Pinkley and Brownson, who have interviewed chefs from New York, Paris and Las Vegas in Leader Block’s brief history, recruited Elliott earlier this year to help showcase the natural bounty of Whatcom County alongside Northwest wines.
On his way to the photo shoot, Elliott swung by Blanchard Mountain Farm, a certified organic company near iconic Chuckanut Drive. Other go-to sources include Joe’s Gardens in Bellingham and Valley Farmstead in Acme, the birthplace of the Day family’s buzzworthy Neil’s Bigleaf Maple Syrup.
“Ours is a passion-driven industry, and I’m close to 20 area farmers who I know and at least a dozen fishermen,” said Elliott, who spent a decade in Portland kitchens. “I’ve got a crab guy, and I’ve got a spot prawn guy. I’m a huge farm-to-table guy. I will go to the Bellingham Farmers Market on Saturday morning and then figure out what we’re featuring on the menu for Saturday night.”
On Tuesdays and Fridays, Leader Block receives deliveries from the Puget Sound Food Hub, a farmer-owned co-op with roots in the Skagit Valley and a collection of more than 80 producers — including Blanchard Mountain and Samish Bay Cheese.
“I’m done with big cities. I love complaining about our traffic here,” he said with a smirk. “I loved the food scene in Portland. It was crazy. It was insane, and a lot of fun, but I’m happy to be closer to family. I’ve found a home here. I love it.”
Checks go out each month to more than 60 vendors, some Elliott brought with him. He spent the previous 12 years in two Bellingham kitchens, including the past five as executive chef at Hilton’s Chrysalis Inn & Spa. He said he hopes for a similar run at Leader Block.
“I don’t like looking for a job,” said the gumbo-loving Elliott, who also prides himself on his Dungeness crab-stuffed New York strip with mushrooms and Béarnaise sauce.
Elliott also leans on Brownson’s experience and wine knowledge surrounding Leader Block’s monthly winemaker dinners, which resumed this spring with evenings featuring historic Northwest vintners Brian Carter (Brian Carter Cellars/Array Cellars/Bayernmoor Cellars) and David O’Reilly of Owen Roe.
“Here, they let me create new ideas and use ingredients like the Bigleaf Maple Syrup,” Elliott said. “I’ve done a Bigleaf Maple Crème Brûlée. I’ve used it in a Crème Anglaise on top of a chocolate flourless tart. I’ve used it with baby carrots and in different sauces to go with the rabbit that they also farm.”
Elliott and Brownson pulled from Leader Block’s Italian theme for both of their Match Maker assignments. The featured red is a wine that routinely wins gold medals at competitions Brownson judges — the Kiona Vineyards Estate Lemberger. It’s a wine with a delicious history, particularly on Red Mountain, and one the Williams family continues to price at a level that makes it easy for Brownson to place it at the top of her list of red wines available by the bottle year after year.
“I just love that wine, and I have fun telling my customers about it,” she says.
Lamb is a great foil for Lemberger, and Elliott incorporated some ground lamb into his recipe for polpette — aka Italian meatballs. The inclusion of lamb adds a touch of gamy richness to the meatballs, while the subdued tannins and brightness of the Kiona Lemberger slice through the butter, the cream and the cheese grated across the pasta.
Brian Carter Cellars also tends to dominate regional wine competitions, and among the wines Brownson has brought on is the Oriana — a unique blend of Viognier, Roussanne and Riesling that’s one of the few white wines Carter produces. Its profile of orchard fruit, apple blossom and minimal oak makes for an aromatic and fresh wine that’s a seamless pairing with the lightly caramelized yet tender scallops and creamy mushroom risotto.
“There’s a floral tone with those orchard blossoms, and I can see this dish with edible flowers,” Brownson said. “My hope is that the wine elevates those already special scallops.”
Leader Block Wine Co. & Eatery, 2026 Main St., Ferndale, WA, 98248, LeaderBlock.com, 360-306-8998.
