Whidbey Island winemaker celebrates little-known grape varieties
By BRYAN CORLISS
LANGLEY — Eastern Washington’s sagebrush steppes have a near-perfect climate for growing some of America’s most popular and marketable wine grapes.
Puget Sound’s rain-soaked hillsides have a near-perfect climate for growing some of America’s most prized wild mushrooms. The wine grapes that grow here are obscure German varietals with tongue-twisting names like siegerrebe or Muller Thurgau.
So when you meet an advocate of the Puget Sound appellation, Washington’s newest, federally designated, wine grape-growing area, there’s just one question:
Are you nuts?
Crazy like a fox, if you ask Greg Osenbach, the winemaker/co-owner of Whidbey Island Winery.
"We make a product that nobody else can make," he said. "This climate produces a style that those hotter climates can’t produce."
Besides, he said — looking out a winery window at his vineyard, the yellowing fall leaves turning the trellised vines into a 2-acre plot of miniature aspens amid the second-growth firs — "I get to work out in that. I’m not sitting on the freeway stuck in traffic."
The Puget Sound appellation was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1995. Appellations are grape-growing areas defined by their similar climate and geography, and are an echo of the wine classification systems used to delineate some of the great wine regions of Europe: Burgundy, Bordeaux and Chianti, for example.
Puget Sound is by far the smallest of Washington’s four appellations, with only about 65 acres of vines, said Steve Burns, the executive director of the Washington Wine Commission. That’s less than 1 percent of the state’s total.
"We’re small," Osenbach said. "A lot of people don’t know we’re here."
It’s also the state’s most unusual growing district. About 30 wineries are in production within the region’s boundaries, but the overwhelming majority use only grapes grown east of the Cascades. Only five use any significant amount of grapes grown in the Puget Sound area.
Osenbach uses a mix of Eastern Washington grapes to complement his westside-grown whites.
The appellation also is unusual in that it’s urban. It encompasses the most heavily populated areas of the state, lying along the lowland areas of Snohomish, King, Pierce and Thurston counties, while also taking in the islands in the Sound, most of the Kitsap Peninsula and the coastal plains of Clallam, Jefferson, Skagit and Whatcom counties.
No other U.S. appellation has as many people living in it. That fact has pushed land costs up higher than most areas of Eastern Washington, Osenbach acknowledged.
But mostly, there’s the weather. Summers around here just don’t get as hot as those on the Cascades’ dry side. It’s not warm enough to ripen some of the state’s most popular grapes.
So when life takes away chardonnay, you’d best make Madeline Angevine.
The wines of the Puget Sound appellation are more delicate and subtle northern European varieties, the kind grown in the Loire Valley of France and the Rhine Valley of Germany.
They’re not the big, bold fruity blockbusters produced in Eastern Washington and California, the kind that will "knock you out of your chair," Osenbach said. And that’s a bit of a problem these days, since U.S. wine reviewers have fallen in love with that style.
What the Puget Sound-area wines are, he said, is light and crisp, refreshing wines that pair well with delicately flavored Sound seafood.
Western Washington, as longtime residents know, is not uniformly drizzly. There are pockets within the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains — Sequim is a prime example — that get as little rain as Eastern Washington, Burns said.
And other areas get enough sun during the brief summer to ripen better-known grapes like pinot noir, he said.
The appellation’s proximity to metro Seattle also is an advantage, Osenbach said.
About 60 percent of his sales come from people who visit during day trips to Whidbey Island. Getting those people in the door to taste the wines is key, he said.
"You’ve never heard of this," he said, offering a glass. "You’ll likely not pick it off the shelf in the store. But here, taste it."
Those who do taste tend to buy, Osenbach said.
"All of us are perpetually sold out of our locally produced wines. We can’t keep up with demand. That’s the thing we put ourselves to sleep with."
In the future, the Puget Sound appellation should grow as fast — in terms of percentage — as the rest of Washington’s wine regions, Burns said. Vineyard acreage should double in the next three to five years, he predicted, and new red-wine varieties, developed in Eastern Europe and experimented with in coastal British Columbia, should be available soon.
Osenbach agreed. "We’re getting beyond the four or five hard-headed individualists who started the thing," he said. "There are a lot of people out there who are interested."
Even so, "I don’t think the Puget Sound appellation is ever going to attract the big corporate dollars or investment from out of state" like Eastern Washington has, Osenbach said.
That does mean the wineries won’t be successful, he added.
"We’re small. We’re interesting. We embody the romance of the wine industry," he said. "I see an excitement from people who come into our winery here. They pick up on that."
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