PORT TOWNSEND — In his autumn-colored workplace, Ben Thomas can see his high school just a mile away.
He didn’t expect to be here, 21 years after graduating, in the geographic center of town.
He also didn’t plan, as a Port Townsender, on making wines with 10 varietals of grapes. In a previous life, though, he lived in Portland, Ore., where he worked at the Willamette Valley’s Montinore Estate winery. His teachers in this industry have been the people with whom he has worked — including his mother Trudy Davis, a maker of wines at Eaglemount Wine & Cider.
Then, in 2015, Karle and Jens Coppenrath, owners of Port Townsend Vineyards, told him they were preparing the soil of Portuguese Hill, just off Umatilla and Landes streets, for 11 acres of grapevines.
At that time he’d already begun thinking about a move back north. Today Thomas is at home among these long rows, now lush with red, violet and golden fruit. Early October is harvest time on Portuguese Hill, where a crew of five pick grapes amid the morning mist.
“These are cooler-climate grapes,” Thomas tells a visitor, showing her some pinot noir, “and we are definitely cooler,” with weather similar to southern England. Other varietals here come from Europe’s alpine and northern climes: Rondo, Auxerrois, Siegerrebe, Garanoir, Iskorka and Muscat of Norway among them.
With his Port Townsend vines well-established, “we were going to have vineyard tours,” Thomas said.
“Then you know what happened.”
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way Port Townsend Vineyards interacts with the public: no big group events and no old-fashioned tasting. Its two large locations, however, the new Vintage Downtown plaza on Water Street and the winery spread on Sims Way, still have room for a little outdoor tasting.
Couples or small parties can purchase bottles of wine and use their own glasses or the winery’s compostable cups on the patio. They can then take home the rest of their wine to have with dinner.
Back at the beginning of this ancient process, the harvest crew — who wear face masks — have abundant space for social distancing as they work. They are members of the owners’ family biologically, viticulturally or both.
Sydney Stolmeier, Karle Coppenrath’s niece, is a well-traveled harvester. She grew up in Woodinville, near Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington state’s largest and eldest winery, and came over here to help plant Port Townsend’s vineyard five years ago.
She has picked grapes too in sun-baked Coonawarra, Australia, during the southern hemisphere harvest season of February through May.
“There’s no cool climate there,” she said of those vineyards, where shiraz and cabernet sauvignon are the big grapes.
“Each harvest,” Stolmeier said, “is something new. The job is never boring,” especially as she also works in the cellar, adding her hands to other stages in winemaking.
This year has been loaded with challenge. June’s weather was much less than ideal, Thomas said. The descent of wildfire smoke during September slowed the ripening of the grapes — “a cruel twist,” he calls it.
Yet Thomas is an optimist. He and the crew use organic practices, skirting the vines in bird netting, planting clover to keep weeds at bay, spraying cinnamon oil to avert powdery mildew.
The winery also uses fruit selected from Eastern Washington vineyards; in some cases Thomas chooses specific rows for the fruit he’ll integrate into stock back home. He’s developing sparkling wines, a north-by-Northwest incarnation of those from the Champagne region of France.
“The kind of wine we’re making doesn’t require high sugar content,” Thomas said, meaning sugar-forming sunshine is not needed in large quantities.
For his efforts, he is enjoying accolades. This summer Port Townsend Vineyards’ Estate Madeleine Angevine won a double gold prize at the state’s largest wine recognition platform, the Seattle Wine Awards. A grape varietal from France’s Loire Valley, Madeleine Angevine has taken well to Portuguese Hill.
“We learn a little bit every year,” said viticulturist Alex Moro, who joined the crew two years ago. Like Thomas, he’s in his element among the vines — and working alongside his small team, bringing fruit from earth to barrel, bottle and table.
While the grapevines coexist with Port Townsend’s evergreen trees, birds, deer and rain, Thomas hopes his wines complement the foods of the Pacific Northwest: oysters, crab, salmon. It’s a kind of positive-feedback loop, he said.
Portuguese Hill, named for the 20 or so Portuguese immigrant families who settled here in the 1880s, is part of the Puget Sound American Viticultural Area.
Still, “this is a really difficult crop to make money on,” Thomas added.
“But [the Coppenraths] want to do a legacy thing. This would have been housing,” he said, looking out across the vineyard.
Instead, it’s a vivid green zone, planted for future generations.
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a former features editor for the Peninsula Daily News, is a freelance writer living in Port Townsend.