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Wine Trippin’ ~ Western Washington Style

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By Linda Kissam — Like most wine regions, there’s always a favorite or more publicized area of a state’s wine region. For Washington State it’s been Eastern Washington. Well…Ok, and fine….but in my quest to find the fun, the fabulous, the unique parts of a particular wine scene, I organized an 8-day wine trip to Western Washington – specifically gorgeous Seattle with all its water views, and the two-hour (driving or flying ) area west of it. I had such a good time, I am handing out awards. See who got what and why, as you read all about Wine Trippin ~ Western Washington Style.

The Western Washington experience begins in Woodinville, Washington, just about 30 minutes from Sea Tac Airport, and 20 minutes from downtown Seattle. Here you’ll find a combination of about 60 wineries and tasting rooms. Some serve fruit wines, some grape varietal wines, some a combination of both. It’s a different wine tasting model than you may be used to. There’s a lot more tasting rooms than wineries. The tasting rooms are often clustered into strip malls, and called by some purists, “loading dock wineries,” meaning 98%+ of the wines offered for tasting are grown in and shipped from Eastern Washington . The wines are generally lean, crisp, and fruit forward.

Having clusters of tasting rooms together makes it very easy to park your car and sip and stroll many wineries at one time. My husband and I stopped at Highway 202 near 146th Place, in the heart of the Woodinville wine scene. If you’re smart, you’ll stay at Willows Lodge for the night and walk your way to a fabulous wine tasting experience. It’s a big, beautiful Northwest style hotel and has an amazing restaurant. We were on a short time leash so didn’t stay the night, but we were able to visit the Goose Ridge Winery tasting room. Marketing guy Steve Womack told us Goose Ridge is a premium wine producer offering quality wines at a reasonable price. He led us through a tasting of a crisp 2007 Riesling (1000 case production, $14 bottle) and a smooth and complex 2006 Merlot ($27 a bottle). He was right, and we purchased the Merlot. Our next stop was Bookwalter Tasting Studio. This is a family owned, 14,000-case winery. Assistant Manager Brenda Butler and Tasting Studio Manager Chris Burnell explained their philosophy as giving each customer such an amazing wine tasting experience that all Bookwalter wines find a good home on their customer’s dining room table and in their wine cellar. I’ll tell you this; the 2007 Protagonis at $42.50 was memorable. Expect art, events and great service at this lovely tasting room.

Moving on now to a “manly” property, the Mark Ryan Winery. This one made my husband smile. Up to this point he was just taking pixs for me. Besides good wine, this winery features bold and unique wine labels, poster art and some antique motorcycles, notably a ’31 Indian and a ’28 Indian Scout. Owner Mark Ryan was there setting up for an event and was kind enough to share his philosophy on successful wine making practices, “Stay in business, provide good wine at affordable prices.” We particularly enjoyed the 2007 Lonely Heart Cab ($75). What’s up with the name? According to our pourer Stan Schure, (with a twinkle in his eye), “It’s lonely and wants to come home with you.” Kind of romantic for a manly man’s winery.

Last stop for the day was the 7,000 case Alexander & Nicole Cellars located in the old Hollywood School House. Beauty and brains best describes this tasting room. A dark, seductive tasting room (for the regular folks) leads into (through a hidden door) the VIP Wine Club tasting area. Cool. Owners Jarrod and Ali Boyle have made this a great place to hang out. The wines sell out quickly and they have an amazing following. Ali told me, “What sets us apart is our estate vineyards in Prosser, WA. We have total creative control from grape to glass; we have fun, and make fabulous wines at the same time. What could be better than that?” That and possibly the gracious and knowledgeable wine club director, Kathie Statler, make this a must stop. Everything we tasted was wonderful. Katie was focused and thoughtful about her recommendations, but the 2007 Rock Star Red (164 cases,) was heaven in a bottle. Think fruitiness of Granche, blended with a bold Syrah and an interesting acidity, compliments of Counoise. Spice, wild berries, and a hint of pepper – yum! For its smart planning sip & stroll clustering efforts, this region gets my, “Damn that was Easy Award.”

OK, Woodinville – Check. Time now to see what Bainbridge Island has to offer. In case you didn’t know, Seattle (and other parts of Western Washington) is surrounded by islands. Each island has its own unique personality and is generally accessible by ferry. I love, love, live riding the ferry. It’s an indulgent pastime I could easily make into a vocation. In fact, my husband often cringes when he hears the word “ferry.” He knows it’s going be a very long day. We hop a 30-minute ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island. Not long enough for me, but still fun and fabulous. We grab a couple of lattés, stand on the bow, and let the cool breeze madly blow our hair around and the lush scenery fill our souls with peace and beauty. Right on time, the ferry ride has finished, our car clanks off the ferry and heads to our night’s lodging. OMG. This is the place of my dreams.

