The Many Flavors of Whidbey Island

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THE MANY FLAVORS OF WHIDBEY ISLAND
By Hilarie Larson

 

Travel writer Hilarie Larson discusses Whidbey Island’s agricultural heritage including a bounty of wine, cider and spirits, plus, the freshest, most inspired and downright tasty cuisine you can imagine, on Big Blend Radio.

City stress and hurried travel become a distant memory as soon as you see the ferry. The fresh, salty sea air flows over you as Whidbey Island draws closer, enticing you with a sense of pending tranquility and, for ‘foodies,’ an element of anticipation. A bounty of carefully crafted wines, spirits, and locally produced food awaits, along with the opportunity to meet the talented artisans who call the island home. And that’s just the beginning.

Sheltered from the legendary Pacific Northwest rain by the Olympic Peninsula, the island’s more temperate climate makes exploration possible and allows agriculture to thrive. From the fresh mussels and shellfish of Penn Cove, to bread created from the grains of the Ebey’s Landing Prairie, you’ll be amazed by all there is to experience.

Begin your culinary adventure by visiting Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve. Protected as a Historical Reserve in 1978, the 17,000 plus acres offer a snapshot of America’s history. In the early 1850s, the Europeans began to settle the central prairie and forest land of the island. The region has changed little since then. Many of the original homesteading families are still in charge of their heritage farms, providing coveted fresh produce to Whidbey’s top restaurants.

Drive to Sunnyside Cemetery at the top of Sherman Road for an awe-inspiring vista – from Mount Baker on the mainland, across the verdant prairie and onwards to the sea. There’s a selection of trails to explore as well as the hauntingly beautiful tombstones dating back to the mid-1800s.

The charming town of Coupeville is located within the Reserve’s boundaries and is filled with delightful heritage buildings, many dating back to the city’s founding in the early 1850s. Wander along the seafront and soak in the relaxed, small-town atmosphere.

Travel a few miles north, along Penn Cove to one of the island’s most iconic locations – the Captain Whidbey Inn. Built from local fir and stone in 1907, the ‘Whid Isle Inn” was a fishing lodge. It was also a girl’s school and a private home, a boarding house, and a post office. In 1946 the Captain Whidbey returned to its original purpose, offering accommodation and food to island visitors and locals alike.

The Inn is so melded into ‘island life’ that every local has a memory: a first date, holiday parties, or special celebration dinners. It wasn’t surprising that, when tales of new ownership began to circulate, some locals were a bit leery of change.

In 2018, Portland natives Matt and Mike French, along with their partner, architect Eric Cheong, purchased the 6-acre property. They closed the Inn for months to stabilize the main lodge’s floor, open up the dining room and add a few modern conveniences. Everything was done with reverence for the past and memories of loyal guests who’d been visiting for generations. When you sit in the dining room or by the lobby fire, you can hear the floors creak as if they’re sharing stories. The wood walls, beams and floors, glow with a rich patina that only age can bestow.

Walk along the beach or out to the bright yellow boathouse. Stroll through the kitchen garden or find a secluded firepit for late-night s’mores. Order a glass of wine or a cocktail then stake a spot on the back deck or side porch. Catch a divine sunset, a view of Mount Baker or a passing Orca.

The southern half of Whidbey Island is home to several award-winning wineries and distilleries. Each November, the ‘Autumn on Whidbey Art, Wine & Spirits Tour’ is a highlight of the year – a post-harvest celebration that makes for the perfect weekend getaway. Taste your way along the Whidbey Wine and Spirits Trail while enjoying an array of sculptures, paintings, ceramics, and glass. The artists will be there to talk about their work, plus many will be creating on-site.

Autumn is also time for the Case Card Sale. Purchase 12 bottles (mix and match from the various wineries/distilleries) and receive 2 free tickets to the Red Wine & Chocolate Tour in November 2020.

All six participating establishments are reasonably close in proximity but distinctively different in character.

Comforts of Whidbey sits between the towns of Langley and Clinton at the southern end of the island. Purchased by Carl and Rita Comfort in 2006, the winery produces some of the best examples of locally grown varieties Siegerrebe, Madeleine Angevine, Madeleine Sylvaner and Pinot Noir. Try High Tide White or the single-variety Madeleine Angevine, and you’ll understand why there’s a buzz about Island wines.

Spoiled Dog Winery is another flag-bearer for quality Whidbey wines. Their Estate Pinot Noir is a multiple vintage Gold Medal winner, and the 2018 Rose of Estate Pinot Noir is a pink-sipper’s delight. The scenic vineyards and farmland are surrounded by lush evergreen forests, forming the perfect backdrop for a beautiful winery day. Take the vineyard tour for the total experience!

