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Perennial Vintners: Bainbridge Island

Washington State has produced a long line of internationally recognized companies over the years and Seattle shows it: Starbucks, Amazon and Microsoft all call the greater Seattle region home, as does much of the population in the state of Washington. Seattle has been one of the fastest growing cities in the country as a result.  Likewise, Washington boasts one of the fastest growing wine industries in the country as well, despite already being America’s second largest wine producer.

However, grapes aren’t grown much west of the Cascades where everyone lives.  Unlike most wine regions around the world and while there are tons of tasting rooms just north of Seattle……there are few in the city center, but even less grapes around the city.

All told, there’s maybe 50-100 acres of grapes growing in Washington State west of the Cascades.

There’s a good reason for that of course, it’s not so sunny on that side of the state.  You probably think much of Washington has weather like Seattle, but instead most of it has weather like the eastern portion of San Diego County, except with cold enough winters to give them snow (which accounts for the majority of their precipitation).

In Seattle and elsewhere, it’s damp, foggy and relatively cold for much of the year.

Grapes like Cabernet and Syrah won’t ripen there, not even close.  Hell, I was told that Pinot Noir despite ripening every year in Oregon, maybe ripens 4 or 5 times out of 7 on a small island just off Seattle called Bainbridge Island.

I found myself on Bainbridge after an Airbnb rental elsewhere went bad and my family wanted the few days by the beach we had planned. Bainbridge is an actual island and getting there requires either an hour or so drive across a handful of bridges north from Olympia, or taking the ferry from Seattle (yes, your car goes on as well).

The island itself is a pretty beautiful spot.  There are old growth forests and development has taken a measured look at the island thus far, there’s a walkable tourist downtown near the ferry.  All in all, it feels a lot like Coronado(Coronado is an island reachable by bridge and ferry from downtown San Diego, home to what might be the worlds best beaches), which is about as high of a compliment as I can give.

Although this was meant more of a recharge and relax vacation, more so than a business trip, I couldn’t help a few meetings along the way as well.

One such meeting was with Perennial Vintners.

On Brainbridge, there’s only two wineries growing grapes.  First, Bainbridge Vineyards has a handful of planted acres and have been there since the 70’s.  They also have a long and rich history that mirrors that of the island itself.  Home to the first of the Japanese Internment removals, Bainbridge honors that shameful time in American history and it’s something that vintners seem well aware of during normal conversations.

Perennial Vintners is kind of a misnomer.  Vintners implies that there’s multiple people working there and helping.  But really, Mike Lempiere is a one man show.  A former programmer turned winemaker he talked at length about some of the challenges he faces as a small winemaker and vineyard owner in a spot where people are just now trying to figure out what will ripen.

What will ripen is a major, major issue. One of the great parts about tasting at Perennial Vintners is that Mike plans to spend about an hour or so with every guest.  It’s the type of access that normal wine drinkers simply don’t get with many winemakers, especially not those like Mike that are working in major tourist regions.

One of the fascinating aspects of visiting Perennial Vintners is seeing the estate vineyard. In California we take that concept for granted in large part, many dream of buying a slice of land, planting a vineyard and eventually making some wine.

In Washington though, the setup has largely been different, albeit it is beginning to change.  In Walla Walla, Red Mountain and elsewhere land is still relatively cheap by major wine country standards and it’s a heck of a lot easier to have one of the many professional farmers handle grape growing for you.  That’s the setup for most wineries in Washington. Again, Perennial Vintners is different because this is Bainbridge.

Mike’s trying to figure out what works in his one acre section of the island and for lack of a better term, he’s flying by the seat of his pants, with his own economic future at risk.

He’s tried Pinot Noir, but it won’t always ripen through the cloud cover that pervades at least 9 months at year on the Pudget Sound.  Because of American appetites for red wines, he was stuck trying to find something that would ripen.

It seems he’s largely settled on what might be the most obscure wine made in America today: Zweigelt.