Eagle Harbor Inn is owned by John and Bonnie McBryan. This is a high-end “Petit Hotel” experience, offering luxe overnight accommodations in five one-of-a-kind hotel rooms and three custom townhomes – all built around a garden-filled courtyard. Wow. Embrace it friends, we certainly did. Besides featuring incredible views, it is a decorator’s and architect’s masterpiece – that rare blend of male and female, ying and yang. No fussy stuff here, just pure beauty and great architectural lines. And… the Smart Cookie Award goes to the owners for perfecting the art of self-check-in and for installing unobtrusive petit elevators in the townhouses .According to the owners, “We knew it would be the Baby Boomers who would especially love and appreciate this kind of lodging option. Self-check-in allows guests to come and go as they please. With sky rocking land prices, we knew we had to build up, not out. We installed elevators in the townhouses to accommodate all ages.” Geese, beautiful and smart…does it get any better than that? Let me mention it’s centrally located and walkable to both the marina district and the main shopping area where the wine tasting rooms are. It received the WINNER 2009 Best of Western Washington — Most Romantic Hotel, and heck for a fee of $250 – $750, it’s not a 5-star hotel, it’s a 25-star hotel experience.

Having completed our cool self-check in process, we marched up the hill to the tasting rooms. At Eleven Winery we found a small, but fun tasting room and crew. Tasting staff Kevin & Abby told me that what sets this winery apart from others is they do not serve any fruit wines, just grape varietals and blends. They both praised owner Matt Albee for his over the top care and detail to winemaking. My recommendation is the very unique 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Artz Vineyard/Red Mountain (161 cases, $16). Crisp, lean and dry, it was a real stunner in a Bordeaux style. We had it on our deck that night with clam chowder. Yummy and memory making as the sail boats and ferries lazily glided by.

We strolled across the street to our next tasting room…or should I say I went winetasting at the Eagle Harbor Winery tasting room, while my husband was entranced and seduced by the Wildernest Outdoor Store. First time ever, I’ve had to track him down in a shopping district. Sorry, I am off topic, back to winetasting. The owner Hugh Remash was there to guide me through, as he describes it, “Tasty wines served in a dry style that people love and remember for their remarkable character.” Hugh is an artist both on canvas and in his winemaking efforts. His current case production is under 500, but he makes each bottle count. I’d recommend spending some quality time with Hugh and his premium wines, especially the 2007 Condor (50% Syrah, 55 Cab, $29.50).

Our last stop was a 5 minute car ride to (at last!) a real winery and tasting room facility, Perennial Vintners. A former Christmas tree farm, this boutique winery makes wines from fruit and grape based products found exclusively on Bainbridge Island. No “loading dock winery” here. Owner Mike Lempriere does it all – planting, farming, winemaking and sales. Many of the varietals he grows are still in the experimental stage, meaning he’s trying to find what works best for the short, cool growing season. We enjoyed and purchased the Melon de Bourgogne 2008 ($28.00). This is a French cool climate wine, done “sur lies,” meaning the wine is left on the fermentation lees for an extended amount of time. Like most cool climate wines, it is crisp and citrusy, and is lower in alcohol. According to Mike this wine was, “Made in a dry style, all stainless steel (no oak) for a clean fresh fruit nose and bright on the tongue. Throughout Europe this wine (known as Muscadet) is renowned as the wine for matching with seafood. “ Only 42 cases produced. My husband purchased a bottle of Frambelle Raspberry Dessert Wine (2009) for $27.00. According to Mike, “When we took the plunge to try our hand at making our first port-style wine (Ichigo), we really dove in, and also made a raspberry liqueur. Made from 100% Bainbridge Island raspberries and grape neutral spirits, this is a fine after-dinner digestif. You’ll immediately be looking for the dark chocolate bar to go with it!” I agree! Awarded a Silver medal by NW Wine Summit Apr-2010, you’ll love the pop of fresh raspberry aromas, and on the tongue a touch of sweetness with just enough acid to keep it fresh and brisk. This wine is 19% alcohol, so be sure to sip it lightly to enjoy it to the fullest. This wine region receives the “ I Reallllllly Don’t Want To Leave Award” for its water views, great lodging , fine wines, and fun people.

