Whatcom County truly does have it all: spectacular mountains, tree-lined trails, accessible waterfront parks, good food and a lively music scene. And to wash it all down, our local wineries produce outstanding, award-winning whites, reds and even bubbly.
I spent two chilly, rainy December days visiting five Whatcom wineries. You might think wine touring and tasting is better when the weather is nice and Whatcom County’s beautiful scenery can actually be seen, but I submit there’s no better place to spend a gray and drizzly afternoon than a warm wine tasting room—especially when the wine is top-notch, as it was in each of the wineries I visited.
Day One: Dakota Creek Winery, Mount Baker Vineyards and Winery and Vartanyan Estate Winery
Our tour began at Dakota Creek Winery in Blaine, which Ken and Jill Peck opened in 2005. Ken says they actually went into large-scale winemaking on a whim. “I retired and got bored,” he said. “One morning I told Jill that I was going to see what it would take to start a commercial winery.”
The next thing they knew, they were signing contracts for grapes and ordering custom Italian tanks. If you love good wine, you’ll be glad they followed through on that whim. Dakota Creek makes a wide variety of wines, from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Firefighter Red Blend, to Malbec, Pinot Gris, Sangiovese Rosé, Syrah and even a few more. Plus, they frequently purchase test plots of grapes like Carménère and Dolcetto to broaden their horizons. As Ken says, “It might not make business sense for a winery our size to make this many varieties, but we’re retired, so we can do whatever we want!”
We first tasted the 2011 Gewürztraminer. We both prefer drier whites, and this fit the bill. It had a nice, soft minerality without excessive sweetness. Next came the “oakey but not buttery” Chardonnay. It was unlike any Chardonnay I have ever tasted—quite dry, with crisp Washington berry flavor. Ken says it makes a perfect patio wine in the summer—and I look forward to enjoying a glass on Dakota Creek’s patio when the weather cooperates.
Next, we tasted the Carménère, an old-World, French-style wine you don’t see very often in Washington State. It’s called “the lost grape” because it was thought to be extinct. Dakota Creek is one of a handful of Washington wineries making Carménère, blending it with 18% Malbec, for more berry flavor on the front end and to balance the earthiness. We loved the bold first flavor and soft finish.
We then ventured outside (with 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon in hand) to check out Dakota Creek’s cellaring cave, a beautiful building that is also a model of sustainability. It requires no heating or cooling—so operating the building uses only the energy of five light bulbs! Ken also mentioned that they buy only from vineyards that use drip irrigation, and that they compost all of grape solids for garden fertilizer.
The Dakota Creek Cab delivered a rich bouquet with big tannins that didn’t overwhelm, plus nice acidity and a spicy finish. It was held in both American and French oak, blended together before bottling.
Most of Dakota Creek’s red wine grapes come from Rattlesnake Hills, including those for the Firefighter Blend. A portion of the proceeds from every bottle goes to Whatcom County families impacted by fire. Each year, wine club members taste a few sample blends and vote on the final mix. This year, it’s Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Malbec—and it’s really delicious!
Dakota Creek’s tasting room, along with the bottling operation, is located in Ken’s former sheep-shearing shed. All production is done on-site by Jill and Ken, whose relaxed approach to winemaking comes through in their wine. As Jill said, “sour winemakers make sour wine.”
The two once widely distribute their wines, but scaled back as it became “too much like work.” Focusing on their large wine club and a few local shops and restaurants allows Ken and Jill to keep having fun, making amazing wine with the best grapes they can find.
Dakota Creek Winery, 3575 Haynie Rd., Blaine WA. 98230
Tasting Room Open: Thursday – Saturday, 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
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Our next stop was Mount Baker Vineyards and Winery, located on Mt. Baker Highway. The winery was started in 1982 by Al Stratton and since 1989 has been owned by Randy Finley. The vineyard produces several early ripening grapes, including Chasselas, Pinot Noir, Madeline Angevine, (a French-German cross), Siegerrebe (a cross between Gewürztraminer and Madeline Angevine) and Müller Thurgau, a Riesling-like grape; growers in the Yakima Valley supply the rest.
We talked wine with manager Ben Shannon and winemaker Jesse Nickerson. Mount Baker Vineyards produces a long list of white, red and desert wines. Some unusual varieties in their white wines include Madeleine Angevine, Roussanne and Siegerrebe. They also make Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon and more.
Red offerings in limited release include Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Dolcetto, Petit Verdot, Primitivo and Tempranillo. Wider release varietals include a Cabernet/Merlot blend, estate Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Mount Baker also bottles a white Verjus, which is made from unripened grapes—but not fermented. It’s used in cooking, to add acidity to a variety of dishes, sauces or salad dressings, with a lighter, sweeter flavor than vinegar or lemon juice. It also makes a nice mixer for gin, tequila or vodka, and can even be enjoyed on its own.
Ben started our tasting with a 2011 Viognier, a white varietal that offered hints of pear and apple, with a crisp finish. It would go perfectly with a cheese plate. Then we tasted the bright and refreshing 2011 Estate Siegerrebe. The next wine was the 2011 Pinot Gris, which was nicely dry and smooth.
