Neatly tucked away in the northwest corner of Washington’s Inland Puget Sound region sit Whatcom and Skagit counties. Each is somewhat rectangular in shape, Whatcom stacked atop Skagit. Together, the two share a remarkably similar geography.
The eastern portion of each county is dominated by the North Cascades, a mountainous, forested and largely undisturbed wilderness area. Moving west, the mountains flatten into fertile farmland, meshing with the region’s cities and towns that dot the valleys and hug the waters of Puget Sound.
The wine scene here is as diverse as its landscape, and while most wineries in the two-county area primarily use grapes from Eastern Washington, a handful produce wines from locally grown grapes that thrive in cooler climates. Some have also had great success with fruit wines, most of which are grown on local farms.
In short, the Inland Puget Sound region is a natural wonderland that operates at a slower pace, supports a diverse population base, and, most importantly for wine enthusiasts, offers something for just about everyone.
With a population of nearly 95,000, Bellingham is the area’s largest city and the hub of Whatcom County.
The city’s downtown core was nearly decimated in the mid-1980s with the opening of Bellis Fair Mall north of town. But karma has kicked in over the last decade; mall stores have shuttered while the downtown district has seen a resurgence. Hip restaurants, brewpubs and boutique clothiers have returned to the area and are part of Bellingham’s vibrant urban scene.
Frequently included in top-10 lists as one of the country’s most livable cities, Bellingham has become an even more desirable location in today’s “work-from-home” environment, attracting new residents eager to escape the congestion of nearby metropolitan areas. The city is also home to Western Washington University.
In addition, Bellingham’s extensive trail system, bike-friendly streets and proximity to both Mount Baker and several lakes, rivers and streams make it an outdoor recreationist’s dream.
Head farther north to the city of Ferndale, and then on to Lynden, a Dutch-influenced city of about 15,000 with a small-town feel, tucked into the Nooksack Valley. The valley is the heart of the county’s agricultural area, where dairy farms and raspberry fields dominate the landscape. (Whatcom County leads the nation in red raspberry production.)
In the far northwest corner of the county is Birch Bay and the city of Blaine, the last stops before crossing the U.S.-Canadian border.
Margarita Vartanyan of Vartanyan Estate winery was born and raised in Siberia, and at first blush, she might seem to be an unlikely candidate for the Washington wine industry.
But the owner/winemaker has connections with family who have centuries of winemaking experience, and after moving to the Bellingham area in 2002, she opened her tasting room in 2008 with a nod to her heritage by incorporating use of oak barrels in some wines from the former Soviet Union.
“Technically, the barrels are not Russian, they’re Georgian (now independent from the Soviet Union),” she said with a smile. “But I call them Russian; otherwise there would be too much confusion with the state.”
She notes that the oak trees in Georgia are influenced by soil and climate conditions that translate into subtleties in the barrels produced there. “In my view (the Russian oak) is closer to French oak. It is softer, with more vanilla and spice than American oak,” she said.
Her use of all three types of oak is at the forefront of her winemaking style. “I use new barrels as much as possible … and try to age (the reds) at least three years.”
She’s also not afraid to rely on input from her wine club members’ palates to determine the varietals that go into her blends, and she’s had great success using that approach to determine the final bottling.
A couple of recent examples, her consumer preference-inspired 2017 Syrah aged in American oak, another Syrah in Russian, French and American oak, and a 2015 Carménère aged in French oak, have all captured gold medals at the Bellingham Northwest Wine Festival Judged Competition.
Vartanyan is also proud of her Trilogia (Russian for “trilogy’), which she considers to be the flagship wine that put her winery on the map.
The Trilogia is always a blend of three varietals, aged separately in three types of oak barrels and then blended with what she refers to as three types of winemaking components: knowledge, family tradition and passion.
Varntanyan’s new releases for 2021 include the 2017 Trilogia blend of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2020 Cabernet Rosé and a stunning 2020 Sweet Riesling with a picture-perfect balance of fruit, acidity and residual sugar.