Venture down into the Bunker of Whidbey Island Distillery to sample deliciously distilled 90 proof Rye whiskey and sumptuous liquors. Locally sourced Loganberries and blackberries are just a few of the delicious options to sip alone or as part of a cocktail. Ask owner Beverly for some recipes and sneak a peek at the fantastic stills.

Blooms Winery owners Virginia and Ken Bloom, have recently moved into a new facility near Freeland. This expanded space allows them to showcase their delicious wines alongside their other loves – food, art, and music. Wine tastings are served in flights so be sure to include their softly tropical Sauvignon Blanc, and Poetic – a drinkable blend of Washington State Syrah, Malbec and Petit Verdot, with notes of dark fruit, and mocha. You’ll find inspiring art all throughout the winery, from massive sculptures at the entrance to local musician’s CDs in the gift shop.

At nearby Mutiny Bay Distillery, the Stallman family crafts barrel-aged, small-batch whiskey using wheat sourced in Washington State. Try their ‘Palouse Gold,’ aged for 3 years in American Oak, ‘Sweet Lulu’ a sweetened whiskey that’s great on its own, in a cocktail or over ice-cream. Crafted from a blend of grains and traditional juniper, ‘Strait Gin’ has a slightly citrus and herbal note. And don’t forget to try their Blueberry Liqueur chocolates.

At Holmes Harbor Cellars, on the shore of Honeymoon Bay, husband and wife team, Theresa and Greg Martinez have found the perfect spot to pursue their passion. She’s a chemist, and he’s a retired Navy flyer who finds time to make wine and be a commercial pilot. You’re greeted by a young vineyard of Siegerrebe that leads to the cozy, cellar/tasting room. Hospitable staff are eager to tell you about the wines created from select vineyards in the Yakima and Walla Walla valleys. Begin with a refreshing white like Albarino or an unusual (and delicious!) Lemberger Rose. Move along to their award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux influenced blends such as ‘3 Wire Red’ inspired by the 100th anniversary of Naval Aviation. Take your glass to the patio and relax. You’re on Island Time now.

Where to Stay:
The Captain Whidbey Inn, Coupeville – travel back in time and stay upstairs in the original lodge. Rooms are true to period with a few modern conveniences like soft fleece robes and Suite Sleep Organic mattresses. For more privacy, go revamped 70’s modern in the Lagoon rooms, or choose one of the private cabins. Summer camp was never like this.

The Inn at Langley and the Saratoga Inn offer Northwest hospitality, luxurious rooms and terrific locale in the heart of Langley.

The newly opened B&B at Comforts of Whidbey is a wine-lovers dream. Located over the winery and tasting room, the 6 quiet, tasteful and comfortable rooms feature king beds, and views of the pastures and vineyard or towards Puget Sound. There’s a relaxed communal sitting area, library and coffee/tea bar so you’ll feel right at home.

Where to Eat:
Langley serves up a wide array of dining. Check out Prima Bistro and Saltwater Fish House & Oyster Bar, Village Pizzeria (a great view of the Saratoga Sea), Anthus Ferments and Useless Bay Coffee.

The 511 Bistro is part of Blooms Winery in Freeland. Tasty small plates, salads, and entrees are created with locally sourced ingredients – 3 Sisters Lamb and Grass-Fed Beef, Samish Bay Cheese and Penn Cove Mussels.

When in Coupeville, try Toby’s Tavern for local seafood served in decidedly unpretentious surroundings. This local venue also serves up a side of people watching! The Oystercatcher is farm to table fare with outstanding fresh baked bread. Enjoy views of the pier while dining at the popular Front Street Grill.

The cozy restaurant at the Captain Whidbey Inn blends Northwest casual with European flair, thanks to the inspired menu of French-born Executive Chef Eric Trunlass. Alongside traditional steak and seafood, try the Duck Confit Casserole, locally grown roasted mushrooms or fresh, colorful salads. Come back for the Breakfast Board – it’s enough to keep you going all day.

Plan your visit at https://whidbeycamanoislands.com/

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California. Hilarie’s greatest joy is spreading the gospel of wine, food and travel. In addition to her own blogs at www.NorthWindsWineConsulting.com, she contributes articles to a number of online publications. She was honored to be awarded the 2013 Emerging Writer Scholarship from the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association, for whom she is now the Administrative Director.

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About the Author:

Hilarie Larson’s passion for wine began in the 1970’s while in the European hospitality industry. In 2003 she began her wine career in earnest in her native British Columbia, Canada, working at several Okanagan Valley wineries. Along the way, she acquired her certificate from the Court of Master Sommelier, worked for an international wine broker and as ‘Resident Sommelier’ for wineries in Washington State and California.

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