We moved onto the reds with Mount Baker’s 2009 Malbec, a multi-gold medal award winner. We both noticed some chocolate notes, with spice and soft finish. Very nice! Ben then poured the 2009 Yakima Valley Merlot and finally, the 2008 Syrah. These two represent the best of their respective grapes, with fairly intense berry flavor and moderate tannins on the Merlot, and big, juicy fruit and balanced acidity in the smooth and delicious Syrah.
We then tried the 2008 Olde Sea Spirit Tawny Red Mountain Syrah (a port) and finally, the 2004 Late Harvest Pinot Gris. Late harvest wines are made from grapes left on the vine to dehydrate. Conditions must be just right, with little rain and dry breezes—or the fruit will simply rot. Late harvest wines don’t happen every year, and this one is definitely worth a try. Sweet, but with a nice acidity, it would make a lovely accompaniment to a nice bleu cheese or Stilton.
Mount Baker Vineyards & Winery, 4298 Mt. Baker Hwy, Everson WA 98247
Tasting Room Open: Thursday – Sunday, Noon – 5:00 p.m.
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Our last stop for the first day of touring was Vartanyan Estate Winery, about 15 minutes from downtown Bellingham. Winemaker Margarita Vartanyan is originally from Russia, learned how to make wine from her Armenian in-laws, and found her way to Whatcom County to open her own boutique winery in 2004.
Margarita has earned accolades for her wine, her business sense (she was a finalist for Start-Up Business of the Year) and her summer concerts (named one of the “Six Top Winery Concerts in 2012” by Wine Enthusiast). The tasting room is adjacent to her production facilities, and features art from local artists, a warm fireplace and views of Mt. Baker. In the summer, guests can enjoy the patio, outdoor fireplace and sweeping views.
Vartanyan’s grapes are sourced from the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla, and all wines are produced onsite by Margarita, with help from her son and seasonal workers.
Our tasting started with the 2010 Viognier. With peaches and florals on the nose and flavors of apricot and honey, it was crisp and delicious.
Next we went to the 2007 Mélange, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. This blend delivers a nice balance between fruit, acidity and tannin, with an earthy quality and smooth finish.
Margarita then poured us the 2009 Syrah. This single varietal is aged in Russian and American oak for 18 months; it delivered plenty of rich berry flavor up front, with a lovely finish and pleasant aftertaste that made us want another sip!
We next tried Vartanyan’s 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, blended with 10% Cabernet Franc for balance. The color was rich garnet and the classic cab flavor came through.
Margarita then poured her 2008 Trilogia (Russian for “Trilogy”), which blends three grapes and three barrels: Cabernet Franc, aged in Russian barrels; Syrah, aged in French barrels; and Merlot, aged in American Barrels. The blend also represents three components of Margarita’s wine-making: family tradition, knowledge and passion. The Trilogia was complex and flavorful, with a lingering finish.
Our final taste was of Vartanyan’s 2009 Syrah, an outstanding representative of the varietal. Aromas of blackberry fruit were balanced with pepper, and I enjoyed the lingering finish.
All of Vartanyan Estate’s wines, which also include White Duet, Carousel Red, Cabernet Franc Reserve and Merlot Reserve, are available through the wine club and at the winery.
On Friday nights in the summer, the winery is open until 9:00. And on summer Saturdays, Margarita takes the tasting outside to her lovely property, with views of Mt. Baker and live music from local musicians. The public is welcome to bring a picnic and enjoy the wine, music and scenery.
Margarita also welcomes non-profit organizations to host fundraising events at the winery, offering a portion of all wine sales and no facilities fee.
Margarita Vartanyan’s warm smile will make you feel welcome at her artisan winery, and her stellar wines will entice you to visit often!
Upcoming events at Vartanyan:
January 26 – 27: A Taste of Armenia
February 8–10 and 15 – 17: Valentine’s Wine and Chocolate
March 2: Pre-Release Barrel Tasting
April 6: Bottle Your Own Wine
Vartanyan Estate Winery, 1628 Huntley Rd, Bellingham WA 98226
Tasting Room Open: Friday – Sunday, 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
Starting April 1: Thursday – Sunday, 1:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.
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When Eastern Washington grapes and Whatcom County winemakers come together, amazing things happen. Stop by for a taste and you’ll see what I mean.
Find day two of our Whatcom County Wine tour here. You don’t want to miss it!
Wine Tasting Tips:
- Be safe! Designate a driver. It’s perfectly acceptable to spit after tasting, or to dump out what you don’t want. Also, try sharing a tasting between two of you.
- Find a map to Whatcom County Wineries on Whatcom Wineries Association’s website. All member wineries will be hosting a Valentine’s Wine and Chocolates Weekend in February 9 – 10. Spring Release Celebration will be Mother’s Day weekend in May. Check winery websites and Facebook pages for updates and more details.
- Pick up a Whatcom Wineries Wine Passport at any member winery. Visit all eight and collect your passport stamps to receive a loyalty card that entitles you to a 20% discount on any purchase.
- When you’re in Seattle, stop by Pike Place Market, where you’ll find the brand-new Market Cellars Tasting Room, featuring Masquerade Wine Company and Mount Baker Vineyards. It’s open Fridays through Sundays.