Boating in the San Juan Islands

By Peter Schroeder
Photos by Risa Wyatt
Published: August/September 2012

Can a cruising yacht skipper and a fine-wine sipper find happiness afloat, together?

Although my wife Risa enjoys boating, her ideal getaway involves visiting vineyards and wine-tasting rooms. While I'll happily quaff a glass of pinot noir, my favorite escape centers on cruising aboard Freelance, our Monaro 21 cuddy cruiser. Fortunately the San Juan Islands, near our Seattle home, offer both ports of call and pours of top-caliber wines. For two decades, we've cruised these waters, encountering breaching orcas and jabbering sea lions, as well as secluded coves girded by cliffs. In recent years, natural wonders have been joined by more than a dozen wineries and vineyards easily reached by boat.

Photo of San Juan island's marina

The San Juans belong to the Puget Sound AVA (American Viticultural Area), a federally designated grape-growing region. Lying at the cool extreme of viticultural survival, the islands experience a short, sweet summer, amplified by long hours of sunlight. While some local winemakers truck in grapes from eastern Washington, others tackle the chilly challenges of island viticulture. Cool-weather vinifera that thrive include Madeleine Angevine (a white grape from France's Loire Valley) and Siegerrebe (a cross between Madeleine Angevine and Gewürztraminer).

Just as locavores celebrate regionally grown foods, "loca-pour" enthusiasts seek wines grown near their home zip codes. "Let's do a wine odyssey," I suggested to Risa last year for our annual summer cruise in the San Juans. "We'll check out island wineries and see what the restaurants are up to." My wife was onboard, literally and figuratively.

Photo of the author aboard his boat Freelance

Wine On The Water

We trailer Freelance north to Bellingham and embark from Squalicum Marina in August, on a week where the weather chart shows cheerful yellow suns glowing each day. Instead of foreboding wine-dark seas, we encounter cat's paws ruffling a calm Bellingham Bay, as we embark on our odyssey for the week – to explore a different vineyard each day, return to the quiet of our boat each evening after dinner, and get a fresh start each morning.

Photo of copper used to brandy

Our first stop is close by: Dynasty Cellars located just above the beach, home to the Lummi Nation, owned by Peter Osvaldik, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia. Although the grapes come from eastern Washington, Peter oversees their vineyard management from determining when to prune, to showing up at dawn in an old truck to help harvest the grapes. His attention to detail shows in his cabernet sauvignon, with bold flavors of blackberry and black cherry.

With spotty cell phone service and only 900 residents, tiny Lummi Island across from Peter's boutique winery makes an unlikely hot spot for epicures. In fact, in all my years cruising the San Juans, I've never stopped here. But Risa informs me we've got to go, and we fire up the motors and head off across the water. The reason: the arrival of Blaine Wetzel at Willows Inn in 2011. The 25-year-old wünderchef previously worked in Copenhagen at Noma, which was cited as the best restaurant in the world by the British magazine Restaurant. Originally from Olympia, Washington, Wetzel wanted to return to the Northwest; he learned about the opening at Willows in an unlikely way — on Craigslist!

Photo of oysters from the Willow Inn

Wetzel explores the boundary between sea and land in dishes such as local spot prawns balanced by earthy kale and savoy cabbage. Sous-chefs scour the hills and shoreline for wild herbs and sea beans, while Lummi tribal members reef-net salmon the traditional way.

The next day we cruise south along Lummi's western shoreline to Artisan Wine Gallery, owned by Ryan Wildstar, a retired professor at Western Washington University. "I started the shop after my wine collection outstripped the dimensions of my garage," he tells us. "The only criterion is I have to like it, and it has to be a particularly good value." He carries top Washington labels as well as racks of wines under $12.

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