Washington is known for producing high-quality red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and other big, bold grape varieties native to the Bordeaux and Rhone regions of France. What Washington has not been known for is making high quality Pinot Noir.
Oregon, with a climate very similar to that of France’s Burgundy region where Pinot Noir is king, has earned global recognition for wines produced from the fickle Pinot Noir grape. Few winemakers north of the Columbia River even attempt to grow it.
That may be changing, at least in Washington’s Puget Sound American Viticultural Area, if the results of the 21st Annual Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging are any indication. Only wines produced in the Northwest and British Columbia that have already earned gold medals in other recognized regional, national or international competition are invited to participate in the Platinum judging.
This year’s competition drew 50 entries of gold medal Pinot Noir wines. Only six Pinot Noirs earned the coveted Double Platinum medal. Five, not surprisingly, came from some of Oregon’s top producers. The sixth was an estate Pinot Noir from a mom-and-pop boutique winery in Washington’s Puget Sound AVA. Skagit Crest Vineyard & Winery in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., earned a Double Platinum medal for its 2017 estate Pinot Noir.
Skagit Crest owner and winemaker Chuck Jackson, who has more than 40 years of experience with the grape, said he initially had no intention of planting a Pinot Noir vineyard in the Puget Sound AVA. It was only after he abandoned what he called a potential “marriage-ending” decision to move to central Washington’s Yakima Valley that Skagit Crest was born and a seven-year search for the perfect vineyard site began.
IT STARTED WITH A SPECIAL BOTTLE
Chuck and his wife, Donna, have known each other since the eighth grade. They graduated from Washington State University, moved to Bothell in 1975, and lived there for 32 years while raising their two daughters.
During that time, Chuck worked primarily as an industrial engineer, first at Boeing, then at Paccar, and then returning to Boeing for 25 years until his retirement in 2010. Donna worked as an at-home mom for 15 years and another 16 at the North Shore School District in Bothell.
Chuck traces the couple’s interest in wine to a bottle of 1969 BV Cabernet, served by a friend at his home when Chuck was just two years out of college.
“I knew nothing about fine wines, but I thought I had died and gone to heaven sipping that wine,” he recalls. “Before we finished the bottle, I told him that I was going to make a wine that good.’”
By 1978, Chuck and Donna were picking Pinot Noir grapes in the Yakima Valley, part of what Chuck refers to as his first attempt at ‘garage wine.’ “I’ve made wine every year since then and have yet to miss a vintage,” he notes proudly.
TAKING THINGS TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Over the next dozen years, Chuck essentially plunked along as what might best be described as a serious amateur winemaker.
“I self-taught, I read, I talked to others, made my mistakes, took classes when and where I could and fine-tuned it,” he said. Then in 1990 he joined the Boeing Wine & Beer Club, of which he is still a member. That, he said, was a game-changer.
“The Wine Club experience…was a great incubator. It was super to share wines between others. We would taste them for flaws (and) learn about what we could do better to improve (them).
“During that time I got to make wine from all the major vineyards in the Yakima and Columbia Valleys. It was tremendous in my own education so I could learn what grapes I like best and from what areas. I ended up being the coordinator for Champoux Vineyards, and I still communicate with Paul Champoux today.”
In addition to him, Chuck notes that “there must be a couple of dozen club members who went on to start commercial wineries,” citing Tim Narby of Nota Bene Cellars and Ben Smith of Cadence Winery, both located in Seattle, as two other notable alums.
GOODBYE YAKIMA, HELLO SKAGIT VALLEY
In mid-1995, Donna recalls, “(Chuck) decided to take his hobby and make it his vocation, and he wanted an estate vineyard.
At dinner one night, he told me and our daughters, ‘Get ready, we’re moving to the Yakima Valley.’ At the end of the dinner, he had three crying women at the table and I said, ‘I hope you and your new wife enjoy it over there.’”
Needless to say, the family did not move east and a search for a vineyard site west of the Cascade Mountains began.
“We started looking at the I-5 corridor from Vancouver to Blaine,” recalls Chuck, but they eventually decided to settle in the Skagit Valley, where he had been the winemaker for Sedro-Woolley’s Eagle Haven Winery from 2004 to 2016.
Finally in 2008, a 10-1/2 acre site came up for sale. It was mostly treed and covered in blackberry bushes, but located on about a 300-foot-high slope.
“It was the great drainage, with great southwest exposure that made me want to buy that piece,” Chuck said. Beyond that, spectacular sunset views of the valley and nearby Anacortes and the San Juan Islands were an added bonus.”
It took the Jacksons two years to clear and develop the property, which now includes their home. The first vineyards were planted in 2011. Initially there were six acres of wine grapes but that has since been pared to what the Jacksons said they feel is a more manageable three.
A WESTSIDE VINEYARD WITH A FEW SURPRISES
The choice of varieties to plant in the Puget Sound AVA comes with its own set of climatic limitations; potentially too-cool summers, excessive rain, and in 2020, the threat of smoke from fires outside the state.
For Chuck, planting Pinot Noir was a natural choice, but his choice of white wine grapes could be considered unconventional for the Puget Sound.
“What you normally find (grown) in the Puget Sound region is Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe,” he says. “And as much as they make wonderful wine, most people are not familiar with them. So the varieties we ended up planting were the ones I always enjoyed as a wine drinker and people would also recognize their names.
“What we did to be successful at that was to choose the earliest ripening clones we could find. (And we) chose plants that were grafted to root stock that were also shown through research at WSU to advance earlier ripening.”
With just enough heating units at their location, Skagit Crest is able to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc on half of their vineyard. The other half includes four clones of Pinot Noir: Précoce, Dijon 114 and 777, and Pommard. Chuck notes that a few other Pinot Noir clones may be in the offing, along with Grüner Veltliner, an Austrian variety that’s always intrigued him.
The Jacksons opened up their tasting room in downtown LaConner in 2017. Its cozy, waterfront location is a perfect stop for those strolling along the town’s Swinomish Channel.
While Chuck gets credit for much of the technical composition that goes into winemaking, he’s quick to acknowledge Donna’s contributions to the finished product. “She’s invaluable as a check on me because she’s more keyed into what people like.” That even applies to the Pinot Noir juice she makes for kids to sample while their parents visit the tasting room.
Skagit Crest’s tasting menu currently features each of the estate-grown white varietals, plus a blend of all four bottled as “Chuckanut White.” Red wines include their flagship wine, Pinot Noir, produced both as a stand-alone varietal and in a Rosé style; and a red blend, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from vineyards in Eastern Washington’s Horse Heaven Hills and Yakima Valley Appellations.
2020 was a particularly good year for Skagit Crest, which produces 500-600 cases annually, having earned four golds and a double gold medal from the Seattle Wine Awards competition. And then there’s that extra-special, Double Platinum-worthy 2017 Pinot Noir. Chuck recalls that it wasn’t a particularly outstanding vintage, but there were decent heat units, the weather held through harvest and the grapes had excellent pH and brix levels.
“Blending all four (Pinot Noir) clones gave us just the right balance,” he says. “It was essentially a ‘hands-off’ year and it turned out to be magic.”
Magic? Good fortune? The saying, “Luck is the residue of design,” is probably more appropriate for Chuck Jackson’s wines. Factor in decades of experience, a beautiful vineyard location and good-old fashioned stick-to-itiveness, and the end result is a retirement gig that’s paying much-deserved dividends with award-winning wines.
SKAGIT CREST VINEYARD & WINERY
Located in Sedro-Woolley and available for private tastings by appointment only
105 North First Street, Suite 1
LaConner, WA 98257
Hours: Currently Noon to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday