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Orchard takes on a new purpose

Cheryl Lubbert and Jim Gerlach in their Asian pear orchard. The couple now uses the fruit to make perry. - Natalie Martin/Staff Photo
Cheryl Lubbert and Jim Gerlach in their Asian pear orchard. The couple now uses the fruit to make perry.
— image credit: Natalie Martin/Staff Photo

By NATALIE MARTIN

When Cheryl Lubbert and Jim Gerlach first looked at their Asian-style home on Wax Orchard Road, they passed on buying it. The 27 acres of land and large pear orchard, they decided, would require too much upkeep.

“It was just too much,” Gerlach said, noting they both had full-time jobs. “It was a lot to bite off.”

Now the two have bitten off more than they ever imagined they would. A decade later, the 27 acres is not only the married couple’s home, but the home of Nashi Orchards, one of only a handful of Northwest perry makers. Perry is an alcoholic drink made from pears.

“It’s totally unexpected,” Lubbert said. “But it’s fun.”

Sitting on their patio overlooking an orchard of about 200 Asian pear trees, the couple described how they purchased the property in 2005, about a year after they first saw it. They were eager to move to Vashon after coming up from southern California, and the place was one of the only properties that Lubbert, who co-owns a healthcare communications company, and Gerlach, a commercial landscape architect, liked on the island.

There weren’t a lot of options because the market was so hot here,” Lubbert said.

For years after they moved in, the two explored ways to use their new Asian pear orchard, which also happens to be the last orchard on Wax Orchard Road. The swath was planted in the 1980s, Gerlach said, when the most promising trees from a trial orchard on Maury Island were transplanted there.

As food lovers who had both taken cooking classes, the couple got creative with the pears. Over the years there was pear sauce, pastries, pear chutney, even pickled pears.

The couple sold their pears some years and other times gave them to the food bank.

Eventually Gerlach, who Lubbert jokingly calls a mad scientist, started to experiment with perry. Around the same time, his landscaping business began to slow due to the economy.

“We had a serious conversation. We have all these trees, and we are both really into food,” Lubbert recalled. “We have an opportunity with the pears, so why not?”

Now the couple has made more than 800 gallons of perry under the label of Nashi Orchards, which so far has gotten good reviews and second orders from Vashon retailers and specialty shops in Seattle. Nashi — the Japanese word for pear — will soon release new varieties of perry, sold in 6.3 ounce bottles, and the couple plans to open a tasting room this month.

“We want to really make it something,” Lubbert said.

Since opening the new business, a licensed winery, Gerlach and Lubbert say they often find themselves explaining what exactly perry is.

While many liken perry to a cider made from pears, Gerlach, who makes the perry, said he prefers to compare his product to a sparkling white wine. And the fermenting and aging process, he noted, is almost identical to winemaking.

“It’s exactly like making white wine,” he said.

Nashi’s first batches were made using mostly their own Chojuro Asian pears as well as pears from both on and off the island. The fruit is picked ripe, Gerlach said, but sits to   mature for some time in order to develop more complex flavors.

“What we’ve learned about making good perry is that maturation process is a key process,” he said.

Unlike many large, commercial cider and perry makers, Nashi perry doesn’t have any added sugar, resulting in a drink that’s dry and crisp.

“Ours is nothing like that,” Gerlach said of the commercial ciders that some some complain are too sweet. “It’s dry. It has a nice floral aroma. … It really tastes and smells like a wine.”

Gerlach completes the perry-making process using top-of-the-line equipment in a barn known by some as the daffodil barn — a daffodil mural was painted on the front years ago, when there was a working daffodil farm there.

The couple’s driveway is still lined with daffodils, but their barn now bears a fresh Nashi Orchards mural, complete with branches in bloom and a large, round pear, painted by former islander and illustrator Annie Brulé

Gerlach and Lubbert hope that by Mother’s Day the barn will double as a tasting room where visitors can sample several varieties of perry before taking a tour of the orchard.

The endeavor has been demanding, especially since Lubbert still commutes to her job off-island. But now, she said, is the perfect time to dive into the new business.

Cider’s popularity has taken off in recent years, and it’s currently the fastest growing segment of the beverage market. And on Vashon, Nashi Orchards adds to a growing list of small wineries and other crafters that are gaining traction with high-quality, locally made drinks and hoping to draw tourists for tasting and buying.

“People in the industry have been incredibly supportive,” Lubbert said, explaining that the owners of Palouse Winery and Vashon Winery have offered advice and encouragement. They’ve taken tips from the Vashon fruit club, debuted their perry at Cider Fest last year and held an early tasting at a dinner put on by Meat and Noodle, a growing pop-up restaurant.

“Everyone just wants everyone to do well,” Lubbert said, “so as an island we can do something really cool.”

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