Greg and Elizabeth Osenbach sit before their empty vineyard. The last harvest of the year has happened for Whidbey Island Winery, which will be ceasing production and retail operations this year. (David Welton)

Greg and Elizabeth Osenbach sit before their empty vineyard. The last harvest of the year has happened for Whidbey Island Winery, which will be ceasing production and retail operations this year. (David Welton)

Whidbey Island’s oldest winery is closing

After three decades in operation, the owners of Whidbey Island Winery have announced their retirement.

LANGLEY — After three decades in operation, Whidbey Island’s oldest winery is winding down.

Greg and Elizabeth Osenbach, owners of Whidbey Island Winery just outside Langley, announced their upcoming retirement in a recent newsletter.

Gone is the vineyard that has long accompanied the business – the last harvest of the year has taken place, and retail matters will likely cease by this fall. After 2022, it’ll be increasingly more difficult to find a bottle of wine as production will also stop.

Since 1991, the Osenbachs have fermented 175,486 gallons of wine, filled 840,000 bottles and crushed over 2 million pounds of grapes.

In 1985, the couple moved from Monroe to South Whidbey to build their home and start propagating vines on what they would come to know as their own little slice of paradise.

“The microclimates on the island are incredibly different,” Elizabeth Osenbach said. “We got lucky.”

Cool-weather grapes grown on the two-acre estate have been prevalent in some of their most popular wines, including the bestselling Island White. When they first started growing grapes, only two other wineries in the Puget Sound region also did so.

“The tasting in the beginning, it was almost an effort,” Elizabeth Osenbach said. “People were very skeptical what these new grapes were, but holy mackerel, it took off like crazy.”

“People always talk redder than they drink,” Greg Osenbach added, pointing to the varieties of Madeleine Angevine and Madeleine Sylvaner grapes they’ve successfully grown for their beloved white wines.

At the time of Whidbey Island Winery’s founding, there were only about 70 other wineries in the state. Now, according to the Washington State Wine Commission, there are over 1,000.

“We’re not just pioneers on Whidbey, but we were among the first lot, statewide,” Greg Osenbach said.

Over the years, as the climate has grown increasingly hotter and drier, early harvests have become more regular and catastrophic weather, such as heavy rainstorms or scorching heat, have become more common. Last year’s crop was spoiled by vines running out of water.

Keeping pests, such as hungry birds, out of the vineyard has been another issue. For years, the Osenbachs employed the use of an inflatable tube dancer, which they referred to as “Mr. Happy,” as a scarecrow. It did the trick.

“The robins were always our worst enemy,” Elizabeth Osenbach said. “They could destroy an entire crop in days.”

Although the majority of grapes on Whidbey Island Winery wines come from Eastern Washington vineyards, all production of the wine is done on the island.

With an educational background in chemistry, Greg Osenbach has been the one to lead the wine-making process, citing his good instincts as being the reason behind the winery’s success. Just before opening Whidbey Island Winery, he won a series of amateur wine-making competitions at the Whidbey Island Fair in the 1980s.

“Wine is the sum of a whole lot of small decisions and a couple big ones,” he said. “First and foremost is probably the fruit. That is, getting a good vineyard site and then when to pick it.”

As Elizabeth Osenbach pointed out, “You want the grape to show as the grape. You don’t want to mask it too much.”

She has been responsible for much of the behind-the-scenes work of the winery, including in the tasting room. The couple’s young children grew up at the winery, learning how to walk in the vineyard by hanging on to trellis wires.

Elizabeth Osenbach said Greg has always made wines to his taste and his palate, and hasn’t aimed to cater to a specific audience.

“His personality is in wine,” she said. “If we set out together to make wine out of exactly the same thing, they’re going to be different.”

For the past five years, the couple have been considering when to retire. Eventually, they settled on deciding not to sell the business but to stop production and close things up when they’ve run out of wine. They will be keeping a “substantial amount” for themselves, Greg Osenbach said with a laugh.

The couple is looking forward to getting some distance from the business and doing some traveling.

“We’re really excited to see what the rest of the world looks like during the fall,” Greg Osenbach said.

He also plans to spend the first year of retirement in the garden, although he won’t be growing any more grapes.