Visitors to the winery, just a 10-minute drive northeast of Bellingham, can expect beautiful views of nearby Mount Baker while enjoying a bottle or glass in either the tasting room or outside on the patio or landscaped hillside.
Like Vartanyan, Peter Osvaldik of Dynasty Cellars also had a cross-continental journey into Whatcom County winemaking, albeit under entirely different circumstances.
He and his wife Olga fled what was then Czechoslovakia in 1983 to escape the oppression of the Communist regime. Using vacation privileges, they left everything behind to enter Yugoslavia (now Croatia), where they waited in a United Nations underground facility for Eastern Bloc refugees. After 2-1/2 months, they received permission from a U.S. embassy to come to America.
They moved from California to Bellingham in 1990, and while working as a custom cabinetmaker, Peter continued to draw on his multi-generational family history of winemaking to produce wines for home consumption.
It was after the couple began to obtain their grapes from the Tri-Cities that things “got out of control,” so to speak. “That was the beginning of the vortex that sucked us in,” Peter laughed. “It was a hobby gone wild.”
Dynasty Cellars was established in 1995 and the winery’s first commercial release followed in 2006.
Today, the Osvaldiks buy all of their grapes from the Walla Walla Valley’s Les Collines Vineyard. Peter refers to it as their “one-stop shopping” location because the vineyard produces so many high-quality varieties.
His forté has always been producing full-bodied red wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo and Syrah top the list, and his 2016 Malbec is one of the current best sellers.
Red blends have also been popular, and the DC3, which Peter considers his flagship wine, is always a combination of Bordeaux varietals that varies from year to year. For those who prefer a lighter-bodied blend, the affordably priced “Irresponsible” label is another consistent consumer favorite.
Other wine choices often include Riesling, Chardonnay and a rosé-style Riesling made with a splash of Malbec.
The Osvaldiks opened an outdoor patio to the tasting room last year, and Peter will add a wood-fired pizza oven this summer. An on-site commercial kitchen remodel is also almost complete, allowing them to expand their existing food menu for visitors.
The customers who regularly line up outside Dynasty Cellars’ tasting room before it opens on Fridays and Saturdays are evidence the Osvaldiks’ wines are popular.
“We don’t treat our customers as customers; we treat them as friends,” Peter noted. That begins with, “What can I pour for you?” and continues with robust wines served in a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Husband-and-wife owners/winemakers Tom Davis and Tracey DeGraff of GLM Wine Co., both have backgrounds in the food and beverage industry: DeGraff works at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver, B.C.; Davis was brewmaster at one of Canada’s first microbreweries in the early 1990s before moving into winemaking. GLM stands for Glacial Lake Missoula.
The couple opened their tasting room in Blaine in 2006, and from the onset, they’ve developed a reputation for making their wines just a bit differently.
To keep their wines from being too high in alcohol, Davis notes they don’t harvest above 25 Brix. They also acidify their wines at crush rather than just prior to bottling to maintain high acid/low pH levels throughout winemaking.
Davis has also made “enrobed wines,” in which the juice of a red grape is removed before its skins are added to the juice of a white grape during fermentation. In the past, he used the process to make a Marsanne fermented with the skins of Cabernet Sauvignon, and for 2021 he’s considering combining Syrah skins with Viognier juice.
Another possible wine in the works is a resinated wine (as in Greek retsina), in which they’ll ferment Viognier and Gewürztraminer augmenting it with resin from local cedar or pine trees. “It should go well with oysters and other seafood,” Davis said.
While 2020 was a year many would like to forget because of the pandemic, it initially brought an added dilemma for Davis and DeGraff, who live in Richmond, B.C., just south of Vancouver. Davis said for the first eight weeks of the U.S./Canada border shutdown he was unable to get to the winery in Blaine. It was only after he was determined to be an “essential worker” that he was able to come and go freely.
“It was a grim year, but we’ve made it. And with nobody coming across, (the border patrol) has gotten to know me pretty well,” he says with a chuckle.
