Partners in wine announce retirement

After three decades in operation, the island’s oldest winery is winding down.

After three decades in operation, the island’s oldest winery is winding down.

South Whidbey residents may have heard it through the grapevine that Greg and Elizabeth Osenbach, owners of Whidbey Island Winery just outside of Langley, announced their upcoming retirement in a recent newsletter.

Gone is the vineyard that has long accompanied the business – the last harvest of the year has already taken place, and retail matters will likely cease by this fall. After 2022, it’ll be increasingly more difficult to find a bottle of Whidbey Island Winery wine as production will also stop.

Since 1991, the Osenbachs have fermented 175,486 gallons of wine, bottled 840,000 bottles and crushed over 2 million pounds of grapes.

In 1985, the couple moved from Monroe, Wash. to South Whidbey to build their home and start propagating vines on what they would come to know as their own little slice of paradise.

“The microclimates on the island are incredibly different,” Elizabeth said. “We got lucky.”

Cool weather grapes grown on the two-acre estate have been prevalent in some of their most popular wines, including the bestselling Island White. When they first started growing grapes, only two other wineries in the Puget Sound region also did so.

“The tasting in the beginning, it was almost an effort,” Elizabeth said. “People were very skeptical what these new grapes were, but holy mackerel, it took off like crazy.”

“People always talk redder than they drink,” Greg added, pointing to the varieties of Madeleine Angevine and Madeleine Sylvaner grapes they’ve successfully grown for their beloved white wines.

At the time of Whidbey Island Winery’s founding, there were only about 70 other wineries in the state. Now, according to the Washington State Wine Commission, there are over 1,000.

“We’re not just pioneers on Whidbey, but we were among the first lot, statewide,” Greg said.

Over the years, as the climate has grown increasingly hotter and drier, early harvests have become more regular and catastrophic weather events, such as heavy rainstorms or scorching heat, have become more common. Last year’s crop was spoiled by vines running out of water.

Keeping pests, such as hungry birds, out of the vineyard has been another issue. For years, the Osenbachs employed the use of an inflatable tube dancer, which they referred to as “Mr. Happy,” as a scarecrow. It did the trick.

“The robins were always our worst enemy,” Elizabeth said. “They could destroy an entire crop in days.”

Although the majority of grapes in Whidbey Island Winery wines come from Eastern Washington vineyards, all production of the wine is done on the island.

With an educational background in chemistry, Greg has been the one to lead the wine-making process, citing his good instincts as being the reason behind the winery’s success. Just before opening Whidbey Island Winery, he won a series of amateur wine-making competitions at the Whidbey Island Fair in the ‘80s.

“Wine is the sum of a whole lot of small decisions and a couple big ones,” he said. “First and foremost is probably the fruit. That is, getting a good vineyard site and then when to pick it.”

As Elizabeth pointed out, “You want the grape to show as the grape. You don’t want to mask it too much.”

She has been responsible for much of the behind-the-scenes work of the winery, including the running of the tasting room. The couple’s young children grew up at the winery, learning how to walk in the vineyard by hanging on to trellis wires.

Elizabeth said Greg has always made wines to his taste and his palate, and hasn’t aimed to cater to a specific audience.

“His personality is in wine,” she said. “If we set out together to make wine out of exactly the same thing, they’re going to be different.”

For the past five years, the couple have been considering when to retire. Eventually, they settled on deciding not to sell the business but to stop production and close things up when they’ve run out of wine. They will be keeping a “substantial amount” for themselves, Greg said with a laugh.

The couple is looking forward to getting some distance from the business and doing some traveling.

“We’re really excited to see what the rest of the world looks like during the fall,” Greg said.

He also plans to spend the first year of retirement in the garden, although he won’t be growing any more grapes.

“His talents in the garden equal his wine-making talents,” Elizabeth said.

Greg said that since the very beginning, the community has been an essential force in supporting Whidbey Island Winery and keeping its tasting room doors open.

“We worked hard in a really nice place in a really great community that made it possible,” he said. “If we hadn’t had the support from the local community buying wine, it wouldn’t have been successful.”

Elizabeth said the decision to stop at the top and spend a few years basking in what they have reaped was not an easy one.

“We’ve grown high quality grapes, made awesome wines, met wonderful people from around the world and our community, had tons of laughter, crazy challenges and of course nobody to blame but ourselves for the whole time,” she said. “What a great career.”

By David Welton