“His talents in the garden equal his wine-making talents,” Elizabeth Osenbach said.

Greg Osenbach said that since the very beginning, the community has been an essential force in supporting Whidbey Island Winery and keeping its tasting room doors open.

“We worked hard in a really nice place in a really great community that made it possible,” he said. “If we hadn’t had the support from the local community buying wine, it wouldn’t have been successful.”

Elizabeth Osenbach said the decision to stop at the top and spend a few years basking in what they have reaped was not an easy one.

“We’ve grown high quality grapes, made awesome wines, met wonderful people from around the world and our community, had tons of laughter, crazy challenges and of course nobody to blame but ourselves for the whole time,” she said. “What a great career.”

This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.

Talk to us

More in Food & Drink

Stop by Nutty's Junkyard, located right off the Centennial Trail in Arlington, for juicy burgers and the crispiest onion rings that food reporter Taylor Goebel has ever tried. Photo taken Thursday, June 23, 2022. (Taylor Goebel / The Herald).
Beer, doughnuts, burgers and more: Take a bite out of Centennial Trail

Bike hard and eat hard with these delicious food and drink stops along the 30-mile Centennial Trail.

Cutline: Former Fuller’s Brewery head brewer John Keeling will be speaking at Foggy Noggin Brewing in Bothell on July 31.
Summer finally begins for craft beer aficionados

Here’s the scoop on beer-related events in Everett, Marysville, Bothell and Snohomish.

Food forum
Cool down with these summertime drink recipes

Refresh yourself with two light, refreshing drink recipes.

Sweet Radish's strip combo comes with hand-breaded chicken strips, crispy waffle fries, a buttery bun, their namesake sauce, coleslaw and an additional dipping sauce (or three). Friday, June 17, 2022. (Taylor Goebel / The Herald)
Sweet Radish is Everett’s favorite new chicken shop

PSA: Eat a chicken sandwich from Sweet Radish (formerly 9 Delicacies) as soon as possible.

The Grape & Grain in Everett is now serving coffee drinks, alongside its local beer and wine offerings. (Photo courtesy of Grape & Grain)
El Mariachi to open storefront, Sol Food closes, Scuttlebutt adds deli menu

In this week’s Nuggets, we say goodbye to Sol Food and hello to a new Lynnwood brewery.

Contestant chef Brian Madayag (left) of Edmonds and West Coast team captain Brooke Williamson on “Beachside Brawl.” (Food Network) 20220616
Edmonds chef reps Pacific Northwest on new Food Network show

Barkada owner Brian Madayaga will compete on a new Food Network series that premiers Sunday.

Teresa Godfrey and Sandra Reichstetter work side by side at their new restaurant Thursday, June 9, 2022, at Cup & Crepe on Everett Mall Way in Everett, Washington. The two have been together for over 20 years. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
New Everett biz serves up vegan and gluten-free street crêpes

From strawberry cheesecake to pizza, Cup & Crêpe has a fun take on European street-style crepes.

Food forum
The Food Forum: A southwest salad recipe fit for a crowd

Have people coming over? This tasty salad goes together in no time flat.

Hops & Seed head brewer Dru Seed (left) and owner John Bigelow share a pint at the Hops Seed taproom. (Caleb Smith)
Catch Snohomish brewery Hops & Seed at state Brewers Festival

After a two-year hiatus, the festival returns this weekend, with several Snohomish County breweries participating.

Food forum
For a quick breakfast, try this simple granola recipe

Make this granola recipe your own with your choice of dried fruits, nuts and more.

The lumpia sub at Lasa Sandwiches & Pearls is stuffed with hearty meatballs doused in sweet chili sauce, crunchy shards of egg roll wrappers, then topped with cilantro and pickled papaya, pepper and carrot. Wednesday, June 2, 2022. (Taylor Goebel / The Herald).
6 quick global bites at south Snohomish County restaurants

These eateries serve up big flavors and diverse fare in a short amount of time.

Food forum
Two meaty, flavor-packed recipes: Pork tenderloin, Ropa vieja

This week’s recipes have Cuban and Puerto Rican roots, thanks to a reader’s neighbor.