For 2021, visitors to the GLM tasting room can expect a 2018 Sauvignon Blanc plus two new Pinot Noir releases — a nouveau-style with no oak aging and a dry rosé. Both Pinots were sourced from the Rattlesnake Hills American Viticultural Area.
Samson Estates Winery, headed by owner/winemaker Rob Dahliwal, opened its tasting room in 2002, and when decades-old Mount Baker Vineyards closed a few years ago, Samson became Whatcom County’s oldest open-to-the-public winery.
The winery is a few miles southeast of Lynden on the nearly 500-acre family farm that grows raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and black currants.
Samson’s intoxicatingly fragrant raspberry wine is a perennial favorite of customers and the winery’s best seller; and with Dahliwal growing up on the farm and having an extensive background working with the fruit, it’s no wonder.
“I know what a raspberry should taste like,” he said. “We grow several different varieties on the farm, and there are certain ones that work better as wine.”
One misconception about fruit wines is their one-dimensionality. Traditional wine drinkers often think of them as overbearingly sweet, fruity and clumsy food-pairing partners for anything except dessert. Dahliwal disagrees with that. For starters, he said that he can control the acid and sugar in each batch of fruit, which allows him to produce two distinct styles of fruit wine based on sweetness.
His artisan fruit wines generally have a residual sugar content ranging from 2 to 4 percent; and his artisan dessert wines, which are balanced with alcohol fortification, usually run from about 9 to 14 percent.
Samson’s dessert wines do indeed pair beautifully with cheesecake or chocolate truffles, and Dahliwal also suggests trying the winery’s Oro Hazelnut wine (similar to a lighter style Frangelico liqueur) with tiramisu.
But the artisan fruit wines can work well with a surprising range of foods as well, including grilled salmon, barbeque chicken, pork tenderloin and a variety of cheeses.
The tasting room menu also offers varietals grown in Eastern Washington vineyards, including Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot.
For those planning a visit, Samson Estates’ manager Becci Comley encourages guests to pack a picnic and relax on the estate grounds or patio. An outdoor pavilion is available for weddings and special events, and Comley notes they are working on booking a series of rock concerts for later this year.
RESTAURANTS & WINE SHOPS
Cosmos Bistro, Bellingham – Owner/chef Cinnamon Berg takes great pride in showcasing fresh, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible at her downtown Bellingham restaurant. Thoughtfully prepared “comfort food” options include meatloaf or pork adobo served with a side of seasonal roasted vegetables. She also features a weekend brunch that is legendary with area foodies. Need a glass or bottle of wine with lunch or dinner? A succinct wine list includes choices from Pacific Northwest wineries.
Leader Block Wine Co. & Eatery, Ferndale – For many, this is the restaurant to go to in Ferndale. Business partners Robert Pinkley, Brett Wiltse and Amberleigh Brownson have teamed up to feature a menu that specializes in Italian cuisine from start to finish, including antipasti, soups, entrees and desserts. But the restaurant truly shines with its wine menu, managed by sommelier Brownson, and honored with Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Multi-course wine dinners moderated by Northwest winemakers are frequently scheduled.
The Vault Wine Bar & Bistro, Blaine – The menu of this contemporary-styled restaurant is touted as “creative, chic food,” and has included items such as Yukon Gold potato-glazed chicken wings, cabbage gnocchi and a half-pound smoked burger blend of bison, Wagyu beef, elk and wild boar. The current wine list boasts over 250 selections.
Seifert & Jones Wine Merchants, Bellingham – With an extensive background in wine distribution and retail sales, proprietor/owner Ted Seifert brings a wealth of experience to his job. His cozy, downtown Bellingham shop includes both international and domestic wines, and Washington and Oregon wineries are especially well-represented. Can’t find that special wine in stock? He’ll be happy to do whatever it takes to track it down for you.
