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.

As we set out the next morning to cross Rosario Strait, we encounter a familiar Northwest sea condition. The tidal current was peaking (tidal exchanges of 15-18 feet or more are typical in Puget Sound) and countered by a 20-knot wind, the waters churned with short, steep waves. But our Monaro, built just miles away across the border in Vancouver, was bred for rough conditions. With a hull length of 21 feet and high freeboard, Monaros have safely circumnavigated Vancouver Island, journeyed to Alaska, cruised down the Mississippi River, and performed along hundreds of miles of the wild British Columbia coast. The deep-V bow combined with the sharp forefoot affords us a soft dry ride, even when we occasionally fly the hull.

Photo of a fishing shack that dot the Lummi Island shoreline.

As we arrive in the lee of Orcas Island, the seas settle so we raise Freelance's trim tabs to meander through unnamed islets to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Traveling to San Juan Vineyards is more than a walk, so we rent from Susie's Mopeds a ScootCoupe — a souped-up, two-passenger go-cart — that looks like a shrunk-down Ferrari. We putter past woods and pasture en route to the winery with a tasting room set in a remodeled 1896 schoolhouse. Although the winery makes Chardonnay, Sangiovese, and Syrah from grapes grown in eastern Washington, we chat with winemaker Chris Primus and become most intrigued by the island-grown Siegerrebe and Madeleine Angevine.

Afterward we pay a visit to Mona, a camel that's grazing in the pasture across the way. An island icon, she's the namesake for the winery's Mona Vino Blanc, a blend of Madeleine Angevine, chardonnay, and riesling. On our way back to Freelance, we stop at San Juan Vineyard's second tasting room in Friday Harbor, where local musicians can play on the baby grand piano that belonged to one of the winery's founders.

Top restaurants in the San Juans take pride in pairing island wines with local foods. "We have a bull's-eye philosophy — we want everything from this island we can get," says Kyle Nicholson, chef at The Bluff restaurant. He himself forages for island hedgehog mushrooms, bullwhip kelp, and thimbleberries that adorn his dishes. From the terrace, we can see Freelance moored at Friday Harbor Marina below, and we order a bottle of San Juan Vineyard's 2009 Afterglow, a rosé wine with aromas of strawberries, peaches, and oranges. It goes perfectly with the fried calamari accented by crystallized lemon.

Photo of Mona the camel

Go West, Young Foodies!

The next morning, we set Freelance on course to Roche Harbor at the western end of San Juan Island. It's a beautiful, windless day, so we strip off all the canvas we'd put up the evening before to enclose the cockpit. With sunshine dancing around the cabin, Freelance slices gracefully across the deep blue water. Although our cruising speed is 25-30 knots, today we putter along at idle speed, being in no hurry to get anywhere. Once we're tied up at the docks at Roche, we rent bicycles and pedal along rolling country roads to Westcott Bay Orchards, which produces three hard (alcoholic) ciders, as well as apple eau-de-vie, and Spy Hop gin. Although the region's long, cool summers provide a challenge for ripening wine grapes, the climate is paradise for apples. In the mid-1990s, Richard Anderson planted 1,000 apple trees on his two-acre property above Westcott Bay. Suzy and Hawke Pingree, longtime island residents, became partners with Richard in 2010 and plan to expand operations with distilled offerings of gins and brandies.

The ciders use 16 varieties of apples. "Most are 'spitters' for eating, meaning they taste bad for dessert but are perfect for cider," explains Suzy. Crafted in a 200-liter copper still, the gin incorporates island-grown aromatics including blackberry, wild rose, lavender, and madrone bark.

Photo of artifacts from Northwest Coast tribes

At the Roche Harbor docks, we buy a pound of live, wriggling spot prawns, our favorite summertime delicacy, and motor a few minutes to a mirror-still anchorage at Westcott Bay, one of the most protected anchorages in the San Juans. We almost always see wildlife here — deer, blue heron, kingfishers. On this evening, a bald eagle perches atop a Douglas fir, standing sentinel over its watery realm. We chill a bottle of chardonnay from San Juan Vineyards by putting it in a net bag tied to a cleat and tossing it overboard. Puget Sound may be too cold for swimming, but its waters make a superb ice bucket. Risa, the designated "assassin," decapitates the prawns and cooks the tails with butter and garlic (there is no such thing as too much garlic). With the chilled wine, it's the perfect maritime meal.

Photo of San Juan Vineyards Tasting Room sign

What A Great Pairing

The weatherman did not lie and the next day again greets us with golden sun and calm waters on our crossing to Lopez Island. We carefully motor Freelance into Fisherman Bay, paying attention to the buoys that mark the shallow entrance. On our starboard side lies a spit where improvisational sculptors have formed fantastical ships from bleached driftwood. After securing a slip at Lopez Islander Resort and Marina, we rent bikes — the best way to get around this mostly flat, laid-back island. A one-mile pedal brings us to tiny Lopez Village where we seek out Lopez Island Vineyards. "Summer Hours 12 to 5-ish," reads the sign on the door. Luckily we arrive on the good side of "ish."

Photo of grilled duck breast with mango-chile chutney

Established in 1987, Lopez Island Vineyards is owned by Brent Charnley, the winemaker, and his wife Maggie. Brent got bit by the wine bug as a college student while laboring in a Bordeaux vineyard as a lark. A graduate of the viticulture program at UC Davis, he worked just a few miles up the coast at Mount Baker Vineyards before planting his own vineyard on Lopez Island. In addition to making Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe from organically grown estate grapes, he crafts wines from grapes grown in eastern Washington as well as fruit wines from apples, pears, blackberries, and raspberries. Brent recently opened a second tasting room in Eastsound Village on Orcas, the largest of the San Juan Islands.

We finish our time in the San Juans at Lopez Village with dinner at Bay Café, which overlooks the best plunk-into-the-sea sunsets in the San Juans. Two glasses of Lopez Island Vineyard's Madeleine Angevine enhance the flavor of the crab and shrimp cakes — all seafood, no filler, and the cakes swim atop a sauce accented by basil, cilantro, and loads of lemon. This trip has been a perfect pairing: wine and water – namely, on the great cruising of the Salish Sea. I take another sip of the Madeleine Angevine. "These should be called the San Wine Islands," I suggest to Risa contentedly. End of story marker

Photo of vineyard

Peter Schroeder, a Seattle-based freelance marine writer and photographer, has cruised and written about the world's great boating destinations in Europe, Australasia (Australia, New Zealand, and Melanesia), the Western Pacific, the Caribbean, and North America. He and his wife Risa Wyatt, a freelance food-and-wine writer, have a five-acre organic Syrah vineyard in Sonoma, California.