When talking Washington wines, most minds wander east to Yakima, Walla Walla and the Rattlesnake Hills. However much closer to home lies a small but special scene of its own: the Whidbey Island Wine Trail.
Here on a rural island in the Puget Sound, a handful of wineries are producing innovative, delicious and award winning drops. And it’s totally accessible to Seattle – just a 15 minute ferry ride from Mukilteo on the mainland – making Whidbey the perfect day trip or weekend city escape.
Having sipped local wines on San Juan Island, Lopez Island and in Yakima, I’d long been eager to check out what Whidbey Island has to offer. Enter the Red Wine and Chocolate Festival. An event dedicated to one of life’s ultimate combinations, up there with bacon and eggs or Sonny and Cher.
So on a sunny Sunday, Tom and I made the spectacular drive south from Anacortes to Whidbey Island. Winding past farms, barns and small towns, we caught glimpses of the Cascade and Olympic mountains along the way and grew even more excited for the culinary adventures that lie ahead.
About the Event
The Red Wine, Spirits and Chocolate Tour is an annual event hosted by Whidbey Island Vintners and Distillers Association. Over two weekends in February (11-12 and 18-19 this year), Whidbey’s best producers open their doors and give visitors the opportunity to taste handcrafted wines and spirits alongside locally made chocolates and sweets.
They had me at ‘wine and chocolate’ but when I found out tickets to the event were just $25 I knew I had to forgo a day of skiing and get myself to Whidbey Island, stat. That entry fee gave me access to tastings at all five destinations on the trail, along with a souvenir wine glass.
Stop 1: Comforts of Whidbey
Just outside of Langley, a quaint seaside town on the south of Whidbey Island, lies Comforts of Whidbey. This winery feels like you’ve stepped into a retreat – but what struck me more than the glistening Puget Sound views from the tasting room was the sense of warmth and friendliness the moment we walked in.
Before we took our first sip of wine we were bonding over common ground with the owners – a lovely American family who lived in Australia for many years. If that wasn’t enough to love them, I found out their grapes are picked by community harvest! Each fall locals volunteer their time to help pick the grapes on the four acres of vineyards. After picking, the owners offer demonstrations of how the wine is made and throw a big dinner party for everyone. How amazing is that?!
But onto the wines! We tasted two white wines to start, paired with a sweet chocolate fudge: the Madeleine Angevine, a cool climate white wine that I could sip forever, and Sweet Donna, with floral flavours perfect for a sunny afternoon picnic. Next up were the reds – a cabernet sauvignon and a malbec accompanied by a cab sav centred chocolate from nearby CJ & Y Decadent Desserts. I can’t resist a full bodied red wine and bought a bottle of Malbec to take home, my first souvenir of the day.
As I sipped I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful the tasting room is: with plenty of open space and floor to ceiling windows, it’d be a great location for a wedding reception or special event. They’ve also just opened a B&B on site – that’s excuse enough for me to make a return trip for more wine!
Stop 2: Spoiled Dog Winery
The island’s rural setting is really shown off at Spoiled Dog, where the tasting room is set inside an old barn surrounded by vineyards. This boutique family owned winery focuses on sustainable practices to make their wine – which they were happy to chat about during our tasting session.
First up was the Pinot Noir, sourced from the estate vineyard right here on Whidbey Island (I’m told the maritime climate is perfect for this type of grape). The fruit for the two other reds we sipped – a merlot and ‘Pooch’ carmenere – are sourced from Washington and Oregon vineyards. The Pooch Red had such a unique, spicy flavour that I bought a Growler right then and there. Yes, a Growler! Pooch is sold from the tap as a greener way to drink wine.
Our tastings were accompanied by treats from local CJ & Y Decadent Desserts: a chocolate heart centred with caramel, sea salt and pecans; pinot noir soaked cherries in a flourless chocolate cake and a bitter dark chocolate.
Another highlight of my visit? Getting cuddle time with Sami, their beautiful Australian shepherd and one of the famous spoiled pooches who inspired the name!
Stop 3: Whidbey Island Distillery
Just a stone’s throw from Spoiled Dog is Whidbey Island Distillery. Friends and bartenders have been singing their praises since I moved here in 2015, so I was excited to finally visit the home of the famous and award-winning loganberry liqueur. It’s another family operation, with three generations of the Heising family producing spirits since 2011.