Artisan Wine Gallery, Lummi Island – This hidden gem of a wine shop requires a leisurely half-hour drive north of Bellingham and a 10-minute ferry trip from the mainland. There, you’ll be greeted by husband-and-wife owners Rich Frye and Pat Hayes, who have been operating their tiny shop for over 15 years. It’s well worth the trip.
The Chrysalis Inn and Spa, Bellingham – The Chrysalis is a complete package: accommodations, spa treatments and in-house dining at its restaurant, Keenan’s at the Pier. Treat yourself to a massage or a facial or take a stroll along the waterfront on the boardwalk just steps from the hotel; then finish the evening with a glass of wine on the patio while watching the sunset on Bellingham Bay.
Fairhaven Village Inn, Bellingham – Bellingham’s Fairhaven district is home to a wonderful mix of restaurants, arts and crafts stores and galleries, and they’re all within walking distance of the Fairhaven Village Inn, a 22-room venue with a “boutique hotel” feel. Amenities include a 24-hour library lounge with coffee and tea service, and pastries and seasonal fruits served each morning. Feel like staying in? Galloway’s Cocktail Bar is adjacent to the Inn … and you can access it without leaving the building.
There are several farmers markets that operate throughout the county. The largest, the Bellingham Farmers Market, is held every Saturday from April through December. The Ski to Sea Race & Fairhaven Festival takes place Memorial Day weekend and features an 8-person relay of seven sports that begins on Mount Baker and finishes at Bellingham Bay. In August, check out the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden where you’ll find livestock competitions, carnival rides, food and craft booths, and musical entertainment.
ON THE WATER
If you can do it on the water, you can do it in Whatcom County. Kayaking, fishing, sailing and water skiing are just a few of the options. San Juan Cruises also offers a variety of evening and day-long excursions departing from the Bellingham Ferry Terminal. Included are whale watching tours, dinner cruises and wine tasting cruises.
Get in a round or a quick nine holes at one of several public golf courses during your visit; North Bellingham Golf Course, Raspberry Ridge, Lake Padden Golf Course and Shuksan Golf Club are just a few of the options. If you’re more of a spectator, the West Coast League’s Bellingham Bells Baseball Club plays from June through August at Joe Martin Field. Ticket prices are affordable, and it’s a great way to wind down after a day of wine tasting or sightseeing.
There are about 100,000 fewer residents in Skagit County than Whatcom County, and a drive through the Skagit Valley quickly makes it clear agriculture is important in this mostly rural area.
Mount Vernon, population about 33,000, is the largest city and clearly influenced by farming.
Strawberries, potatoes and peas top the list of major crops grown in the Skagit Valley, but the county’s tulips take center stage, celebrated with their own annual festival complete with viewing schedules, art-related events and even a line of merchandise.
To the west of Mount Vernon lies La Conner, a charming town of just under 1,000 situated on the Swinomish Channel. It has become a mecca for tourists with its art galleries, small shops, eateries and overall laid-back atmosphere.
The channel separates the mainland from Fidalgo Island and Anacortes, which is easily accessible over Highway 20. Anacortes also relies on tourism spending; it serves as the Washington State Ferries terminal for departures to and arrivals from the San Juan Islands and Victoria, B.C.
Many winemakers will tell you it was a particular bottle of wine that triggered an epiphany and led them to start their own winery.
But for Mark Hulst, co-owner/winemaker of Skagit Cellars, it was a book, From Vines to Wines, along with the support of family and friends who simply couldn’t get enough of his home-produced wines starting in 2008.
“I was fascinated by the process,” Hulst recalled. “We made a Lemberger and a Viognier, and everyone seemed to like it. We continued to ramp it up each year.” That is, until his wife, Gloria, pointed out they were probably exceeding the legal limit for home consumption.
After nearby Tulip Valley Winery invited home winemakers in the area to use the winery’s facilities to bottle wines, Hulst decided to give it a shot, resulting in his first commercial vintage, a 2012 Viognier.
“We entered it in a competition, and it won a silver medal. That was all we needed to send us on our way,” he laughed.
