Washington’s Skagit County: Here You Will Find Some of the State’s
Most Spectacular Scenery as Well as a Great Variety of Wines to Taste.
The area is a natural wonderland that operates at a slower pace, supports a diverse population base, and, most importantly for wine enthusiasts, offers something for just about everyone.
By Dan Radil
Skagit County is tucked away in the Northwest corner of Washington’s Inland Puget Sound region. The eastern portion of the county is dominated by the North Cascades, a mountainous, forest-filled, and largely undisturbed wilderness area. Moving west, the mountains flatten into fertile farmland, meshing with the region’s cities and towns that dot the Skagit Valley and hug the waters of Puget Sound.
A drive through the Valley quickly gives one a feel for the importance of agriculture in this predominately rural area. Strawberries, potatoes, and peas top the list of major crops grown here, while the county’s tulips take center-stage during the spring, celebrated with their own Annual Festival complete with viewing schedules, art-related events, and even a line of merchandise.
Skagit County is also home to a burgeoning wine scene, and while most wineries primarily utilize grapes from Eastern Washington’s warmer growing regions, a handful produce wines from locally grown grapes that thrive in cooler climates. Some have also had great success with fruit wines, most of which are sourced from local farms. In short, the area is a natural wonderland that operates at a slower pace, supports a diverse population base, and, most importantly for wine enthusiasts, offers something for just about everyone.
Many winemakers will tell you it was a particular bottle of wine that triggered an epiphanic moment and led them to start their own winery. For Mark Hulst, co-owner/winemaker of Skagit Cellars, it was a book, “From Vines to Wines,” along with the support of family and friends who simply couldn’t get enough of his home -produced wines.
“I was fascinated by the process,” Hulst recalled. “We made a Lemberger and a Viognier (in 2008) and everyone seemed to like it. We continued to ramp it up each year,” until his wife, Gloria, pointed out they were probably exceeding the legal limit for home consumption. After nearby Tulip Valley Winery invited home winemakers in the area to use the winery’s facilities to bottle wines, Hulst decided to give it a shot, resulting in his first commercial vintage, a 2012 Viognier. “We entered it in a competition, and it won a silver medal. That was all we needed to send us on our way,” he laughed.
In 2015, Skagit Cellars opened its tasting room in La Conner, where today, visitors are almost certain to be hosted by the affable Russell Chandler, Director of Sales and Marketing. The winery also opened a second location in 2018 in the town of Manson on Washington’s Lake Chelan.
Hulst draws on a variety of Eastern Washington vineyard sources, including Antoine Creek, Four Lakes, Destiny Ridge, and Clos CheValle. He considers Viognier and Syrah to be his “signature wines” and likes to refer to his full-bodied, mile-long-finish Viognier as “the white wine for red wine drinkers.” Other current releases include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, a 2018 Barbera and two other drop-dead gorgeous reds, a 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2018 Malbec.
Hulst says he always barrel ages his reds between 34 to 36 months, and the character these wines have achieved during that worth-the-wait time frame is stunning. “One of the things I hear (from customers) all the time is, ‘You hit it 100-percent. We like all of the wines,’” he said with a smile.
For those wanting even more of a good thing, Hulst has plans to increase his annual production from about 1,200 to 2,000 cases. “Every year I just try to let the fruit be the fruit,” he says of his winemaking philosophy. “Different characteristics come out each year, depending on the growing season. I think that’s part of the romance of making wine; to find out what it’s going to be like. For me, that’s the passion (of it).”
Skagit Cellars’ tasting room in La Conner is located at 106 S. 1st St. Phone: (509) 708-2801. The winery also operates a tasting room in Manson, WA., which is located at 67 Wapato Way. Phone: (509) 888-4574. If you can’t get to either location this spring, you can purchase all of the winery’s current releases online by logging onto: www.skagitcellars.orderport.net/wines/View-Our-Wines.
TULIP VALLEY WINERY
Tulip Valley Winery co-owner/winemaker Ector DeLeon is one of many present-day winemakers who had a previous career in a completely unrelated field. DeLeon served in the US Army for 20 years, during which time he was deployed on three tours of duty: Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Iraqi Freedom.
After retirement, he had hoped to purchase the land next to his property in the Skagit Valley, but Carl Engebreth, who grew up and worked on his family’s vineyard in Sonoma, California, beat him to the punch and established Tulip Valley Winery on the 74-acre parcel.
