Long before buying local was a celebrated trend, certainly before anyone knew what a locavore was, Peggy and Dick Patterson were poking around their Olympic Peninsula neighborhood looking for locally grown fruit they could turn into wine at their fledgling winery.
The pair, former educators who grew up in dry-farming country (she in Montana and he in Wyoming), were eager to use the fruit that was all around them at their winery on the southern end of Hood Canal, Hoodsport.
Hoodsport started in 1978, by Peggy Patterson’s account, the 16th winery in the state. Since then they have used local blackberries, raspberries, loganberries, rhubarb, apples and pears for their fruit wines, and also have used Eastern Washington grapes for Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and other grape wines.
“We were looking for wine grapes, and we weren’t going to go to California for them, and we found out about Island Belle,” Patterson recently said, between customers at the Hoodsport tasting room.
The Island Belle grape had a history in the area long before the Pattersons’ arrival. Grown on nearby Stretch Island, the grape was used by the pioneering St. Charles Winery, which was established on Stretch after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. Island Belle grapes had been planted on the island in the 1870s by Lambert Evans. St. Charles used the island’s grapes to make nine different wines, Patterson said, including a rosé, a light white wine, a port and others.
“And the other thing about it is it’s a good eating grape,” she said.
By the early ‘80s, Harry and Mary Branch owned the century-old vines on Stretch, but it had been years since they had been used to make commercial wines, Patterson said.
“They didn’t know what to do with them. The winery had gone out of business, so they were just growing them for U-pick and selling them that way,” Patterson said. “We told them, ‘Well, we’ll take your crop.’ And we brought in a whole bunch of volunteers to pick and started making Island Belle wine. We just thought it was a shame no one was making wine out of this.”
Even after more than a century, there’s still discussion about what kind of grape Island Belle is. Widely thought to be a variety called Campbell’s Early, the grape, which produces blue-black clusters of fruit, is well suited to the cool and mild Western Washington growing season and is resistant to insects and mildew. Patterson said the grape may be a hybrid of Campbell or even Concord.
Patterson said she talked to a couple who were growing Campbell’s Early in British Columbia, and the wine it made tasted different than Hoodsport’s Island Belle, though Patterson says that could be because of soil, weather and other terroir factors.
Tracking down Campbell’s roots would make an interesting project for a viticulture student, she said.
So, how does it taste?
Patterson describes it as a patio wine, with flavors of raspberry and wild cherry.
“It’s light and fruity, kind of like a Beaujolais,” she said.
Hoodsport has produced Island Belle every year except for the last two years, although the wine is still available for sale. The couple, who are considering the sale of their winery at some point, had scaled back production but are ramping up again, and are hoping to again buy fruit from the new owners of the Stretch Island vineyard and continue Island Belle’s nearly 150-year history.
Early in their relationship with their Stretch Island growers, the Pattersons were invited by Harry and Mary Branch, who have since passed away, for a barbecued chicken dinner. Peggy was surprised to be served their own wine.
“He said, ‘Why would I serve anything else?’ And it stood up well for that kind of food. So I’ve called it a patio red. It goes with pasta and that kind of afternoon fare. Very drinkable,” she said.
North 23501 Highway 101
Hoodsport, WA 98548
Jon Bauer is Wine Press Northwest’s Salish Sea correspondent. The longtime newspaperman lives near La Conner, Wash.