In 2015, Skagit Cellars opened its tasting room in La Conner, where today, visitors are almost certain to be met by the affable Russell Chandler, director of sales and marketing. The winery also opened a second location in 2018 in Manson near Lake Chelan.
Hulst draws on a variety of Eastern Washington vineyards, including Antoine Creek, Four Lakes, Destiny Ridge and Clos CheValle. He considers Viognier and Syrah his signature wines and likes to refer to his full-bodied, mile-long-finish Viognier as “white wine for red wine drinkers.”
Other current releases include a Sangiovese rosé, a Sauvignon Blanc and two drop-dead gorgeous reds, a 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2018 Malbec. Hulst said he always barrel-ages his reds between 34 to 36 months, and their resulting character is stunning.
“One of the things I hear from customers all the time is, ‘You hit it 100 percent. We like all of the wines,’” he said with a smile.
For those wanting more, he plans to bottle a 2018 Barbera and two 2020 Chardonnays – one stainless, one barrel-fermented – sometime between early to late summer of this year. He’s also looking to increase his annual production from about 1,200 to 2,000 cases.
“Every year I just try to let the fruit be the fruit,” he says of his winemaking philosophy. “Different characteristics come out each year, depending on the growing seasons. I think that’s part of the romance of making wine; to find out what it’s going to be like. For me, that’s the passion.”
Tulip Valley Winery co-owner/winemaker Ector DeLeon is one of many present-day winemakers who had a previous career in an unrelated field.
DeLeon served in the U.S. Army for 20 years and was deployed on three tours of duty — Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom.
After retiring, he hoped to purchase the land next to his property in the Skagit Valley, but Carl Engebreth, who grew up and worked on his family’s vineyard in Sonoma, Calif., beat him to the punch and established Tulip Valley Winery on the 74-acre parcel.
Over time, the two struck up a friendship, with DeLeon working on the property “just to keep busy,” he said. “But then Carl’s winemaker moved on and he said, ‘Why don’t you become my partner? You’ve already done everything here.’ ”
That led to DeLeon’s venture initially into cider-making (with his first release earning a best-in-show award in the 2007 World Cider Competition) and then winemaking.
They also purchased 70 acres near Sunnyside in the Yakima Valley, 50 of which are planted with a number of red and white varieties in certified organic/Salmon Safe Abberin Vineyard.
DeLeon feels that because their estate vineyards are in a not-too-warm, not-too-cool climate with upper and lower slopes, “we get a deeper, heavier color on our grapes,” resulting in wines with “a heavier mouthfeel.”
He notes that Abberin is home to some of the oldest Gewürztraminer vines in the state — almost 40 years old — and they have supplied grapes for other wineries such as Charles Smith, Treveri Cellars and 14 Hands.
Back at the Skagit Valley tasting room, you’re likely to find Ector’s wife, Shanna, behind the counter along with an ample patio for outdoor tasting, 3 acres of Pinot Noir (some of which he uses for blending), plenty of apple orchards and picturesque views of the valley. Must-try wines from the current releases include a delicious, slightly sweet 2019 Gewürztraminer and the nonvintage Red Barn Red (a heady, chewy blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and a splash of Malbec.) DeLeon’s plans include working with more reds, with Barbera and Zinfandel topping the list.
Just east of Sedro-Woolley is Eagle Haven Winery, which has an unpretentious, countrified charm to it.
The winery is in transition, with owner Darrell Drummond, a Sedro-Woolley class of 1977 graduate, transitioning it to 2007 graduate and managing partner, Danielle Kaaland. Kaaland has been working at the winery for five years and has always dreamt of owning it.
The tasting room is on a farm that includes Christmas trees, pears and apples. Two years ago, 7 acres of wine grapes were planted there. Sauvignon Blanc, a Précoce clone of Pinot Noir, Siegerrebe and Agria, which they’ll use to make rosé, were included in the plantings. Drummond estimates they are two years from producing wines from their estate grapes.
