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Great Northwest Wine: Whidbey Port traces roots to Prohibition era

One of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ smallest-production wines has a history that goes back to its earliest days as a company.

For the past 30 years, one of the company’s little-known projects is a red dessert wine called Whidbey’s Port. But its roots run much deeper.

John Molz, a German immigrant, began making apple juice during Prohibition. When alcohol production became legal in 1933, he switched to hard cider and wine.

In the 1940s, Molz bought Greenbank Farm, a dairy on Whidbey Island, Wash., west of Everett, and planted 125 acres of loganberries. Naturally, Molz made loganberry wine.

Through various mergers and transactions, Molz’s wine operation eventually came into the hands of Wally Opdycke, who changed the name to Ste. Michelle Vintners. By the mid-1970s, Opdycke sold the company to U.S. Tobacco, which built a grand manor in Woodinville and called it Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Through the ownership changes, the loganberry farm came with the winery. In 1984, Ste. Michelle launched Whidbey’s Port and tapped Doug Gore, then a young winemaker, for the new Columbia Crest brand, to make it. Gore, now a senior executive who oversees winemaking and viticulture for the company, had no experience making Port-style wine. It is produced by adding brandy part way through fermentation, resulting in wine that’s sweet and high in alcohol.

“Making that Port the first time was nerve-wracking,” Gore said. “It’s a little touchy. You want to have the right amount of alcohol and sweetness in the wine.”

In 1997, Ste. Michelle sold the farm to the Port of Coupeville, Island County and the Nature Conservancy. Today, it is an agriculture training center, with the barn built in 1904 still in use. The former tasting room is now a shop where local wines are sold, including Whidbey’s Port.

The wine is made primarily with cabernet sauvignon, and the spirits are distilled at the company’s Prosser winemaking facility. Total production is limited to 3,500 cases. The current vintage, 2009, retails for $20.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company.