By Kurt Erickson Explorebigsky.com Staff Writer
I zip open my tent and step into the crisp April morning. My breath dissipates skyward as the sun rises over the andesite ridgeline that makes the Naches Heights of Washington famous among geologists and unique to winegrowers.
My campsite sits atop the climbing bluffs at Wilridge Vineyard, which are rigged with anchors for top roping the ancient lava that plunged from the Goat Rocks near Mount Rainier millions of years ago.
Stepping to the edge, I peer into the shadows of Cowiche Canyon. I long to rappel down like I have the previous two days, but my sense of timing says no. Today may be the only chance to capture a magical moment in the vineyards behind me.
The vines have waited months for the sun to beckon their florets open and drink in the light. Each blossom holds the potential to produce one luscious grape and with it the dreams of men who devote their lives to crafting wine from juice, art from Earth.
I dash to the tent, grab my camera and take my position among the vines. The only sound to be heard, as the clusters open wide, is the snap of the camera’s shutter.
The sound shocks me back to the present, to Pike Place Market in Seattle.
I was caught in a flashback to a trip I took last week. Since returning from Afghanistan, profound images seem burned upon my retina – some ugly, others beautiful – and they often reappear as flashbacks. I calm my nerves and smile, remembering last week’s vineyard in bloom.
Camera in hand, I meander past fishmongers laden with the morning catch, past bushels of produce shining in the sun. A street performer plucks his banjo, and the scent of coffee and fresh pastries wafts through the air. I step between bouquets of multicolored tulips and watch a cheesemaker in her apron separating the curd.
I cross the street, then pause to watch ferries on Elliott Bay moving through the morning mist. Passing Kell’s, a little Irish pub still closed after last night’s revelry, I turn onto the cobblestones of Post Alley and stop outside the wooden doors of The Tasting Room Seattle.
A cooperative venture in the heart of this world-class market, the tasting room showcases more than 60 Washington wines of exceptional quality, from craftsmen who are changing their industry. Among them: a pioneer, a visionary, a newcomer and a rebel.
Here, in this microcosm of the Pacific Northwest, their stories and craft mingle with a grape’s potential, culminating in bottled perfection.
The Pioneer: Paul Beveridge
Wilridge Winery and The Tasting Room Seattle
A tireless winemaker, entrepreneur and practicing attorney in “Beveridge Law,” as he calls it, Paul Beveridge is the pioneering force behind The Tasting Room Seattle and Wilridge Winery. Over the past 25 years, Beveridge has led a number of efforts to open the marketplace to small wineries and make the industry more energy efficient.
“It’s sad commentary on the state of our laws that my legal training has been so important to the success of our winery,” he said.
Beveridge aims to make Wilridge the “greenest winery in the Northwest” with refillable bottles, biodynamic farming and by utilizing solar power at the Naches Heights vineyard near Yakima. With climbing bluffs on the grounds, as well as campsites, hiking, biking and horseback riding trails, fire pits, barbecues and an outdoor sauna, Wilridge appeals to a different type of wine enthusiast.
Beveridge’s true calling, however, is winemaking: From his Pinot Grigio and Viognier whites, to his stunning Nebbiolo and Red Mountain Mélange, the wines exhibit excellent balance and acidity, showcasing the ripeness and abundance of fruit character indicative of Washington terroir.
The Visionary: Don Corson
Geographer Don Corson, Ph.D, opened Camaraderie Cellars near the Port Angeles entrance to Olympic National Park, which draws more than three million visitors annually to the peninsula west of Seattle.
Corson and his wife Vicki knew that even in the Olympic Peninsula’s wet climate, “People in this part of the country view recreation more for re-creation,” he said. “When they visit us, they are looking for an authentic Northwest experience.”
Corson’s vision began in the early 1980s, as he built relationships with Washington grape growers like Fred Artz of the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area and Paul Champoux from the Rattlesnake Hills AVA, both of whom are now world-renowned for their quality vineyards and have been mainstay vineyard partners with Camaraderie since its doors opened in the early 1990s.
“Paul [Beveridge] and I were here at the beginning,” Corson said, noting that they were among the first 50 bonded wineries in the state, which now has more than 750.
“Washington grape growing is like a constellation that continues to add stars.” Washington, with its wide range of microclimates and long growing season, can ripen nearly every grape varietal.
The rich layering of the Camaraderie Bordeaux-style blends is without equal. My personal favorite, called Grâce, allowed the cellar to spread its wings, and the wines are now sold in restaurants like Bobby Flay’s in Manhattan, Oenophilia in Chicago, and nationwide at the retailer Total Wine and More.
The Newcomer: Timothy Narby
Nota Bene Cellars
The newest additions to The Tasting Room Seattle’s repertoire include the exceptional wines of Timothy Narby, winemaker and owner of Nota Bene Cellars.
Although he may be the new kid in Post Alley, Narby, who specializes in reds, has been crafting award-winning wines since 2001.
“We’re all red, all the time!” he said.
A long-time Boeing engineer, Narby’s winemaking experience comes largely from his time with the Boeing Wine Club. This group’s passion for both aircraft and wine craft has propelled several in their ranks to open wineries.
Nota Bene Cellars is located in South Seattle not far from Boeing Field; however it sources extraordinary fruit from places like the Ciel du Cheval vineyard on Red Mountain and the Dineen vineyard in Yakima Valley.
The Rebel: John Bell
Willis Hall Winery
Many in the wine industry view John Bell as a rebel. He embraces the title.
“It irritates me when people stand between me and my freedom,” says the outspoken and passionate owner of Willis Hall Winery in Marysville, Washington.
This rebel has a cause, and in addition, staggering winemaking talent. His mouth-watering Syrah explodes with rich, dark berry character and lingers on the palette with loads of spice and vanilla.
Together with pioneer Paul Beveridge, Bell became a key member of Family Wineries of Washington State, a group that represents the interests of small wineries, which are often overwhelmed by the legislation surrounding the industry.
These combined efforts against the “Department of No!” as John calls it, have led the Washington State Liquor Control Board to re-examine its views on many issues, including cooperative tasting rooms like The Tasting Room Seattle.
“We needed to band together, otherwise we would never survive,” Bell said. “It’s a very collegial atmosphere amongst the little guys. If my pump broke down during bottling, for instance, I would have 10 winemakers offering to bring their pumps over in an hour.”
Kurt Erickson is an experienced winemaker and wine professional who most recently served as a sniper team leader in the US Army. He returned from a deployment to Afghanistan in January 2013 and now makes his home in western Washington.