In search of the holy grail: Vashon winery owner reaches a viticultural milestone

Ron Irvine has finally achieved his goal: A wine made from Vashon-grown grapes. - Elizabeth Shepherd photo
Ron Irvine has finally achieved his goal: A wine made from Vashon-grown grapes.
— image credit: Elizabeth Shepherd photo

It was one of those damp days in mid-May when the temperature had stalled in the low 50s, apple blossoms shivered on trees, and Vashon, it seemed, could never be the kind of place a sun-hungry grape might ripen.

But Ron Irvine, the self-proclaimed “owner, winemaker, bookkeeper and janitor” of Vashon Winery, knew better. On this damp May day, he greeted a visitor with a smile warm enough to crack the cloud bank open and gestured to a shelf that proved Vashon’s viticultural viability and his own considerable prowess as a winemaker.

“Here it is,” Irvine said as he reached for a distinctly labeled bottle of wine. “The Holy Grail.”

Irvine held out a cause for celebration for wine connoisseurs on the Island and beyond: Vashon Winery’s 2006 Pinot Noir, Monument Farm Vineyard, Puget Sound, the first commercially produced pinot noir made from grapes grown on Vashon Island.

Released on May 1, 2008, the wine is not only a first for Vashon Island, but also for King County.

“To make a pinor noir using locally grown grapes has been like the Holy Grail for a small winery like mine,” said Irvine, who has spent 33 years in the wine business and has owned Vashon Winery for the past six years. “It’s all about the excitement and promise of it, and getting people to understand that it’s possible.”

Pinot noir grapes are grown around the world, mostly in the cooler regions, and are widely considered to produce some of the finest wines in the world. But pinot noirs are rare to the Puget Sound growing region.

“It’s a very, very difficult grape to grow,” Irvine said. “It demands hands-on knowledge of how it grows and where. You need vineyards that are sustainable year in and year out. Will you get a crop each year sufficient to make money? Not everyone can do it. You need a very specific site.”

Irvine is excited to tell the story of how his long-time dream of producing a pinot noir ripened and bloomed on Vashon vines. “It took a village to make this wine,” said Irvine.

It all began with a chance encounter on Valentine’s Day in 2003, when Irvine decided on the spur of the moment to open his winery to the public. Only two customers showed up that day to taste wines — Joe Curiel and Tony Raugust, who had recently purchased a house at the base of Monument Road, an area Irvine calls “the sunny slope” because it is one of the most ideal locations on Vashon Island to plant a vineyard.

With the winery to themselves, the trio spent a leisurely afternoon tasting wines and talking about grapes. One of the wines Irvine brought out was Vashon Winery’s Isletage, a blended wine made from grapes grown on Vashon and Whidbey Islands: Muller-Thurgau, Siergerrebe and Madeleine Angevine. He also told Curiel and Raugust that he had been making a limited amount of Chasselas Doré from a vineyard also located near Monument Road, just to the west, owned by Jim Stewart.

“Joe and Tony wanted to know which grapes could be grown here and which grape types I would be interested in,” Irvine recalled. He told the couple that although he would love to have more of any of the grapes he was already using to produce Puget Sound wines, what he’d like the most was to produce a pinot noir.

Unbeknownst to Irvine was that Raugust had a degree in botany and that both men were highly skilled garderers. They were also adventurous and ambitious, and by the end of the afternoon, the couple had decided to plant a pinot noir vineyard at their new property on “the sunny slope.”

Irvine continued to communicate with Curiel and Raugust as they planted the vineyard. “Joe and Tony quickly learned about soil requirements, site issues, clonal selections, rootstocks and planning and trellising arrangements,” he said. “They learned how to do the kinds of things that allow the grapes to ripen year after year.”

Irvine visited the vineyard over the next couple of years and was always impressed by the attentive care given to it. Raugust and Curiel had planted about 450 grapevines in an area equivalent to about a third of an acre.

“The soil was completely bare,” Irvine recalled. To provide maximum sunlight and soil nutrients to the grapevines, not a blade of grass or a stray weed was allowed to grow. Each vine received dripped irrigation for the first year.

Growing the grapes was hard work, but the payoff came in 2006, when Curiel and Raugust called Irvine with the exciting news that they would have a harvest in the fall. Irvine was awestruck: Usually, four years are necessary to get the first harvest, especially in Puget Sound. Curiel and Raugust had brought their vineyard to fruition in three years.

As Irvine, Curiel and Raugust waited for the grapes to ripen, they agonized about the weather and chased away greedy birds, deer and raccoons. They put an eight-foot-high fence around the grapes and hung old CDs on fishing wire that flashed in the sunlight among the vines.

“Those guys protected their babies,” Irvine said.

In the meantime, Irvine regularly measured the sugars in the grapes to make sure they would be perfectly flavored for wine-making.

Harvest day finally arrived on October 8, 2006. Raugust, Curiel and Irvine recruited friends and family to help harvest, crush and press the grapes, and then Irvine worked his winemaker’s alchemy to turn to grapes into wine. The wine — enough for about 18 cases — matured for 18 months in a French oak barrel. Throughout the maturation, Irvine kept careful notes about the aromas and flavors of the wine, watching the color, smell and palette of the wine change.

On March 13, the wine was bottled. And on May 2 — more than five years after their chance encounter — Irvine, Raugust, Curiel joined friends and well-wishers to raise a glass of pinot noir at the wine’s release party, held at Reliable Wines.

“It was a very buzzy party,” said Carol Eggen, who was part of the crew that helped harvest the wine. “The wine is very enjoyable and quite unique, and I feel it will get even better as it ages. And, of course, knowing that it comes from Vashon Island makes it all the more pleasurable.”

Irvine’s pride and pleasure in the wine was palpable on that rainy day in May as he shared a taste of the wine. As Irvine stood outside in the drizzle, holding a glass of the precious pinot noir, he rhapsodized in the unique language of wine experts about the color, aroma and taste of the wine, and then, later that day, wrote detailed notes:

“Light red with a hint of both pink and orange, kind of yin/yang in that regard as pink signifies youth and orange indicates some aging; wonderful fruit nose of fresh raspberries and a suggestion of cranberries. On the palate the wine is fruity with the raspberry and cranberry flavors dominating. It has a nice acidity, which is just right (to balance the fruitiness). There is a touch of tannin but not much.

“Overall the wine is very good. It is a lighter styled pinot noir, in style like a good south Burgundy from France, like a Sauvigny-Les-Beaune or maybe a like a pinot noir grown in Alsace. It has a lingering finish that remains in the back of the palate, and the fruitiness of the wine travels the length of the palate.”

Vashon Winery’s 2006 Pinot Noir from Monument Farm Vineyard is on sale now at the winery, Reliable Wines and Vashon’s Farmers Market. At $40 a bottle, Irvine considers it “worth every penny, because of the rarity, the quality and the fact it’s from right here on Vashon Island, and it’s the first.”

But if Irvine has anything to say about it, it won’t be the last. He is still working with Raugust and Curiel, as well as another family that’s getting ready to plant another vineyard on “the sunny slope” in the next two or three weeks.

With time and luck, there will be another vintage of Vashon pinot noir.

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