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Originally published October 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 25, 2008 at 8:00 AM

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Whidbey Island's got grape expectations

Whidbey Island is the latest Western Washington tourist region to add wineries, tasting rooms and vineyards to its list of attractions.

Seattle Times staff reporter

If you go

Whidbey Island wineries

Where

All wineries on Whidbey are on the southern part of the island, making for an easy day trip along state Highway 525. A good starting point is Whidbey Island Vineyards & Winery, a few miles off the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry, then work your way up the island to Holmes Harbor Cellars, Greenbank Cellars and then Whidbey's Greenbank Farm. Other wineries require appointments at this time.

Whidbey Island Vineyards & Winery, 5237 S. Langley Road, Langley. 360-221-2040 or whidbeyislandwinery.com

Holmes Harbor Cellars, 4591 S. Honeymoon Bay Road, Greenbank. 360-331-3544 or holmesharborcellars.com

Greenbank Cellars, 3112 Day Road, Greenbank. 360-678-3964 or www.whidbey.com/wine

Whidbey's Greenbank Farm, with wine shop and tasting room, 765 Wonn Road, Greenbank. 360-678-7700 or www.greenbankfarm.com

Blooms winery, 5302 S. East Harbor Road, Freeland; tasting at Greenbank Farm only. 360-331-4084 or www.bloomswinery.com

FishTalk Vineyard, 5071 S. Bercot Road, Freeland, open by appointment only. Tasting at Greenbank Farm. 360-331-5335 or www.fishtalkvineyard.com

Swede Hill Cellars, Swede Hill Road, Clinton; Will open tasting room next summer.

206-200-1728 or swedehillcellars.com

Whidbey Wine, 5881 Maxwelton Road, Langley. whidbeywine.com. Will open tasting room next summer.

Vinesmith's Cellar, Freeland. Will open next year, perhaps by September.

Tips

Some of the best wines on the island are Blooms' Cabernet Sauvignon, the Whidbey Island Winery's Cabernet Franc and Holmes Harbor Cellar's 2006 Red Etude.

Greenbank Farm is your one-stop shop if you'd rather not tour all the wineries. The historic farm carries wines from all the wineries on the island and offers daily wine tasting, including the farm's loganberry and dessert wines. The 522-acre farm includes a duck pond and art galleries, cheese shop and cafe that specializes in pies. Its Sunday farmers market runs from April through October.

Nearby dining

Frasers Gourmet Hideaway, 1191 S.E. Dock St., Suite 101, Oak Harbor. 360-279-1231 or frasersgh.com

Prima Bistro, 201 ½ First St., Langley. 360-221-4060 or primabistro.biz

The Oystercatcher, 901 Grace St., Coupeville. 360-678-0683 or oystercatcherwhidbey.com

The Edgecliff Restaurant & Lounge, 510 Cascade Ave., Langley. 866-825-3640 or theedgecliffwi.com

More information

See the Web site for Puget Sound Wine Growers Association: pswg.org

Get ski and boarding conditions all winter long with webcams, snow alerts and more at seattletimes.com/snowsports

WHIDBEY ISLAND — The modest rolling vineyards and tasting rooms are barely visible from these countryside roads — and that's only if you drive below 25 mph.

Whidbey, an hour north of Seattle by car and ferry, remains new to wine tourism. Still building Web pages on the latest wine releases. Still printing tour maps and pamphlets. And still putting out tasting-hour signs.

But the wineries are there.

Whidbey is the latest to enter into the niche market of wine tourism on islands and in port towns. Take a ferry anywhere near Seattle and you will likely see wine tourism or wineries in the works.

Bainbridge Island features six wineries, most started in the last 18 months. In north Olympic Peninsula, seven wineries from Port Angeles to Port Townsend have formed an alliance to promote wine tourism.

Soon, Whidbey Island will have eight wineries to build upon.

What the Whidbey Island tourism industry wants, what all these islands and town chambers want, is to broaden its appeal to Seattleites who often ferry here for bed-and-breakfast getaways, take bike treks through the countryside or escape to small town Main Streets.

"These [wineries] will round out our tourism," said Greg Osenbach, owner and winemaker of Whidbey Island Vineyards & Winery. "We are in position to draw a lot of visitors. If you have five or six wineries, you can start to advertise yourself as a wine destination. There is a critical mass."