In the meantime, the winery offers plenty of red and white wine choices (Viognier, Tempranillo and Zinfandel among them), which are sourced from vineyards in Chelan, Prosser and Zillah. Mark Hulst of Skagit Cellars has been the winemaker for Eagle Haven for the last three years.
The winery shines with its selection of fruit wines. “We try to use fruit from local farmers,” notes Drummond, including kiwi, which quickly sold out, raspberry, strawberry and blueberry.
The Eagle Haven Tart Strawberry is a particular standout. Hulst oversaw production of this unique, taste-it-to-believe-it wine, which was made with a hands-off/no sweetening approach and carries less then 1 percent residual sugar.
Drummond recalls a somewhat snooty visitor from France who refused to try the strawberry wine. It was only after some coaxing from his wife that he reluctantly gave it a sip. Instantly impressed, he bought a case.
Kaaland is also working on what she refers to as “her project,” the Woolley Boys Hard Cider, which is made from estate apples. The cider has been a hit with locals, and she plans to release a huckleberry version along with a Woolley Girls line of seltzers.
In addition to the folksy, wood-paneled tasting room, Eagle Haven also features an outdoor pavilion for concerts, weddings and reunions.
Chuck Jackson, owner/winemaker of Skagit Crest Vineyard & Winery received a Double Platinum medal at the 2020 Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging for his 2017 Estate Pinot Noir. In doing so, he became the first Skagit Valley-based Pinot grower to earn the honor.
Not bad for a former Boeing industrial engineer who initially had no intention of even planting a vineyard in the Puget Sound AVA.
Chuck and his wife, Donna, lived in Bothell for more than three decades before moving to their home near Sedro-Woolley, situated on a 10-acre parcel that includes their winery production facility and 3 acres of vineyards.
Along the way, he earned his stripes through trial-and-error: first as an amateur winemaker, then as a still-active member of the Boeing Wine & Beer Club for 30-plus years.
In 1995, he decided to take his winemaking hobby to the next level, purchasing property in the Yakima Valley and intending to move there. His idea was quickly vetoed by Donna and their two daughters.
Undaunted, Chuck stayed west of the Cascades, working as winemaker for Eagle Haven Winery in Sedro-Woolley while shifting his focus to a cooler-climate vineyard site.
In 2008, he found what he was looking for: a gently sloped property on the fringe of the Skagit Valley with great drainage and southwest exposure. He planted his first vineyards in 2011 and today maintains four clones of Pinot Noir along with early-ripening clones of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay.
The Puget Sound AVA brings a special set of challenges for wine grape growers – mildew, rain and cooler weather to name a few – but Chuck notes that “although yields were down in 2020, we did pretty well, all things considered.
“I’ve been pretty happy and impressed with what we’ve been able to achieve with our Pinot Noir,” he added. “It’s an unruly plant that takes a lot of tending. It’s a challenge, but worth it.”
Other red wines that Skagit Crest produces include a red blend, a Cabernet Sauvignon from both the Martinez family and Phinny Hill vineyards in the Horse Heaven Hills, and a Syrah sourced Crawford and Chandler Reach vineyards in the Yakima Valley.
Their tasting room is open on weekends in downtown La Conner, and they offer welcome tastings and vineyard tours at their Sedro-Woolley production facility by appointment.
Husband and wife David James and Judy Pascale purchased Pasek Cellars from Gene and Kathy Pasek about six years ago and retained the name of the winery established in 1997.
After almost 20 years at its location near Conway, the tasting room moved to a light industrial park in South Mount Vernon last July.
The big plus to the move is that the tasting room is now next door to the winery’s production facility, which allows them to conduct tours so visitors can view production of their fruit wines firsthand.
Pascale noted one advantage to producing fruit wines is they can be made any time of year, “on demand.” Frozen fruit is thawed and fermented after adding water, sugar, yeast and nutrients.
Pasek Cellars uses all locally sourced fruit for its cranberry, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry and loganberry wines, and they also make passion fruit and pineapple wines from concentrate. Cranberry is a top seller, especially around the holidays because it pairs well with turkey.