Over time, the two struck up a friendship, with DeLeon working on the property “just to keep busy,” he said. “But then Carl’s winemaker moved on and he said, ‘Why don’t you become my partner? You’ve already done everything here.’” That led to DeLeon’s venture initially into cider-making (with his first release earning a Best in Show award in the 2007 World Cider Competition) and then winemaking.
The duo has also purchased 70 acres of property near Sunnyside, WA., in the Yakima Valley, 50 of which are planted with a number of red and white varieties in certified organic/salmon safe Abberin Vineyard. DeLeon feels that because their estate vineyards are in a not-too-warm, not-too-cool climate with upper and lower slopes, “we get a deeper, heavier color on our grapes,” resulting in wines with “a heavier mouthfeel.”
He notes that Abberin is home to some of the oldest Gewurztraminer vines in the state (almost 40 years old), and in addition to providing grapes for Tulip Valley, they have supplied them to other wineries such as Charles Smith, Treveri Cellars and 14 Hands.
Back at the Skagit Valley tasting room, you’re likely to find Ector’s wife, Shanna, behind the counter, along with an ample patio for outdoor tasting, three acres of Pinot Noir (some of which he uses for blending), plenty of apple orchards, and picturesque views of the valley.
Must-try wines on the list of current releases include a stunning, slightly sweet 2019 Gewurztraminer (which took Double Gold honors at the 2021 Bellingham Northwest Wine Competition) and the nonvintage Red Barn Red, a heady, chewy blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, and a splash of Malbec.
DeLeon’s future plans include working with more reds, with Barbera and Zinfandel topping the list.
Tulip Valley Winery is located at 16163 State Route 536,
Mount Vernon, WA., 98273. (360) 428-6894.
EAGLE HAVEN WINERY
Located just east of Sedro-Woolley, WA., Eagle Haven Winery has an unpretentious, countrified charm, and locals and wine enthusiasts who frequent it wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s the big reason that a group of seven local investors calling themselves Bughouse Operations bought the farm and the winery this past October, 2021. The seven new owners include Tom Shields, Todd Mast, Mark Benson, Melina Zahalka, Ty Bricker, Kris McCollom and Ector DeLeon, and you can bet all seven are having a barrel of fun (pun intended).
The winery’s tasting room is situated on a farm that includes Christmas trees, pears, and apples. Two years ago, seven acres of wine grapes were also planted there. Sauvignon Blanc, a Précoce clone of Pinot Noir, Siegerrebe, and Agria (which will be used to make Rosé) were included in the plantings. It’s estimated that the winery is about two years away from producing wines from their estate grapes.
In the meantime, Eagle Haven offers plenty of red and white wine choices (Viognier, Tempranillo, and Zinfandel, to name a few), sourced from a number of vineyards in Chelan, Prosser, and Zillah. Skagit Cellars’ Mark Hulst has served as winemaker for Eagle Haven for the last three years.
The winery really shines with its selection of fruit wines, including raspberry, strawberry, and blueberry, with fruit sourced from local farmers whenever possible. The Eagle Haven Tart Strawberry is a particular standout. Hulst oversaw the production of this unique, taste-it-to-believe-it wine, which was made with a hands-off/no sweetening approach and carries a residual sugar content of less than one percent.
In addition to the folksy, wood-paneled tasting room, Eagle Haven also features an outdoor pavilion for on-site events including concerts, weddings, and reunions. The winery is located at 8243 Sims Road, Sedro-Woolley,WA., 98284. Phone: (360) 856-6248.
SKAGIT CREST VINEYARD & WINERY
Chuck Jackson, owner/winemaker for Skagit Crest Vineyard & Winery, received a Double Platinum medal at the 2020 Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging for his 2017 Estate Pinot Noir. In doing so, he became the first Skagit Valley-based Pinot grower to earn the honor. Not bad for a former Boeing industrial engineer who initially had no intention of even planting a vineyard in the Puget Sound American Viticultural Area.
Chuck and his wife, Donna, lived in Bothell for more than three decades before moving to their present home near Sedro-Woolley, situated on a 10-acre parcel that now includes their winery production facility and three acres of vineyards. Along the way, Chuck earned his stripes through trial-and-error: first as an amateur winemaker, then as a still-active member of the Boeing Wine & Beer Club for 30-plus years.
