“Where are you folks from?” he asks, and after a friendly exchange of information, learns that the couple from Jacksonville, Fla., has stopped at his South Mount Vernon winery on their way up to the San Juan Islands for a visit.
“We get that a lot,” Bertelsen says later, estimating that about 40-percent of his tasting room visitors are traveling between Seattle and Canada or the San Juan Islands. The winery’s location at exit 218 just off Interstate 5 (referred to by the locals as “Conway Hill”), makes it a convenient stop for both well-seasoned wine enthusiasts and curious passersby who might be drawn in by the ‘Wine Tasting’ signs at the freeway interchange.
But most accomplished entrepreneurs will tell you that one can’t just set up shop on a busy street and expect people to stop in. As Bertelsen will attest, the success of the winery required time and effort to make consumer-friendly wines, innovative ways of marketing the tasting room facility, and, especially in his case, the patience to see everything through.
Over 25 Years In The Making
Bertelsen’s parents, Richard and Josephine, moved to the Skagit Valley in about 1970, where Steve and his siblings attended Mount Vernon High School. While purchasing the property in 1988 that would be home to today’s winery, Richard continued to practice oral surgery until his retirement in 2016.
The intention was to start the winery much sooner than its eventual opening date in May 2014, but the Bertelsens discovered that things don’t always turn out as planned.
Part of the slowdown, Steve notes, was attributable to the 2008 recession, as well as his time away working in the food and beverage division at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Resort. After he moved back to Washington in 2013, the necessary preparation work was completed, and the winery finally opened about a year later.
Since the winery’s inception, the Bertelsens have relied on the expertise of Joe Hudon, a “free-lance” winemaker from Kennewick, who previously worked as head winemaker at Claar Cellars for eight years and is interim vineyard manager at Elephant Mountain Vineyards in Washington’s Rattlesnake Hills AVA.
“My dad has a good palate,” Steve notes, and he feels they work well with Hudon to “collaborate on what we like and what (a wine) should be.”
But he’ll also be the first to admit that not everything has resulted in great wine — especially during the early years. “We’ve had some hits and had some misses. It’s a work in progress. We’ve found that some wines need a little help and they need a little teamwork.” He singles out the winery’s currently-available 2014 Syrah as a good example.
“Our Syrah had good substance and the qualities of good Syrah, but the finish wasn’t there. So we added a little Grenache (20-percent) and it really worked well.”
Securing vineyard sources has also been both challenging and rewarding. “We’re still in our infancy, so meeting people, making friendships and earning trust among vineyard owners” has been key. Steve acknowledges Red Mountain’s Monte Scarlatto as one of the best sources for the winery’s red wines and White Bluffs Vineyard, north of Pasco, has provided the Bertelsens with their current releases of Riesling and Pinot Gris.
A Distinctly Local Flavor
“When we first opened, we primarily advertised on Facebook. It took a couple of years to get the word out,” Steve says. That included plenty of local support from Mount Vernon and Skagit County residents as well as those from North Snohomish County, which he points out is only about a quarter-mile south of the tasting room.
It’s those local wine enthusiasts who have stood by the winery since day one. They’ve been rewarded with wines that have steadily improved in quality, and that in turn, has had a profound effect on business, which Steve feels is really beginning to take off.
For starters, the Bertelsens added an adjacent Winery Event Center called “The Vines” with a capacity of nearly 200 guests for weddings, reunions, and celebrations of life. A new outdoor concert area with a stage and seating for up to 400 was also recently added and the venue hosted a five-event summer concert series during 2018.
The tasting room itself includes a dedicated room for functions and meetings of about 50 people, along with a staging area for caterers. And the spacious, semicircular tasting bar is next to an area with comfortable seating and a flat-screen television, where visitors can watch a favorite sporting event while enjoying a glass of wine.
Recognizing that travelers dropping by might also need more than a flight, glass or bottle of wine, the Bertelsens offer several other items with a nice local touch.
A selection of certified organic cheeses is available from Samish Bay Cheese in Bow, along with confections from Stanwood’s Creative Chocolate. And beer lovers can always grab an on-tap pint from a couple of local sources: Mount Vernon’s Farmstrong and North Sound Brewing Companies.
Down The Road
“We’re starting a new wine club in early 2019,” Steve notes, and expansion plans include the purchase of the winery’s own bottling line and at least doubling the current annual production of 2,000 cases.
Also down the road is the possibility of producing wine from three acres of Pinot Noir vines originally cultivated by Cloud Mountain Farm in Whatcom County. The vines are planted adjacent to the tasting room and within view of the freeway. A small crush in 2017 had limited success, and Steve says that while “mold, mildew and heat units are a problem, we want to keep it organic.”
Until then, visitors to the tasting room should be more than happy with a selection of current releases that includes a beautiful 2016 Merlot from the Walla Walla Valley AVA and a four-varietal red blend of 2014 and 2015 vintages sourced from Red Mountain.
But don’t rule out that Pinot Noir just yet. With the Bertelsens' reputation for patience and perseverance, the varietal may turn up on the tasting room menu sometime in the near future. And that would give travelers along the north end of the I-5 corridor just one more reason to stop in.
This story was originally published December 21, 2018 12:00 AM.