We hop into our rental car to take another fabulous ferry ride and a 2 hour drive to Bellingham. Ah, I sense a rolling of the eyes and some head spinning. Now wait, Bellingham is a GREAT place to do some winetasting. We took a chance and booked reservations at an eco-inn, The Tree Frog Night Inn. I like to think of myself as being creative and responsible…both in my wine tasting pursuits and when choosing accommodations. What a pleasure to find the two can be coexist quite nicely. Yeah, I know, and you know the wine diva likes her girly things and luxury stuff. Would she be able to survive and successfully wear her tiara in eco-friendly accommodations??? My husband was all set for the whining and complaining to commence. Surprisingly my expectations were met and exceeded. Both Allan and I loved this place. I raise my glass in toast to Kara and Kurt, owners of this gorgeous Northwest retreat. They’ve managed to find a lovely balance of quiet beautiful surroundings showcasing FABULOUS eco – friendly accommodations …all while being near to wineries, sailing, hiking, biking, and skiing. With just two guest cottages, you feel more like a friend than a paying guest. Wander the grounds, listen to the whispering breeze through the trees, indulge in the decadent breakfasts, a sauna in the woods, and take the time to indulge in a lovely Cabernet on the front porch while local birds serenade you. It seems everything in this place lives in harmony and welcomes you with open, sustainable hearts.

There are 8 +winetasting ops within a few short minutes of the Tree Frog Night Inn. The area is green, lush and surrounded with winding roads and beautiful farms. We stop first at Mount Baker Vineyards where we meet up with marketing manager Eileen Turk and winemaker David Traynor. This is a traditional vineyards + winery + tasting model. The winemaker is young, but oh-so-bright and talented. Watch out for this 20 something guy, cause I think we have a winner. He speaks with power, knowledge and passion. I like his media persona. He’s friendly but direct. His wines are also very good. He likes the success model where his clients are happy and educated about wine. He enjoys making quality affordable wines that speak to the varietal and the place they come from. He wants his wines to be varietal specific and commercially successful. This, in my opinion, is the attitude of great winemakers. He shares with me that he thinks Merlot and Viognier are, or could be, showcase wines for Washington State. I taste both and have to agree his are definitely in the zone. His 2005 Merlot Barrel Select ($14), 2006 Sangiovese Barrel Select ($16), and 2006 Viognier Reserve ($20), are all wonderful and take me to my happy wine place. This is one winery NOT to miss. Tell David and Ellen I sent you.

We’re off to the Sampson Estates Tasting Room and a big surprise. Originally a dairy, here you’ll find fruit wines sourced from their on-site fruit orchards and grape wines from the Columbia and Yakima Valleys. The fruit wines are quite charming – light with fresh fruit flavors true to the fruit. They also make a Hazlenut dessert wine that is to die for. Ya also gotta love a tasting room that sells big rich truffles to go along with the wines. This winery is the first we’ve visited to offer wedding facilities. On a sugar high, we go back to our eco inn after a brief stop at Vartanyan Estate Winery which produces about seven wines. It’s a quaint place, worth the visit, Be sure to try the Trilogia, a special blend of Pinot Noir aged in Russian barrels, Merlot aged in American Oak, and Cab franc aged in French Oak.

Day two in Bellingham, we’re off to the Red Barn Lavender Farm. Not because it makes lavender wine, but because I wanted to see how lavender is distilled. Owners Lynn and Marvin Fast spent a great deal of time with us. Lynn asked Marvin to take us through the distilling process. Marvin (a former school teacher) was thoughtful and informative as he explained each step and his role in running the farm. In some ways, the distilling process is like a miniature Vodka distilling plant gone all small and high school chem class like. I was expecting big and noisy, this was small, compact and quiet. In a closed barrel is a mash of fresh lavender which is heated to drive off moisture, then condensed out over a cool water heat exchanger. Oil is lighter than water, so in the beaker the precious oil is run off the top layer. My husband remarked on how simple and fascinating the process was, like watching a perpetual motion machine. (I on the other hand, was thinking about ordering a good vodka umbrella drink at lunch.) This is a marvelous place to visit and shop. I made several purchases of course and learned more about the culinary aspects of lavender than I thought possible. The sights, smells, and gracious hosts made this a must stop.

Our last stop in Bellingham was Honey Moon, an official wine tasting facility, but with the definite feel of a wine bar. Honey Moon is an eclectic urban hangout offering, beer, mead, wine and tapas. It offers a unique line of libations that showcase the funkier side of the Northwest harvest and heritage. We ordered a cheese and fruit plate along with a sample flight of meads made from locally produced blackberry, raspberry, and fireweed honey, a wine or two made from Yakima Valley grapes, and a hard cider blended from apples and berries grown right there in Whatcom County. All offerings are carefully hand-crafted in small batches at the facility — located in a refurbished glass warehouse in the heart of downtown Bellingham’s vibrant market district. It was quite a unique and tasty experience, making us wonder why this model isn’t more common in other urban tasting areas. The clientele ranged from 21 to 81. All seemed genuinely glad to be there. I understand there is music most nights and the place understandably is packed. This wine region gets the “Mead, Beer & Wine Creative Spirit Award.” Who knew they could all coexist in such a fun and delicious way?

