At Home on Whidbey Island: Wine Bars and Tasting Rooms

This article originally appeared, in part, in the December, 2018 issue of Bellingham Alive Magazine

Whidbey Island wine enthusiasts have reason to be happy. In addition to seven wineries clustered around the southern half of the island, the north end of Whidbey lays claim to two outstanding venues that are perfect for wine tasting: The Terrace Wine Bar and Bistro in Oak Harbor and Vail Wine Shop & Tasting Room in Coupeville.

The Terrace Wine Bar and Bistro

Owner/operators Morgan Brian Hughes and Keith Kinsey purchased downtown Oak Harbor’s Terrace Wine Bar from the space’s previous owner in 2013. Neither had any wine-tasting background, although Kinsey’s dad was a restauranteur, providing the duo with at a bit of experience in the foodservice industry.

“The wine bar was this, it just wasn’t this,” Kinsey says, motioning to a counter full of patrons on a Friday afternoon and a fully-stocked wine bar. “When we purchased the bar there were 12 bottles of wine. Today we have about 120 wines and 45 different beers and ciders.”

During their ownership, Hughes has been primarily responsible for selecting the wines, which come from both domestic and international wineries, while Kinsey has focused on the beer side of the menu, which features breweries with a decidedly Washington flavor.

Kinsey is also responsible for a limited but extremely popular food menu with local favorites that include buffalo mac ‘n cheese and a variety of flatbreads.

But even with the highly recommended food choices, it’s the wine list that really shines here. “I probably could have named maybe 10 grapes when I bought the bar and now it’s…200, maybe more,” Hughes says. He enjoys the frequent customer who comes in with a vague description of what they like, and then draws upon his knowledge of wines to pour them what he thinks will be a good match.

“We can have from up to 10 to 20 new wines a week,” he says, noting that while there are no in-house “specialty wines” per se, his fondness for Tempranillo has led to a good supply of wines from Spanish and Portuguese wine regions.

For those who love the Terrace Wine Bar’s variety the price list is an added bonus: Glass pours begin at only $5 and generally run in the $6 to $8 range; bottle prices are just as reasonable, with nearly all reds and whites available for purchase at under $30 each.

Vail Wine Shop & Tasting Room

Husband and wife Larry and Patsy Vail moved from Wenatchee to Whidbey Island in 1991. They operated a successful portrait photography studio up until their “first retirement” in 2011, and then opened Vail Wine Shop & Tasting Room in Coupeville shortly thereafter. The wine shop specializes in small-producer, 100-percent Washington wines.

Patsy recalls the couple’s interest in Washington wines began in the early 90’s when the state’s wine industry consisted primarily of smaller wineries and “we had a group of friends and drove our sports cars over to (Eastern Washington) wine country. It was essentially a hobby.”

“We didn’t really know anything about wine and we had joined a bad California wine club,” Larry jokes, noting that their increasingly frequent trips across the Cascades allowed them to meet winemakers, make contacts, and cultivate their love of Washington wines.

It was those wine tasting experiences that led the couple to believe they could open and operate their own wine shop, which Larry admits was more of an “I think we can do this” decision, rather than the result of “some clever marketing study.” Their original wine shop moved from across Coupeville’s Front Street to its current waterfront location in 2014.

The tasting bar feature of the facility includes a six-wine selection that changes weekly and usually consists of three whites and three reds; the remainder of the space is dedicated to bottle sales, with additional seating outdoors and along the railing behind the building and facing picturesque Penn Cove.

Larry insists on an “I have to like it to buy it” philosophy for wines that are purchased directly by him or through distributors. “It has to be a good, well-made wine, not something that just sells well.”

The Vail’s knowledge of and passion for Washington wines has also extended to tours that they organize and lead, primarily as wine-buying trips for groups that usually run from 20 to 35 people.

Back at the wine shop, guests will also find a small menu that includes smoked salmon, organic hummus, assorted cheeses, and Italian black truffle-salted popcorn to accompany their wines. Friday’s “flights and bites” is easily the shop’s busiest day, Larry says.

The Vails also have what they term a “consumer-oriented” wine club that boasts about 400 members. From a pre-selected list, members have the freedom to choose the price point, quantity, and even the color of their monthly wine order, making this a hugely popular purchasing option for wine enthusiasts.

“I wish I would have retired sooner,” Larry says with a smile. “I love the social aspect of the business and I love discovering new wines.”

The Key To Success: Local Support

The owners of both the Terrace Wine Bar and Vail Wine Shop & Tasting Room agree that strong, local support, coupled with each business’s commitment to providing a hometown, personal touch has been the key to success.

Not surprisingly, that level of personal service extends to out-of-towners as well, who are encouraged to stop in and taste some great wines in the same atmosphere that keeps Whidbey Islanders coming back.

More information: TerraceWine.com and VailWineShop.com.

The Terrace Wine Bar and Bistro
791 SE Fidalgo Rd., Oak Harbor
360.720.2322 | terracewine.com

Vail Wine Shop & Tasting Room
22 NW Front St., Coupeville
360.632.2227 | vailwineshop.com

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