As soon as we descended into the ‘Bunker’ tasting room we could smell delicious flavours of sweet berries and fermentation (trust me, it’s an amazing combo).
We began with a tour of the micro-distilling room. It was fascinating to see how they operate so successfully with such a small set up: the main reason being they’ve custom designed their own stills. One constantly produces a rye whiskey, and the other distills wine for the liqueur.
The tasting line up was huge, beginning with the Bunker Rye Whiskey which is distilled, aged and bottled on premises. Then we sampled the entire range of berry liqueurs: blackberry, raspberry, loganberry and boysenberry. It really is a local operation: the wine for liqueurs comes from local vineyards, and berries are sourced from a farm on the Olympic Peninsula.
The tasting finished with the distillery’s own version of a Manhattan, complemented by a milk chocolate infused with Bunker Rye and boysenberry liqueur – crafted exclusively for the event by local chocolatier Sweet Mona’s.
By the third tasting session our stomachs grew hungry for something other than booze and chocolate so we decided to take a break and stretch our legs. Happily, Whidbey Island has no shortage of beautiful vistas so we ordered sandwiches from a nearby deli and made our way to Double Bluff Beach.
A little walk in the sunshine was the perfect break before resuming the wine tour for our final two stops of the day. Check out the view of Mt Rainier from the shore!
Stop 4: Blooms Winery
Now well fed and rested, we drove the short distance to Bayview Corner for stop four: Blooms Tasting Room. This was the only winery of the day that we had visited previously (back in 2015!), and I still adore how much local art is displayed in their shop. They’re also really dedicated to supporting local music and host regular gigs on site.
Owners Ken and Virginia have nearly two decades of wine making under their belts at Blooms, and have been achieving both national and international recognition along the way. Most grapes are sourced from an estate vineyard in Washington’s Rattlesnake Hills, and as such their offering of bold red wines is phenomenal.
We took a seat in the sunlit tasting room and worked our way through samples of four red wines: Melange, Syrah, Malbec and Poetic. I absolutely love their Syrah and have bought bottles previously, but it was the Poetic that stole the show for me today with its earthy blend of syrah, malbec and petit verdot. I’m not the only fan – the Poetic recently won Double Gold at the Seattle Wine Awards.
Blooms’ wines were paired with chocolate covered sour cherries from Chukar Cherry Company, based in the heart of Washington wine country.
Stop 5: Holmes Harbor Cellars
Our final stop on the Whidbey Island Wine Trail was Holmes Harbor Cellars. As we drove up the hill and onto the 20 acre wooded estate, I felt so appreciative to have gems like this on the island: a taste of Tuscany or Napa so close to home.
Holmes Harbor Cellars produces a diverse range of varietal and blended wines, made from grapes grown in the Yakima and Walla Walla valleys.
With a very limited production, every drop feels like something special. Winemakers Greg and Theresa have been here in Greenbank since 2008, and won numerous awards along the way. We tasted four delicious reds, my favourite being the Red Etude – a cabernet, merlot and syrah blend. The final wine of the day was a Late Harvest Zinfandel– I’m not usually a fan of dessert wine as I prefer dry flavours but if I am ever going to be swayed to the sweet side, this is the wine to do it!
Our tasting was accompanied by a lovely Red Etude wine infused chocolate truffle – one of my favourite desserts of the day.
The Red Wine, Spirits and Chocolate Tour was such a fun day out, and finally gave me the opportunity to visit places that I had been meaning to for a long time now.
I’ll never pass up the opportunity for wine and chocolate, but pairing indulgence with supporting local producers and driving through the beautiful country roads of Whidbey Island? Icing on the cake.
Actually, let’s not mention cake. I’m still too full from my day on the wine trail!
The Whidbey Island Wine, Spirits & Chocolate Tour continues this coming weekend (18-19 Feb). Buy tickets online for $25 or at the door for $30.
If you can’t make it this weekend, mark it in your calendar for next year! Also, the Savor Spring Food Wine & Spirits Tour is coming up on May 20 & 21. The event showcases local made wine and spirits, paired with delicious food from the island’s top restaurants.
Learn more about the Whidbey Island Wine and Spirits Trail here.
This post was not sponsored, just the enthusiastic reporting of one extremely happy wine and chocolate lover!