Strike up a conversation with Karen Krug, founder, owner and winemaker at Spoiled Dog Winery in Langley, Wash., and the topic will almost certainly turn to Pinot Noir. She might even be considered a bit of a Pinot fanatic, growing it at her estate vineyard, sourcing it from a trio of up-and-coming Whidbey Island vineyards and even tapping into a small amount from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Krug represents a tiny, yet steadily increasing number of Western Washington winemakers whose primary focus is producing high-quality Pinot Noir from the state’s cooler Puget Sound American Viticultural Area. But her passion for the notoriously difficult-to-grow grape extends to other, warm-weather varietals as well, and she has eight Wine Press Northwest Platinum medals to prove it.
LOCATION AND LEARNING
Karen and her husband Jack came to the Pacific Northwest from Colorado with the specific purpose of looking for property on which to start a winery. They purchased a 25-acre parcel on the southern end of Whidbey Island, which now includes their residence, family farm, vineyards, production facility and tasting room.
Finding the perfect vineyard location was the driving force in choosing their property. In addition to meeting the soil-testing requirements for wine grapes, Karen noted the area’s microclimate was also a key factor.
“One of the interesting things on the island is that the closer you are to the ocean (Puget Sound), it’s a very different climate than here, where we’re more inland. Four miles from here near Langley, fog is an issue, even during the summer — and fog brings powdery mildew. We’re lucky; we get eastern sun right at the beginning of the day, all day without the fog.”
The vineyards also benefit from a bit of the rain shadow effect of the Olympic Mountains to the west. Karen estimates her site receives only about 15 inches of rain per year, less than half that of Seattle about 40 miles to the south.
She planted Pinot Noir in 2003 and released her first wines in 2007. That four-year period gave her time to hone her winemaking skills by taking classes and working with University of California-Davis-trained winemakers in the area.
Today’s estate vineyard consists of about 2 acres of seven Pinot Noir clones, which Karen notes are grown in an eco-friendly environment using sustainable and organic practices. She aims for a self-described “French approach” to her winemaking and leans toward earlier grape picking at lower Brix levels, resulting in more balanced wines.
AT ITS CORE: A FAMILY OPERATION
The Krugs’s son Jake, and his wife, Lindsay, moved from Denver in October 2015 to join the Spoiled Dog team and take on the duties of co-owners, employees and whatever else the winery requires of them.
“I would say we wear a lot of different hats,” said Jake, who worked in landscape design and architecture. “What I enjoy the most is the winemaking portion of it. But being a small, family business, we personally maintain the whole vineyard start to finish.”
And in the tasting room, “I am definitely the barback,” he says with a grin. “And he even washes the dishes occasionally,” Karen laughs.
Lindsay, who was a law enforcement crisis responder while in Colorado says that her change in work environments has been amazing.
“I was so used to high-stress, high-drama situations, and when I came here everyone was so happy,” she said with a smile. Her primary responsibilities include managing the tasting room and wine club, and overseeing the winery’s marketing program, including online and social media outlets.
GETTING THERE, THEN WINDING DOWN
Located a short 10- to 15-minute drive north of the Clinton-Mukilteo ferry landing just west of Everett, Spoiled Dog Winery is tucked away among the evergreen trees in a lush, bucolic setting.
“I think a lot of people underestimate us,” says Jake. “We’re not that visual winery you see off the main road. They come down the road and over the hill and see this hidden gem. We get a lot of people who come and taste and spend two or three hours, relaxing and enjoying (themselves).”
Noting the calming, “leave-your-laptop-behind” energy that seems to resonate from the area, Karen added. “You really dial down when you come here.”
She also pointed out a number of other activities for those considering a visit: water sports, trails and hiking, nearby off-leash beaches for dog owners and plenty of adult beverage-producing options.
“We have seven wineries, four breweries, three distilleries and a meadery on the south end of the island,” she says.
Spoiled Dog also launched its own small cider company, the island’s first, in 2017.
“And the dining here is incredible,” said Lindsay, with a special nod to several local restaurants that serve Penn Cove mussels, the signature shellfish of Whidbey Island.
OTHER VINEYARDS, OTHER VARIETALS
Spoiled Dog’s current releases include plenty of other options for wine lovers, including a white blend of Puget Sound Siegerrebe and Yakima Valley Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris; and red wine choices such as Dolcetto, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, a Wine Press Northwest Platinum winner last year.
The Krugs’ Eastern Washington vineyard sources include Conner Lee, Klipsun and den Hoed, to name a few, with the majority of their grapes coming from Crawford Vineyard near Prosser, which they’ve worked with for the past 10 years.
Even with all these options, Pinot Noir is still first and foremost on the wine list. Karen notes that they’ve recently expanded production to include Pinot grown at three family-owned vineyards on Whidbey: Hezel, Kang and Le Champ Cru, and they also source the grape from Momtazi Vineyard in McMinnville, Ore.
“People are surprised we have four different Pinots that we make,” Lindsay said. “And we started to do a Pinot flight based on demand just because everyone was requesting it.”
Not surprisingly, it’s turned out to be the winery’s best-selling flight, and it sometimes includes their stunning, estate-sourced rosé, another Platinum award-winner.
BROADENING THE HORIZONS
While Karen is content to maintain Spoiled Dog’s production at approximately 1,500 cases annually (nearly all of which is sold at the winery), her continuing journey into winemaking is hardly static.
She’s one of only 50 Pinot Noir winemakers from around the world who has been invited to the Steamboat Inn in Oregon for the past several years.
Karen says the invitational builds collaboration between Pinot Noir winemakers by blind tasting each other’s unfinished wines.
“The result is raising the bar and continually improving how Pinot Noir is made.”
Asked about her devotion to the finicky grape, she says that she loves working with it because it’s so challenging. And her eyes light up when she talks about the wine’s versatility.
“It’s absolutely magic with food — salmon, lamb, pork, beef. It always wins out.”
Wine enthusiasts take note: If you love Pinot Noir, Spoiled Dog Winery is your kind of place.
And for those with a neutral stance or perhaps even a mild aversion to the polarizing grape, be forewarned: The Krug family is out to convert you. Their mission is to make you a Pinot Noir drinker, and one taste of their award-winning wines might be all it takes.
DAN RADIL is a freelance wine writer based in Bellingham, Wash. He produces a wine blog, danthewineguy.com, and is president of the Bellingham Northwest Wine Festival competition.
Spoiled Dog Winery
5881 Maxwelton Road
Langley, WA 98260
Hours: Open year-round but hours vary seasonally
Call the winery or check the website for details.