New Vashon family grows its dream business from the ground up

On a sunny day last week, 3-year-old Quentin Cherry hung what he called “fake apples” — brightly painted red rocks — on the branches of some of his family’s 400 young apple trees

Wes and Laura Cherry stand in their orchard of young cider apple trees. Laura holds the couple's 3-year-old son Quentin.

On a sunny day last week, 3-year-old Quentin Cherry hung what he called “fake apples” — brightly painted red rocks — on the branches of some of his family’s 400 young apple trees.

But to his parents, it was more than idle play. 

The weights, attached to clothespins, are used to balance and space the trees’ branches as they grow, Quentin’s father Wes Cherry explained. And thus it was that Quentin, a energetic boy who quickly grew bored with his rock-hanging exercise, played a small role last week in his family’s ambitious dream to create the Island’s first commercial cidery.

“Mostly he just runs around while we work,” Wes said with a laugh.

The Cherrys’ two-acre orchard — a perfectly spaced spread of spindly but promising trees — sits at the end of a quiet Island road, nestled between the historic Mukai farmhouse and the sprawling Island Center Forest. Nearly every day, Quentin plays around the house and orchard while his parents work, a Norman Rockwell-like scene of rural life.

It’s a life much different than the Cherrys led just a year ago, when the young family lived on bustling Queen Anne Hill in Seattle and Wes, a software engineer, did software development and consulting work. It was Quentin’s birth in 2008 that prompted Wes, 44, and his wife Laura, 36, to consider a significant life change.

“We started talking about where we saw ourselves in five or 10 years and what we want our lives to be like,” Laura Cherry said. 

After spending six months looking at property on Vashon, the Cherrys purchased a large home on 30 acres that once held the historic Mukai strawberry fields until the parcel was sold out of the Japanese-American family in the 1970s. 

There, the Cherrys say, they are now living their dream — raising their son in a rural place and pouring themselves into their new shared business: Dragon’s Head Cider. 

Wes, who spent more than a decade working for Microsoft and is credited with creating Solitaire for Windows as an intern with the company, now spends his days tending to the year-old apple orchard, perfecting his cider recipes and building equipment that will press and bottle the couple’s first batch of commercial cider as early as next spring.

“In the computer world everything is so virtual,” said Wes, who had no farming experience before planting the orchard last fall, but has spent years brewing small batches of beer and hard cider in his garage. “It’s really satisfying to plant the tree, watch it grow up and turn that into something,” he said.

Laura, who has a background in product development and promotion, now keeps busy developing the Dragon’s Head brand, which they hope to eventually see on store shelves and in restaurants around the region.

Both Laura and Wes, self-proclaimed wine lovers who discovered and fell in love with cider later in life, have taken classes from Peter Mitchell, an international authority on cider making and award-winning producer from England. They also enlisted the help of Islander Bob Norton, a retired horticulture professor and local fruit expert, in designing and planting their Vashon orchard.

Norton said he was excited to be involved in the project, which he called the first commercial fruit growing operation on the Island since Wax Orchards. 

Wes said Norton has been instrumental in helping them successfully grow fruit trees on Vashon, a place where deer are always a threat, soil conditions make for difficult drainage and disease could easily wipe out an entire orchard.

“It’s a courageous undertaking, I think,” Norton said. “But he’s studied it carefully. … They’ve got all the right ingredients for a successful operation.”

Last fall, the Cherrys hosted a work day where nearly 40 friends and family members showed to help the family plant their orchard free of cost. At the end of the day, they roasted a pig and, of course, provided plenty of cider to the volunteers.

“We made a big celebration out of it,” Laura said. “People were really behind it.”

The Cherrys’ first efforts — a 70-gallon batch of cider they made last fall with 

Mike Magrath, a sculptor who lives on Vashon and knows the Cherrys, said he was impressed with the couple’s first batch. A self-described cider connoisseur, Magrath has spent time teaching in England, where he says he fell in love with traditional English cider. He believes the Cherrys can make a product that compares with what he had in Europe.

“Whatever Wes puts his attention to usually comes out amazingly,” Magrath said. “As software people are, he’s a designer and an engineer, and he will design a great cider,” he said.

While the Cherrys’ first batch was made using red and golden delicious apples, the couple is currently growing more bitter varieties that are used in traditional English cider, such as Dabinett, Kingston Black and Brown Snout. 

“You wouldn’t want to eat them off the tree, but they make a good cider,” Laura said.

The cider will be more dry and not as sweet as the cider often sold in stores — inexpensive drinks that Wes calls “alcopops.” Part of the Cherrys’ vision as one of about a dozen commercial cideries in the Northwest, Laura said, is to educate consumers about traditional cider.

“It might initially be a surprise to people who have only had the sweet kind before,” she said.

Magrath said he has no doubts Dragon’s Head Cider will be a success. In fact, he hopes to see cider production take off on the region as it has in England, a place he said has a similar climate to the Northwest, one ideal for apple growing.

“There’s no reason (the Northwest) can’t be a leading cider producer in the world, and Wes is at the forefront of that,” Magrath said.

The Cherrys say that although the new cidery is coming together well so far, they’re not entering this new phase of their life without hesitation. Starting a new business is always a risk, Wes noted, and they’re not sure when they’ll turn a profit. But they believe they’ll offer a a product that is both unique and becoming increasingly popular.

“It’s a growing market, and there’s increasing shelf space devoted to ciders in grocery stores,” Wes said.

What’s more, Laura said, on Vashon, Dragon’s Head Cidery will be among wineries that share the Cherrys’ vision of making the Island a destination place for wine — and cider — tasting.

“This is exactly where we want to be,” Laura said. “The vision came together really nicely, and we’re having a lot of fun.”