In 2015, the winery was approached by an entrepreneur who was looking to promote fruit wines in Israel because of the health benefits of berries in an alcoholic beverage. Since then, Pasek has met requirements to become certified Kosher and can ship fruit wines to Israel.
For traditional wine drinkers, the list of current releases includes Chardonnay, Muscat Canelli, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre.
And as the official winery of the 2021 Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, Pasek produced two special label wines; Festival White is a 2020 Columbia Valley Pinot Gris and the Tulip Red is a 2018 Columbia Valley Syrah.
Steve Bertelsen, co-owner and manager of Bertelsen Winery, grew up in Skagit County. His parents, Richard and Josephine, purchased property in 1988 that would eventually become the site for the winery. The two decade-plus time lag was attributable to several factors: the 2008 recession, his desire to continue to practice oral surgery until his retirement in 2016 and his work in the food and beverage industry at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas until 2013.
After he returned to Washington, the winery opened in May 2014. Today, Bertelsen Winery is an established favorite for many Skagit and North Snohomish County wine enthusiasts.
Its location, just off of Interstate 5 south of Mount Vernon, is a plus. It draws travelers from the I-5 corridor who are looking for an easy-access winery to check out.
But Bertelsen’s biggest supporters are area wine lovers who have joined its wine club and attend its special events. Another key was sourcing their grapes from several solid Eastern Washington vineyards – MonteScarlatto on Red Mountain and White Bluffs, near Pasco, to name a few.
The current wines come from a wide range of Washington AVAs such as a Pinot Gris from Wahluke Slope, an Ancient Lakes Chardonnay and reserve Syrah and a Walla Walla Valley Merlot. With the opening of an event center — “The Vine” — adjacent to the tasting room, Bertelsen is also able to accommodate nearly 200 guests for private parties, meetings, reunions and weddings.
In addition to the beautifully landscaped grounds with room for picnicking and wine tasting, the winery features an outdoor concert stage and seating for up to 400.
Bayernmoor Cellars is technically in Snohomish County, just a few thousand yards south of the Skagit County line. But the winery is only a five-mile drive southeast of Bertelsen, and it’s a natural extension of your journey if you’re traveling in the area and on the hunt for some remarkable wines.
Former Amazon patent attorney Larry Harris and his wife, Kim, established the winery on property owned by Kim’s parents by following a plan that included the proper choice of land, grapes and winemaker.
First, the couple worked with the Skagit County extension office of Washington State University to test the property’s soil conditions and heat units.
After determining the site would work perfectly for Pinot Noir, a mix of two Pinot clones, Précoce and 777, were planted on 6 acres in 2012.
Finally, they were able to land one of the state’s top winemakers, Woodinville’s Brian Carter, as executive winemaker.
“Brian’s name kept coming up as the Old World blending master,” Larry recalled, “and that seemed to pair well with what I was after, so that’s why we targeted him. It goes back to our initial mantra: ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to be the best we possibly can.’ ”
Their three-tiered approach was essential to fulfill their vision of making the property work for itself and creating a winery that produces world-class wines.
If Bayermoor’s performance in regional wine competitions is any indication, the winery is off to a tremendous start. The 2017 Estate Pinot Noir received gold medals at the Cascadia International, the Seattle Wine Awards and the Bellingham Northwest Wine Festival.
General manager Jeremiah Nelson notes that for the 2018 vintage, the winery plans to release three separate bottlings this fall: one Précoce, one 777, and a third which is a reserve blend of the two.
“They show the expression of each clone,” he said. “The Précoce is floral and bright, the 777 shows a little more body, earth and dark fruit … and the reserve is so damn delicious!”
In addition to their estate grapes, Bayernmoor obtains Chardonnay from Otis and Celilo Vineyards and Cabernet Sauvignon from Destiny Ridge and Klipsun vineyards. A 50/50 rosé blend of Grenache and Mourvèdre is also among current releases.
Nelson said the winery anticipates being available for tastings by appointment only beginning in late summer.
