Last week, on a bright but cold October day, islander Ron Irvine pressed island-grown Pinot Noir at his winery — a task that made him feel emotional, he said, because it might be the last time he does it.
Irvine, 71, has recently announced that he’d like to sell Vashon Winery — located down a country road, near Vashon’s north end, in a picturesque red barn surrounded by apple trees.
It’s a peaceful place where Irvine has worked hard for many years, but also found ample time to sit quietly by himself in the sun, on a bench just outside the winery doors, jotting down his thoughts, writing poetry or reading it.
It’s a place that is now full of memories of a life well-lived.
“One of the reasons I bought the winery, originally, is that I wanted to be a producer,” he said. “I wanted to make something — it could have been art or something else — but being responsible for something and producing something with your own hands is a wonderful thing.”
And make things he did.
For Irvine, 19 seasons of wine-making have now passed since he purchased the winery, and even more since he first fell in love with the idea of becoming a vintner, while working for the winery’s previous owner.
In his years of owning the place, he’s pressed 15 vintages of island-grown Pinot Noir. It’s been a feat of mastery over a finicky grape that was so remarkable when Irvine and his collaborators first succeeded in doing it in 2006, it was a first for not only Vashon vintners but was also one of the first Pinot Noir vintages produced in the Puget Sound region.
Over the years, Irvine has worked with local vineyard owners including Mary and John Beba, Bob and Cindy O’Brien, Joe Curiel and Tony Raugust, Beth Tuttle and Henry Haselton to grow the Pinot Noir grapes. Another, more recent grower for Irvine has been Vince Nordfors, who grows a new mold-resistant grape called Regent.
And all along the way, Irvine has held a parallel place in his heart for Vashon’s vibrant poetry scene.
The winery, under Irvine’s ownership, has served as a kind of clubhouse for local poets and musicians, where readings took place indoors amid the oak wine barrels, and where folk singers gathered to play on the expansive, sun-dappled grounds.
Vashon’s current Poet Laureate, Susan Lynch, was installed in her post at the Winery, in June 2019 — she is the latest in a line of honorees who have received the mantle of Laureate at the Winery since the post was first established in 2011.
It was at the Winery that Irvine and other high-minded co-conspirators got their ideas for such events as the bi-annual Vashon Poetry Festival, which launched in 2009 and ran through 2017 — an event that not only provided exposure for Vashon’s poetry community but also brought Northwest poetry luminaries including Samuel Green, Tess Gallagher, Larry Matsuda, Sam Hamill, as well as award-winning Irish poet Tony Curtis to the island.
“He has what I would call a quiet, steady generosity,” said Merna Hecht, a fixture on Vashon’s poetry scene, as well as former Poet Laureate of Vashon. “It’s never about him, it’s about facilitating the poetry community. Behind the scenes, he has been such a force in making it all happen.”
Ann Spiers, Vashon’s inaugural Poet Laureate, similarly praised him for the role he has played in the community.
“Ron Irvine is the godfather of Vashon poetry,” Spiers said. “He wants poetry to be heard and poets to be seen and honored on Vashon Island. He brings Northwest poets like David Wagoner to his winery for convivial readings and glasses of wine … All his poetry projects enriched life for poets and poetry lovers.”
Other projects, helmed by Irvine, have included the one-time-only ReadOnWriteOn Vashon book festival, and a re-creation of the historical Chautauqua in Ellisport, with a lineup of nine speakers.
The Winery has also been the site of many musical performances — both at Irvine’s own Vashon Folk Festival, which he produced for three years, and other one-off events.
Now, in the quiet era of a pandemic, Irvine said he misses the musicians, naming some of the favorites who have played at the winery and helped him organize his festivals: Mark Welles, Steve Amsden, Danny O’Keefe and Scott Cossu, Wally Bell, Dan and Jean Brown.
He also has indelible memories of poetry being read at the winery, including the time that Sam Green, Washington’s Poet Laureate, took his audience outdoors to recite a poem about, of all things, how to kill a deer.
But as Green held court, surrounded by his admirers, other visitors arrived.
“A family of deer walked through, while he was reading, and practically brushed up against his elbow,” Irvine said.
Irvine has lived on Vashon, in the same house in Ellisport, since 1979. In the decades that have passed since then, he’s written a book called “The Wine Project,” boxed up countless cases of wine, and pursued his passions for poetry, music and community. He’s also welcomed his own extended clan from Canada for family reunions on the Winery’s grounds, serving up Polish sausages and potato pancakes to the crowd of more than 100 relatives, as a neighbor from down the road played Polish music on her accordion.
He’s not sure what will come next for him, after selling the winery — perhaps a move to California with his wife, Ginny Nichols, to live closer to their now-grown son and daughter. Nichols is the long time owner of her own island-based upholstery business, Phoenix Upholstery.
Irvine admits that it is hard to imagine leaving.
“I love my lifestyle, I love the house and the woods and the beach and our neighbors and I look forward to going home,” he said. “But I do look forward to just having time. I’ve worked on Saturdays since I was 16 years old.”
One thing he hopes to do, after selling the winery, is to write more of his own poems, including haiku, a form that he says will keep him in touch with nature.
But no matter what comes next, he’s eager to pass along his winery — whose building and grounds he rents — to someone else who would like to have the same kind of enchanted experiences there that he has had.
“It’s a wonderful way to work and live,” he said.
— Those interested in purchasing Vashon Winery should contact Ron Irvine at email@example.com or call or text 206-931-4703.
First, you hold the stem,
You see the ruby red of early mornings
In the south, south-eastern sky.
You swirl the wine and smell;
Berries splash against the glass.
Perfumed notes rise
With sweat dribbled in the soil.
You take a sip;
Acids, the chariots of flavors,
Race across your tongue
Define the place.
The flavors, the feel,
The delicacy of lace,
The power of velvet,
The warmth of ethanol.
Fresh, cooked, distilled.
Tannins, the wine’s breath,
Stones in a river bed.
This Pinot Noir, a mirror,
Reaching back to Cistercian monks
Tending vines on a gentle slope
That you can taste.
Ron Irvine, December 2014