Brent Charnley and Maggie Nilan are a married couple with a blended Brady Bunch-style family. As Lopez Island Vineyards, they have organically grown grapes on their land for over 30 years with the Madeleine Angevine and Siergerrebe varietals thriving on their Lopez Island farm. They source the grapes for their reds from select Eastern Washington vineyards they have worked with for many years. Their wines are award winning and in 2017, The Seattle Times selected the Madeleine Angevine for its “Top 50 Wines of the Year.”
Lopez Island Vineyards was the first winery in the San Juan Islands with the vines planted in 1987, the first vintage in 1990 and the winery built and opened in 1992. The couple sits down with us to chat about microclimates, naming wines and sourcing and growing grapes.
1) You started at a time when Washington wine was just getting established, and in a unique location and microclimate. How did you decide what to plant?
Nilan: Cool climate-ripening and flavor! This of course was the driving criteria for determining what to plant on Lopez, if something would ripen [here]. It was all unknown back in 1979 when Brent returned from an apprenticeship on a vineyard in France, with a dream to have a vineyard and winery on Lopez Island.
Selecting the varietals Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe for Lopez was based on several factors. First was Brent’s research into cool-climate viticulture while he was at UC Davis, which involved looking into varietals for such regions, and using ongoing research being conducted at the Washington State University Research Station in Mount Vernon. Along with climate data for Lopez, this gave Brent a broad overview of potential varietals, growing techniques, site selection. The second step involved planting three different trial vineyards on Lopez. This involved about a dozen different varietals in three locations.
Finally, Brent took the job as winemaker at Mount Baker Vineyards (MBV) in 1983, which was growing at least 30 different varietals on 25 acres in Western Washington. This allowed him to see what kind of wine each one of those varietals made — quality, marketability, ripening order and reliability — which helped in making the final selection.
Curiously enough, the Siegerrebe grape had not been in his research, in the materials from WSU, nor was Brent even aware of its existence. One day he was taking a shortcut through MBV’s vineyard when out sampling, and he stumbled across 25 plants of this grape, forgotten in the trial planting in the MBV vineyard. One taste of the fruit and then a 10-gallon trial batch of the resulting wine were enough to convince him this was going to be one of the varietals planted. That following winter, Brent made cuttings from those Siegerrebe plants, and many of the Mad Angie, and thus Lopez Island Vineyards was born.
2. How did your red blend, Raven’s Caw, get its name?
Nilan: We had for several years made a Cab-Merlot blend and named it just that. Re-tasting our 2008 vintage awoke us to the wonderful depth of those blended wines and how deliciously they had aged. Since 2008 until 2012 we had made single grape Cabs and enjoyed them, but once having tasted some of the older blends we had made prior to 2008, we decided to return to that style of red wine production. Noting the increase in Red Blends in Washington state over those years, and that naming them something unique had eked its way into the wine world, we decided to give it a try. Here on the island the Raven’s rich palette of sound permeates the air waves while we are out working in the vineyard. It seemed an apt metaphor to pay tribute to this marvel of a creature with the palate of flavors in our red blend of four grapes, primarily Cabernet and Merlot. No other name ideas were put forth, so Raven’s Caw won the day!
3) Can you describe how you source your grapes from Eastern Washington and get them to Lopez Island without sacrificing quality?
Charnley: We did exploration of vineyards and growers during the winter, but sources were not so numerous back in the ’90s, so selection was relatively easy. What we have discovered since that time is that there are variations in flavors, qualities and ripening in different areas of any one vineyard. With the long history of purchasing grapes from our growers, we have gotten to know their fields pretty well, and have been able to establish the areas and even the rows of those fields we want our grapes harvested from. Since we are now long-time customers and friends with the growers, we can select the rows from which we would like our grapes picked. This selection, along with monitoring the ripening during the fall, we are able to harvest grapes that meet our quality needs.
Picking is always done at first light of the morning; the fruit is nice and cool, so that when it is packed in 24-inch deep bins, it retains its cool temperature for the duration of the day. Because we use small and shallow bins there is no crushing of the grapes due to the weight of the fruit, and thus are great for packing and transporting the whole fruit back to Lopez. We time our journey to be back on Lopez by the evening of the day of harvest and begin the processing right away on arrival.
4) What drew you to selling your wine at farmers markets?
Charnley: We are fairly secluded up here on Lopez Island, and as years went by, we felt branching out to our wine buying community needed an outlet with our direct engagement with this community. Maggie was in Seattle frequently and decided to host a booth at a winter farmers market in Ballard. That was met with some degree of success, even before Washington state allowed wine tasting at the markets. Once that law was passed the floodgates were opened and we were positioned well to expand on this means of reaching the public with our wines. It is a delightful way to directly and personally share the “fruits of our labor,” and happily many more people now have an opportunity to experience our local products.