In 1995, Chuck made the decision to take his winemaking hobby to the next level by purchasing property in the Yakima Valley with the intention of moving there, an idea that was quickly vetoed by Donna and their two daughters. Undaunted, Chuck stayed west of the Cascades, working as winemaker for Eagle Haven Winery in Sedro Woolley while shifting his focus to a cooler-climate vineyard site.
In 2008, Chuck finally found what he was looking for: gently sloped property on the fringe of the Skagit Valley with great drainage and southwest exposure. He planted his first vineyards in 2011 and today maintains four clones of Pinot Noir along with early-ripening clones of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and Chardonnay.
The Puget Sound AVA comes with a special set of challenges for Washington wine grape growers – mildew, rain, and lesser heating degrees to name a few – but Chuck notes that “although yields were down in 2020, we did pretty well, all things considered. I’ve been pretty happy and impressed with what we’ve been able to achieve with our Pinot Noir,” adding, “It’s an unruly plant that takes a lot of tending. It’s a challenge, but worth it.”
Other red wines that Skagit Crest currently produces include a red blend, a Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from both the Martinez Family and Phinney Hill Vineyards, and a Syrah sourced from Crawford and Chandler Reach Vineyards. In addition to a tasting room that is open on weekends in downtown La Conner, WA., Chuck and Donna welcome tastings and vineyard tours at their Sedro-Woolley production facility for those who wish to make an appointment.
The winery’s tasting room in La Conner is located at 105 North First St., Suite 1. Phone: (360) 333-9819. To make an appointment to visit Skagit Crest’s Vineyard & Winery in Sedro-Woolley, call Chuck Jackson at (206) 679-6992.
Husband-and-wife team David James and Judy Pascale purchased Pasek Cellars from Gene and Kathy Pasek about six years ago and retained the name of the winery the Paseks originally established in 1997. After almost 20 years at its location near the village of Conway, the tasting room moved to a light industrial park in South Mount Vernon in 2019.
Pascale feels there have been both good and not-quite-so-good aspects to the relocation. The foot traffic has been less, but that’s expected to improve as more people discover the new location and Covid restrictions are lifted. The big plus is that the tasting room is now next door to the winery’s production facility. This gives them the opportunity to allow for tours so guests can view the production of their fruit wines firsthand.
Pascale noted that one of the advantages of producing fruit wines is that they can be made any time of year, “on demand,” so to speak. The frozen fruit is thawed and fermented after adding water, sugar, yeast, and nutrients. Pasek Cellars currently uses all locally sourced fruit for its cranberry, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, and loganberry wines and they also make passion fruit and pineapple wines from concentrate. Cranberry is a top seller, especially around the holidays because it pairs so well with a roast turkey.
In 2015, the winery was approached by an entrepreneur who was looking to promote fruit wines in Israel because of the health benefits of berries in an alcoholic beverage. Since then, Pasek has met the requirements to become certified Kosher and can now ship its fruit wines to Israel. For traditional wine drinkers, the list of current releases includes Chardonnay, Muscat Canelli, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre. Pasek has also produced special label wines for the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, including a Festival White Pinot Gris and a Tulip Red Syrah.
Pasek Cellars is located 2629 Old Highway 99 S Rd, Mount Vernon, WA. 98273. Phone: (360) 404-5640. If you aren’t planning a trip to Mount Vernon this spring, you can purchase all of Pasek Cellars’ current wine releases online at: www.pasekcellars.com.
Steve Bertelsen, co-owner and manager of Bertelsen Winery, grew up in Skagit County. His parents, Richard and Josephine, purchased property in 1988 that would eventually become the site for the winery, although it took another 25 years to get there.
The two decade-plus time lag was attributable to a number of factors: a slowdown in the planning process due to the 2008 recession; Richard’s desire to continue to practice oral surgery up until his retirement in 2016; and Steve’s work in the food and beverage industry at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas until 2013.
With Steve’s return to Washington, the winery finally opened in May of 2014. It took a few years for the Bertelsens to find their footing and a few years for local consumers to discover the winery and its wines, but today it’s safe to say that Bertelsen Winery is an established favorite among many Skagit and North Snohomish County wine enthusiasts.