Leaving Bellingham behind, we’re off to Anacortes. From here we can take any number of ferries to any number of near-by islands & wineries – yippee! We arrive at the Heron House Guest Suites. Despite its name it is a Bed & Breakfast. This is definitely Northwest elegance at the water’s edge. When we arrived fog covered the view; an hour later the fog lifted. We were stunned by the Burrows Bay view. This is a seriously beautiful B & B with all the amenities: Astounding view from every room, large luxuriously appointed rooms with every comfort you could ask for, a gourmet breakfast each morning, centrally located to the downtown area and the ferry dock, and what we always hope for but sometimes don’t get, a husband and wife management team who really cared about the quality of our stay. Nothing was too much to ask. They were there with us every step of the way. We stayed in the Nautical Room. Maritime antiques furnished this welcoming haven, with spa tub for two and a gas fireplace to warm our wondering soul. The Heron House has just 4 rooms. It is the absolute perfect place for a romantic getaway, a small conference, or a honeymoon stop. Prices range from around $170 – $220. I can’t believe the affordability; this should easily be a $400 experience.

There are 7+ wineries near Anacortes. Many of the tasting rooms and wineries are generally open Thursday – Sunday, even in the summertime. Be sure and check before you confirm your itinerary, or you could be sitting in a downtown bar ordering wine. Our first stop was Carpenter Creek Winery. Although they weren’t open, owner Tara Hammer did open the tasting room for a brief peek and interview. No tasting was offered, so I have no suggestions to offer. Situated on seven acres at the end of a country lane in Mount Vernon, the facility is nestled amongst tall fir and cedar groves. This is a pleasant place to sample wines, to come for a vineyard/winery tour, or to simply enjoy a picnic along the beautiful banks of Carpenter Creek.

Our next stop at Pasek Cellars. It’s located in the old Skagit “Red Barn”, just west of I-5 at exit 221 and shares space with a liquor/deli operation. Pasek Cellars produces about 7,500 cases. About 4,000 of that is Cranberry Wine, the winery’s best seller. The tasting room is very nice and is a good way to sample fruit and grape wines. Janis our server was a delight. She explained each offering to us, including tasting profiles and history. This is more of a fruit wine experience. I was concerned that I would be drinking fruit juice, but much to my surprise, once I started sampling I was delighted with the wines and literally tasted through most of the menu. My picks include the Arabica – Coffee Dessert Wine (375ml, $15), a WOW wine made with Sumatran coffee, vanilla and has intense flavors and sweetness. 16% Alcohol, made in a port style. The Cranberry Wine ($10) is produced from whole Northwest Cranberries. This wine is a great match with pork, poultry, and spicy Asian foods. Serve Chilled. And finally, believe it or not the Pineapple Wine ($10). Made from 100% Maui Pineapple this is a refreshing, not too sweet summer patio wine.

The next day we were up early to hop a ferry to San Juan Vineyards on San Juan Island. We took a short taxi from the ferry dock to the tasting room. It’s a beautiful scenic drive that ends up at a beautiful piece of property which includes gardens, vineyards, tasting room, and a historical schoolhouse. Spend some quality time taking in the breathtaking scenery and experience island living at its best. Owner Yvonne Swanberg told me, “We work hard at the visitor experience. We try to really inform the customer on the varietals we grow here as well as what is grown in Eastern Washington. We offer our customers our sitting deck to enjoy with a bottle or glass of wine. Many customers will bring a picnic, and enjoy it while sipping San Juan Vineyards wines.” She describes Chris Primus her winemaker as, “Someone with lots of experience as a viticulturist and his winemaking experience is from the Pinot regions of Oregon. So his particular experience is in dealing with a varietal that produces well in cooler climates along with his experience as a viticulturist. I would say his style is that of producing wine that exemplifies the flavor of the grape.” As it turns out the winery is for sale at 2.5 million. Who should purchase this turn-key, 20 acre property? Yvonne told me. “A couple that has a true passion for wines, the outdoors, people, and the vineyard. “ Hey, I am seriously thinking about it….but for now here are my wine picks. First the 2009 Siegerrebe (German varietal pronounced “see-geh-RAY-bay). This is a lovely dry white wine with a light floral nose of lychee and melon with a flirt of mango and citrus on the palate. It would go well with seafood ($18). The 2007 Cabernet Franc with had an interesting nose of blueberry and cassis. I fell in love with the earthy fruit (which they call forest fruit) on the palate. It finishes with soft tannins and (again) fruit. At $20, this one is a winner. Finally something a bit different, the 2009 Afterglow ($17). The winemaker explains, “I got to think outside the box on this wine. “ It’s a blend of two whites and four reds. “I mean, really, who ferments Riesling with Merlot?” What ends up is a delightful and unexpected Rosé with aromas of strawberries, peaches and oranges. The mid-palate catches fresh red berry flavors with a clean, sort of spicy finish. Summer Yum for sure! This visit was a wonderful ending to a great 2-day stay in the Anacortes area. This region gets the, “Let’s Pack Our Bags And Move Here Award.”

