Seattle Times Pacific Magazine
June 27, 2007
by Paul Gregutt
On Vashon, wineries have some gems waiting to be discovered
The Puget Sound American Viticultural Area was officially designated back in 1995. It enfolds the islands and shorelines of Western Washington and the Puget Sound, from south of Olympia to the Canadian border. Though its boundaries take in a vast area, the entire appellation has just 80 acres under vine. Consequently, its three dozen wineries make the majority of their wines from Eastern Washington grapes.
Despite its proximity to the big cities and their eager consumers, the Puget Sound AVA remains our most mysterious and, some would argue, overlooked wine region.
On a blustery morning in early spring I walked aboard a ferry at the Fauntleroy dock, near my home in West Seattle, to spend a day exploring the wineries of Vashon Island. Vashon is best known for the Andrew Will winery (profiled here in April 2004), but is home to three others, all within biking distance of the ferry dock.
My guide was Ron Irvine, whose job description — "owner, winemaker, bookkeeper and janitor" — pretty much covers the spectrum of chores at his Vashon Winery. Irvine, 58, was a founding partner of the Pike and Western Wine Shop in the Pike Place Market. In my early years of wine exploring he often introduced me to a new Washington or Oregon producer. Here was a chance to pick up where we left off so many years ago.
Vashon Winery was founded in 1986, and Irvine began working there a decade ago, while writing his exhaustive history of Washington state viticulture ("The Wine Project"). He purchased the winery five years ago and has become an evangelist for what I would describe as classically structured, European-style wines.
In practical terms, this means that Vashon Winery generally steers clear of new oak barrels. Alcohol levels are below 13 percent — almost unheard of in contemporary dry wines — and Irvine favors a restrained, elegant structure for all his wines, whether from Puget Sound or Yakima Valley grapes. Their high acids and firm tannins make them a bit hard when young, so they get an extra year or two of bottle age before release.
Among the current Vashon Winery releases, I found much to admire. We began with a rich and luscious Chasselas Doré, made from vines planted on the island in 1950. This year, for the first time, Irvine made a single barrel of a light but lovely, locally grown pinot noir, from a vineyard planted just three years ago. Also in the works is a blend of Chasselas and Siegerrebe that he will call Isletage, a play on Island Meritage.
"My goal," he explained, "is to have 30 percent of my production from local grapes. But I don't want to give up on semillon and cabernet and merlot. I really enjoy making those wines." As we tasted them, I found that Irvine's light touch worked equally well with these Eastern Washington grapes.
There was a crisply varietal semillon ($18); a Bordeaux-like merlot ($22) showing a light herbal/olive character; a cabernet sauvignon ($22) from Portteus vineyard grapes; and an Anniversary Reserve Red ($30), an equal mix of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot, showing supple fruit and subtle notes of earth, olive and mushroom.
Vashon Winery Open 2 to 5 p.m. Saturdays for tours and tastings
Paul Gregutt writes the Wednesday wine column for The Seattle Times and covers Northwest wine for the Wine Enthusiast magazine. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.