The winery’s location, just off of Interstate 5 south of Mount Vernon, has always been a plus. It draws in travelers up and down the I-5 corridor who might be looking for an easy-access winery to check out along the way. But Bertelsen’s biggest support has come from area wineophiles who have supported it through wine club memberships and participation in the facility’s special events.
That didn’t happen without a step-up in the overall quality of Bertelsen’s wines and sourcing their grapes from several solid Eastern Washington vineyards – MonteScarlatto on Red Mountain and White Bluffs, near Pasco, to name a few – has been a contributing factor.
Their current wine list includes additional sources from a wide range of Washington AVAs such as a Pinot Gris from the Wahluke Slope, an Ancient Lakes Chardonnay and Reserve Syrah, and a Walla Walla Valley Merlot. With the opening of a winery event center (“The Vine”), located adjacent to the tasting room, Bertelsen Winery is also able to accommodate nearly 200 guests for private parties, meetings, reunions, and weddings.
In addition to the beautifully landscaped grounds with plenty of room for outside picnicking and wine tasting, the winery features an outdoor concert area with a stage and seating (once pandemic restrictions are lifted) for up to 400.
Bertelsen Winery is located at 20598 Starbird Rd, Mount Vernon, WA 98274. Phone: (360) 445-2300. Visiting their tasting room is the best way to sample their wines, but if you aren’t planning a trip to Mount Vernon this spring, all of their current release wines can be purchased online at: www.bertelsenwinery.com.
Bayernmoor Cellars is technically located in Snohomish County, just a few thousand yards south of the Skagit County line. But the winery is only a five-mile drive southeast of Bertelsen Winery, and it makes a natural extension of your journey if you’re traveling in the area and on the hunt for some truly remarkable wines.
Former Amazon patent attorney Larry Harris and his wife, Kim, established the winery on property owned by Kim’s parents by following a carefully and thoughtfully designed plan that included the proper choice of land, grapes, and winemaker.
First, the couple worked with the Skagit County extension of Washington State University to test the property for soil conditions and heat units. Then, after determining that the site would work perfectly for growing Pinot Noir, a mix of two Pinot clones, Précoce and 777 were planted on six acres in 2012.
Finally, they were able to land one of the state’s top winemakers, Woodinville’s Brian Carter as their Executive Winemaker. “Brian’s name kept coming up as the Old-World blending master,” Larry recalled, “and that seemed to pair well with what I was after, so that’s why we targeted him. It goes back to our initial mantra: “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to be the best we possibly can.”
The Harris’ three-tiered approach was essential to fulfilling the couple’s vision of making the property work for itself and creating a winery that produces world-class wines.
If Bayermoor’s performance in regional wine competitions is any indication, the winery is off to a tremendous start. Their 2017 Estate Pinot Noir received three gold medals, plus Double Gold medals from the Seattle Wine Awards and the Bellingham Northwest Wine Competition.
For the 2018 vintage, the winery released three separate bottlings last fall: one Précoce, one 777, and a third which is a reserve blend of the two Pinot clones. In addition to their estate grapes, Bayernmoor sources their Chardonnay from Otis and Celilo Vineyards and their Cabernet Sauvignon from Destiny Ridge and Klipsun Vineyards. A Rosé blend of Grenache and Mourvèdre is also on the list of current releases.
While plans to open a tasting room at the vineyard are still in the works, the Harrises opened up a gorgeous new facility at Woodin Creek Village in Woodinville last year. The tasting room features a menu of small plates prepared by Estate Chef Tori Barr that perfectly pair with flights of four different wines. Although walk-ins are welcome when space permits, reservations are highly recommended.
Bayernmoor’s Woodinville tasting room is located in Woodin Creek Village at 17140 135th Ave NE Ste 1040, Woodinville, WA 98072. Phone: (425) 216-3300. You owe it to yourself to visit Bayernmoor’s Woodinville tasting room, but if you can’t get there this spring, you can purchase all of their current release wines online at: www.bayernmoor.com/wine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dan Radil is a freelance wine writer and educator based in Bellingham, WA., and has been an avid follower and supporter of the Washington wine industry since the mid-1980s. He currently contributes to Great Northwest Wine Magazine and Bellingham Alive Magazine, is President of the Whatcom Beer & Wine Foundation, and produces a wine blog called: danthewineguy.com.