On to our last leg of the trip… back to Seattle. We stayed at the the Hotel Vintage Park located in downtown Seattle next to Pike Place Market. It’s the perfect wine hotel. It could and certainly should be a home base for you if you wanted to just visit the Woodinville, Eastern Washington, or Bainbridge wine regions. You could drive yourself to any of those wine areas or hop on a wine tour bus directly from the hotel. Concierge Louis Galdeira can make that happen for you.

I love that each room is named after a Washington Winery and decorated to showcase that winery through winery owned artwork and keepsakes. I love the nightly one-hour vintner-lead tastings proctored by Manager Anthony Baliola and Concierge Louis Galdeira. I love that this is a pet-friendly facility where pets get their name on a greeting board and often join the receptionist staff when “Mom & Dad” step out for the evening. On the other hand if you’re not “pet friendly” they have two whole floors of non-pet rooms. Speaking of rooms, there are a variety of sizes to choose from, all comfortable and roomy with free Internet. This is a good choice for both the business and pleasure traveler. To get an idea of just how delightful, engaging and perfectly wine appropriate this hotel is, watch the following video! Once you do that, start planning your trip!

After checking in, my husband and I hit the downtown area to visit several wine bars and a tasting room. Of all the ones we visited I give a great big shout out to The Tasting Room Seattle which represents a collection of seven of Washington’s most celebrated wineries. It’s located in The Alley, connected to Pike Place Market. The atmosphere is more like a wine bar, but it is a bonded tasting room. We were fortunate enough to be greeted and led through a tasting by Jen, the tasting room manager. Jen confided in me, “I want this place to be more than just a tasting room. There is value, education, and fun here. We’re fun, not snobs.” I like that they’re open 7 days a week, serve light snacks, and offer wine by the glass, carafe or bottle. They’ll deliver your $100 or more wine purchase to your hotel. Friday night is pie and game night. They order in pizza and the whole place rocks with people who enjoy great wines and board games. This place is definitely worth a stop.

Back to our hotel for an evening tasting in the hotel lobby with Latah Creek Wine Cellars. Concierge Louis was there to introduce me to the wine rep and explain the format. As with everything at this hotel, the tasting was relaxed, generous and informative…and it was packed. We stepped away after a half an hour to have dinner at the hotel’s impressive Italian restaurant Tulio. Let me ask you this, when was the last time you saw a hotel restaurant packed? Well, this one was and as we were to find out why. Our gracious and enthusiastic server James Loop was the perfect guide for the evening.

Chef Walter Pisano clearly puts his head and his heart into his menus. He describes it this way, “My menu is Italian with a mix of influences and a strong a Northwest presence. Value is important to me. I want to create memories through my food & wine.” Well, I’d say he did that and much, much more. The food is reasonably priced. Chef purchases as much organic and local product as possible. His sauces, soups, entrees and desserts speak of gusto and passion. The wine list is well thought out and again, reasonably priced. I tasked James our server to choose one wine that would go with a Beet Salad, Sweet Potato Gnocchi, and Linguine with Clams (the broth was INCREDIBLE) I thought at first he was going to have a heart attack. I could sense the wheels turning – why would a wine writer ask for just one wine? He was I am sure prepared to dazzle me with several wines. The answer is simple. With some focused thought and a whole lot of experience, a really talented wine server can choose one great wine for the evening. To our great delight, James came back with a 2008 Whispering Angel Rosé. It was light and delicious…the perfect wine from the perfect server, from the perfect hotel.

We were so impressed with our dinner experience that we came back for breakfast before we headed off to the airport. This was another fabulous culinary experience not to be missed. Let me just say organic vanilla yogurt, homemade granola and fresh squeezed OJ. All in all this wine region gets a “Ya Certainly Know What You’re Doing Award…and Hey…We’ll be Back Soon Award.”

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