The fine-dining scene

For some, Whidbey remains synonymous with its naval base, but it does have a wine history. In 1972, Greenbank Berry Farm grew to become the nation's largest loganberry producer. Ste. Michelle Vintners once owned this 522-acre spread, making loganberry wines, liqueurs and ports.

Now it's back in island hands, renamed Whidbey's Greenbank Farm. The historic landmark features a restaurant, cheese shop, a Sunday farmers market and a wine shop that features tastings of two dozen Puget Sound wines, including Blooms and FishTalk, two Whidbey wineries without their own tasting rooms.

In hindsight, the foundation for wine tourism was laid out already. The dining scene, crucial to any wine tourism, has improved. The exceptional Prima Bistro in Langley is no longer the exception. In the last two years, Joe Scott, formerly of Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, opened the Oystercatcher in Coupeville, and Chef Scott Fraser, of the famed Le Crocodile in Vancouver, B.C., has raised the bar in fine dining with Frasers Gourmet Hideaway in Oak Harbor.

As winemakers are starting to discover, the cool, maritime climate on Whidbey is similar to the Loire Valley in France. (If you've ever purchased a French table wine in a wine store, it likely came from this French wine-growing region.)

The climate is conducive for cold-climate grapes, as Osenbach discovered 22 years ago when he planted his first vineyard in Langley. "People suggested I keep my day job," recalled Osenbach, a former owner of a steel engineering firm in Monroe. Osenbach, like Gerard Bentryn of Bainbridge Island Winery and Brent Charnley of Lopez island Winery, is considered a pioneer in grape growing around Puget Sound.

Now, four other wineries are open, with three more either waiting for their wines to mature or building tasting rooms.

Small family operations

Like several Whidbey winemakers, Osenbach makes white wine from grapes out of his backyard and relies on Eastern Washington grapes for his big reds.

His signature estate "Island White," an off-dry white with fruity aromas, remains his best-selling wine, and for $10, a good value and popular souvenir.

Located off Langley's main drag, Whidbey Island Winery is one of the town's top tourist attractions, and with a picnic area, his vineyard makes for an attractive pit stop for cyclists. Often, local art exhibits are featured at the winery.

It's easy to get to know the winemakers on Whidbey, all small producers who make 1,000 to 3,000 cases annually and grow about three to five acres of grapes. Like any mom-and-pop business, their imprint is on everything. The families pick the grapes, bottle the wine, market and run the tasting rooms.

They are winemakers such as former Navy pilot Greg Martinez of Holmes Harbor Cellars, who just opened his tasting room last week. Most men dream of flying planes. Martinez flew them to fulfill his dream of saving enough for a winery. He and his wife purchased 20 acres in Greenbank, at the center of Whidbey, on which to build his dream house and dream business.

The California native makes bold reds and heavily oaked whites using grapes from Walla Walla and Yakima Valley. He is growing pinot grapes for his future estate wines.

Martinez hosts art exhibits and live bands by his vineyards and Tuscan style tasting room. But it's more down-to-earth than grand. In evenings, neighbors often knock on his door to buy a bottle and stroll back to drink his cabernet with their meals.

Only on Whidbey, he explains.

A real character

Washington has grown to become the nation's second-largest wine producer, with many wineries "chasing points" from Wine Spectator and judges, and regions shooting to be "the Next Napa."

The beauty of boutique wineries such as Whidbey's is that they still feel more artisanal than commercialized. Only in a boutique winery would you find a hands-on and eccentric winemaker like Frank Rayle, 70, of Greenbank Cellars, a free-spirited Southern California transplant who spreads his "toys" on his five acres in the middle of the island.

He runs an estate winery and tasting room, featuring Alsatian-style wines and two century-old peep show machines he purchased because, well, he felt like it. After wine-tasting, visitors really shouldn't miss a look at his other collections:

• His garage features antique cars, including a shiny 1936 Cord sedan he still drives in the countryside.

• Another room is filled with century-old nickelodeons and mechanical pianos once owned by Disneyland and bordellos.

• His latest toy — you have to see it, or rather hear it, to believe it — is a mechanical organ from a carousel in Belgium.

As I visit, it blares the theme from "Phantom of the Opera" so loudly I can't hear what Rayle's bragging about.

His goal: to refurbish the giant antique organ, then tow it outside his barn to share Andrew Lloyd Webber's show tune with his good neighbors.

"Uh, wouldn't folks complain about the noise?" I asked.

Rayle looked surprised and offended. "Well, I guess they can get earplugs."

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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