Bayernmoor also plans to open a second location in Woodinville, likely in mid-July.
RESTAURANTS & WINE SHOPS
Il Granaio Authentic Italian Restaurant, Mount Vernon – Il Granaio is in Mount Vernon’s old town district, just a few blocks from the Skagit River in the iconic Old Town Grainery Building. The restaurant prides itself not only on its customer service but also its fresh, made-from-scratch items — everything from pasta to meatballs to tiramisu. The something-for-everyone menu is substantial, and prices are reasonable. Il Granaio is also the only place you’ll find Tulip Valley Winery’s wines outside of the tasting room.
Nell Thorn Waterfront Bistro & Bar, La Conner – The “farm to table” adage is in full force at this La Conner favorite, where many ingredients come from nearby Skagit Valley farms. Seafood and fresh vegetable choices dominate the menu, and the wine list includes an excellent selection of Oregon Pinot Noirs along with several Washington wineries, including Canvasback, DeLille, Reininger and Seven Hills.
Salt and Vine, Anacortes – This cheese-and-wine bar is the perfect place to have a nosh with that stellar bottle of wine. Order a charcuterie board, some artisan cheese, a baguette or even a few chocolate truffles for eat-in or take-out and leave feeling happy. The shop is just off the north end of Commercial Street – Anacortes’s “main drag” – and includes a small but impressive wine list of wines and a by-the-glass menu.
Compass Wines, Anacortes – Doug Charles and Will Parks founded Compass Wines 20 years ago. The business partners have since built up the wine shop inventory – and its reputation – to be one of the best in the country. They specialize in finding particularly hard-to-find Washington wines and also stock a good selection of liquors, Ports and wine-related foods and gifts.
Hellam’s Vineyard, La Conner – You won’t find any vineyards at this La Conner wine shop, just rows of wine bottles and its personable owner/proprietor, Jeff Hellam, who is that rare mix of someone who acquired both technical knowledge and practical experience in the wine industry before starting his business in 2004. His inventory carries a wide variety of Old and New World wines, and customers are encouraged to linger on the outdoor deck overlooking the channel while enjoying a glass from the wine list. Hellam served as a judge for the 2019 Platinum Awards.
Swinomish Casino and Lodge – About halfway between Anacortes and Mount Vernon on Padilla Bay, The Swinomish is more than just a venue for 18-hours-a-day gaming. The 98-room facility includes a variety of dining options, topped by its surf-and-turf influenced menu at 13moons restaurant. The restaurant’s wine list is diverse, with plenty from Pacific Northwest wineries. Need a break from the indoors? The Swinomish Golf Links, an 18-hole course, is a two-mile drive west of the lodge.
La Conner Channel Lodge, La Conner – The Lodge offers an impressive list of amenities with a location that is practically peerless. Set in downtown La Conner on the Swinomish Channel, it’s steps away from shopping, restaurants or just a leisurely stroll through town. Guest rooms include gas fireplaces, private balconies and a continental breakfast. An added bonus is Hellam’s Vineyard wine shop is right next door and Skagit Crest and Skagit Cellars’ tasting rooms just down the street.
Annual events — The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival is the crown jewel of the area, running from April 1-30 each year. Prime viewing times depend on Mother Nature, though you can count on fields of daffodils to be in bloom earlier and the possibility of tulips extending into May if the weather is cooler, and the flowers get a late start. Pack your camera and your patience in anticipation of the crowds, but prepare to be dazzled. The Anacortes Arts Festival takes place in early August and has been operating for 60 years. Booth artists, food vendors and entertainment fill the streets of the city’s downtown district.
Farmers markets — The Skagit Valley is home to a number of farmers markets that operate in Mount Vernon, Anacortes and Sedro-Woolley. You’ll also find dozens of seasonal fruit stands and produce markets throughout the county (such as Snow Goose Produce in South Mount Vernon). If you don’t mind getting down in the dirt a bit, many farms, including Bow Hill Blueberries, also provide u-pick options. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.
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.