Haven’t heard of it?  Either had I before running into a winemaker in California’s extreme coastal Mendocino that sources it from a vineyard called Trail Marker.  The climates are incredibly similar and while most in the wine industry would say these are sites that are slightly outside of the standard growing areas that we look for, they’re beyond marginal.  So marginal in fact that on Bainbridge or in coastal Mendocino, you’re stuck planting grapes like Zweigelt which ripens a few weeks earlier than Pinot Noir, despite producing a dark and rich wine that American palates crave.  It’s literally a perfect fit for Bainbridge, but you have to educate consumers that yes, Zweigelt is a grape that makes wine, before selling them anything.  Plus, American wine consumers have a long and complicated history, largely centered on avoidance, with grapes they cannot easily pronounce…..see: Riesling sales for an example.

So how did Mike come onto Zweigelt? He tested.  Unlike planting say a vineyard in Paso Robles, there isn’t a best practices guide.  He uses a small set of the 1 acre parcel he has for grapes to see what will ripen.  As he walks you through, you get a good sense of the issues at play.  Some of the remaining Pinot vines look fine.  Others look like dwarves.

The white wine side of the aisle at Perennial Vintners is a ways further along.  Like the red wine side of the ledger, Mike had to experiment quite a bit before landing on something that worked.  Pinot Gris was attempted and discarded.  As was Castor.

Think your eyes are bulging at new names yet….the two winners on the white wine side turned out to be Siegerrebe and Muscadet.  Ok, so he can’t call it Muscadet so it’s technically Melon de Bourgogne.

Siegerrebe is a German wine grape that has gained at least some sort of foothold in the Puget Sound AVA, which includes Bainbridge.  Whidbey Island Winery produces one and I’m told there are a few others floating around during most vintages. Siegerrebe often reflects the flavor of a pear, something different than the green apple you might be accustomed to in regard to cooler climate sites.

For my money though, Melon de Bourgogne is the star of the show at Perennial Vintners.  Highly acidic with more fruit than I’m accustomed to in the varietal when it comes from France (basically it comes from the Loire Valley, perhaps France’s coldest vineyard space).

Given the location on Bainbridge and the natural bounty that comes from the island and the surrounding seas of the Puget Sound, this is literally perfect.  Melon de Bourgogne is known to pair incredibly well with seafood in large part because it’s almost all acidity and acts almost like an aperitif in every taste.

The region is known for fish, crab, clams and more.  In fact a trip down to the rocky seashore let my kids (and to be honest myself and my wife as well) see something we’d never seen before. Clams spitting water into the air as the tide went out.

Having a highly acidic white that pairs perfectly with them is exactly why you should be spending time when you’re looking for wine when traveling-finding the small spots like Perennial Vintners.

(Yes, he grows some hops for a friend to make beer)

I spent some time asking Mike about what he’s working on, what he’s hoping to accomplish at a winery that is currently producing about 700 cases of wine per year.  He showed me an old patch of forest right above his tasting room/production facility.  It’s about an acre and he’d love to take the forest out and get grapes into the ground.  Luckily, grape growing is considered agricultural and fits with many of the requirements on the island.  But even cutting down trees for firewood to sell can be an expensive proposition, so he’s saving.  This is the state of small, family owned and owner-operated wineries in America.  There’s always a  push and pull between what’s possible financially vs what you’d do in an ideal world.

Plenty of folks can source fruit from the eastern part of Washington and truck it closer to where people live.  I have no issue with that whatsoever, urban tasting rooms aren’t a fad, they’re good business and they move the industry forward.

But, the part of the industry that everyone loves?  It’s the small winemaker trying to do something himself.  Trying to do something different.  It’s someone with a different perspective.  It’s someone willing to take chances that others simply will not.

Those are exactly the types of winemakers I want to support as part of my wine club.  As a consumer, the next time you find yourself in Seattle-take the ferry to Bainbridge Island.  It’s a gorgeous 35 minute ride from the time you step on until the second you step off.  Then find your way to Perennial Vintners and spend an hour with Mike.  You’ll enjoy the type of access that went out of the wine industry in the 1970’s in most spots in America.  You’ll also learn more about wine and entrepreneurship in that hour that you would doing anything else. If you hit the tasting room at the right  time, you’ll see something fermenting.  For me, it was a raspberry wine.  If you’ve never seen fermentation happening, smelled it and felt it.  It’s a fun part of visiting a real, working winery and not a stuffy tasting room.

Lastly, the wine is damn good.

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