Brian Carter Cellars 2018 Oriana White Wine Blend, Yakima Valley, $25
808 cases, 13.6% alc.
WOODINVILLE, Wash. — Brian Carter crafts some of the Northwest’s most delicious examples of Chardonnay under the Array Cellars brand, but he produces just one white wine under his eponymous brand.
He calls it Oriana, which translates to “golden lady” in Latin, and the Rhône-driven bottling otherwise fits in with the red-dominant program at Brian Carter Cellars because it is a blend. After all, Carter drives throughout the Yakima Valley during the growing season in an energy-conscious vehicle with a vanity plate that reads BLENDS.
The Oregon State University grad, who earned Wine Press Northwest’s award for Washington Winery of the Year in 2015, has created Oriana each vintage since 2006. His template has remained remarkably consistent and stays true to the Yakima Valley.
“Hardly a month goes by without someone telling me that Oriana is their favorite white wine,” Carter says.
When he launched Oriana, the blend led with Viognier (45%) from Outlook Vineyard followed by Roussanne (35%) and Riesling (20%) from what is now known as Canyon Vineyard Ranch northeast of Prosser.
This 2018 version of Oriana features Viognier (49%), Roussanne (41%) and Riesling (10%), and remarkable Olsen Brothers Vineyards near Prosser plays the largest role in this blend, contributing all of the Roussanne and 14% of the Viognier.
Solstice Vineyard, a historic site for Riesling, was the home for all of the Riesling and 16% of the Viognier. Both Olsen and Solstice have served as the core of the program for more than a decade, but Dineen Vineyard, a stellar site in the Rattlesnake Hills, provided most of the Viognier in 2018.
Carter crafts it as an aromatic and approachable white that lends itself to Pacific Coast fare, including such shellfish as scallops. A third is fermented in neutral French Oak barrels, while the balance was fermented in stainless steel to showcase the notes of orchard blossom, stone fruit and citrus. It is finished with residual sugar of 4.5 grams/liter, which is just barely on the cusp of perceptible sweetness.
Last year, the Oriana and the rest of his wines began being poured near the Columbia River at his new wine bar along the Vancouver USA Waterfront.
This fall, Brian Carter Cellars will move from its longtime location along Woodinville-Redmond Road into a new tasting room — with its own kitchen — two miles to the north at the tony Woodin Creek Village.
Brian Carter Cellars, 14419 Woodinville-Redmond Road NE, Woodinville, WA 98072, (425) 806-9463 (WINE), and 660 Waterfront Way, Vancouver, WA 98660, (360) 216-1444, BrianCarterCellars.com.
Capesante — Scallops with Mushroom Risotto, Market Vegetables and Truffle Oil
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 onion, diced
1 cup mushroom mix (Cascadian Farms shiitake, oyster, cremini)
1 tablespoon fresh garlic
3 cups vegetable stock
2 ounces white wine
4 ounces shredded Asiago cheese
Heat a little oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the mushrooms. Sauté until the edges are crispy, then add onion and garlic to toast slightly before adding Arborio rice.
Stir until all is incorporated, then deglaze with wine. Add stock, a half cup at a time, and cook while stirring constantly until the moisture is gone. Repeat until all of the stock is used. Add cheese and butter and stir to finish.
16 U-10 (under 10 per pound) scallops
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, sliced into 2 pads
Salt, pepper for seasoning
White truffle oil to add at plating
Pat each scallop dry before seasoning with salt and pepper. Get a sauté pan hot!!! Have your kitchen windows open and the fan on because there should be smoke in order to get the proper sear. Once the pan is hot, add oil then the seasoned scallops and return to the burner on high heat. Add pads of butter and if the heat is as hot as needed it will melt almost instantly and become brown, which is part of the nuttiness for the flavor profile we wish to achieve. Allow nearly all of the cooking to occur on one side of the scallop in order to get the sear and texture, then flip the scallops, turn off heat and let finish for just 1 minute before plating on risotto.
1 1/2 pounds baby bok choy, stalks cut in half
2 mini sweet peppers halved, cored
Lay on a sheet pan, sprinkle with oil, season with salt and pepper, then roast in a 450-degree oven for 15 minutes. Sprinkle scallops with white truffle oil just before serving. Enjoy. Cheers!
Kiona Vineyards 2018 Estate Lemberger, Red Mountain, $18
3,310 cases, 14% alc.
BENTON CITY, Wash. — For those times when JJ Williams needs to get the attention of a sommelier or wine buyer on the East Coast, he can use a bottle of his family’s acclaimed Lemberger as his calling card.
And it works nearly every time with the savvy members of the wine trade. There’s a growing sense of fascination and mystery surrounding this somewhat obscure red grape native to Austria, where it is known as Blaufränkisch. In Germany, there’s Blauer Limberger.
The history surrounding its place in the Washington state wine lore begins with arguably the most important figure in its history — the late Walter Clore.
At Clore’s recommendation, Kiona Vineyards founder John Williams — JJ’s grandfather — planted 1.8 acres of the grape. In 1980, he became the first in the U.S. to commercially bottle Lemberger. Within a decade, there were 250 acres of variety in Washington. Alas, less than 50 acres of that remain. Kiona controls 13 of those acres.
For any fanatic of Lemberger, the 2018 vintage goes down as one of the best in the past decade. This bottling also begins to mark the transition from second-generation winemaker Scott Williams to Tyler — JJ’s brother — who officially took over the winemaking in 2019. Kiona will go down in history as the state’s first three-generation winemaking program.
By its nature, Blaufränkisch is a cool-climate variety. The inherent power behind red wines off Red Mountain makes the Kiona Lemberger more intense with its dark purple fruit, spiciness and easy-drinking profile that’s ideal for any backyard bash.
In 2018, they crafted the base of this bottling with Lemberger from Kiona Estate Vineyard (85%) and added more complexity with Cabernet Sauvignon, Carménère and Mourvèdre off Scott’s Heart of the Hill Vineyard.
Fortunately, the program is too popular for the family to turn its back on Lemberger, which explains why production typically ranges from 3,000 to 5,000 cases, depending on the vintage.
“The grape thrives here, producing medium-bodied, fruit-driven wines that pair well with a wide array of foods,” JJ says. “It’s an uncommon grape that’s worthy of attention.”
Kiona Vineyards, 44612 N. Sunset Road, Benton City, WA 99320, kionawine.com, (509) 588-6716.
Pasta Polpette (Italian meatballs)
For the meatballs
1 pound ground chuck/brisket/short rib blend
1/2 pound ground lamb
1/2 small diced onion
1 ounce Inglehoffer Traditional Dijon Mustard from Beaverton Foods, Inc.
1 ounce heavy cream
1 tablespoon parsley
1 teaspoon fresh garlic
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon cracked rosemary
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Mix ingredients well, form meatballs and bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes.
For the sauce
3 cups fresh pomodoro sauce (roasted Roma tomatoes, salt, pepper, extra virgin olive oil)
1 cup mushroom mix (Cascadian Farm shiitake, oyster and cremini)
1/2 pint of grape tomatoes
15- 20 cloves confit garlic
1 1/2 cups grapeseed oil
1 fresh basil, chiffonade
2 ounces white wine
4 ounces vegetable stock
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
Pasta of your choice to prepare for 4 people (2 ounces of dry pasta equals 1 cup cooked pasta)
Prepare the confit garlic in advance, baking in the grapeseed oil at 250 degrees for 2 hours. To start the sauce, get a pan and place 2 tablespoons of butter along with the mushrooms and sauté on high heat with salt and pepper to taste. Deglaze with white wine and add pomo, tomatoes, confit garlic and vegetable stock. Allow to reduce by half. Toss your pasta of choice into the sauce and cream it out with remaining butter pats and fresh basil. Serve with your favorite cheese on top — the Ferndale Farmstead Grana Padano or another version of Parmigiano Reggiano — and meatballs.
ERIC DEGERMAN operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.