Washington state winemaker rides the rapids of success

GREAT NORTHWEST WINEAugust 30, 2013 

Sara Gagnon can’t quite decide if she is a kayaking winemaker or a winemaking kayaker. Either way, she is enjoying the adventure of life as an entrepreneur.

Gagnon is the owner and winemaker of Harbinger Winery, the northwestern-most winery in the continental United States. Harbinger is just west of Port Angeles, Wash., at the top of the Olympic Peninsula.

Gagnon is also co-owner, with Tammi Hinkle, of Adventures Through Kayaking.

They lead kayak, mountain bike, raft and paddleboard tours in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, on Lake Crescent and on various rivers on the Olympic Peninsula.

Gagnon grew up on Port Angeles and opened one of the first espresso stands on the peninsula in 1993 when she was just 22 years old, then moved to Seattle to go to college and work in the insurance business.

But the lure of the Olympic Peninsula and a desire to become a professional winemaker drew her home. In 2000, she was hired by Olympic Cellars in Sequim as an apprentice and soon was promoted to head winemaker.

In 2004, she and Hinkle survived a small plane crash in Olympic National Park.

That close call became the portent of a transformation for Gagnon. She decided to launch her winery and become her own boss. After recovering from her injuries and working through the 2004 harvest, she launched Harbinger.

All of her grapes come from the Columbia Valley east of the Cascades, though she does make two fruit wines — blackberry and raspberry — using berries from west of the mountains.

Today, she produces 3,000 cases of wine, most of which are sold directly from her winery.

Here are some Harbinger wines we’ve tasted recently. Ask for them at your favorite wine merchant or contact Harbinger directly at 360-452-4262.

Harbinger Winery NV La Petite Fleur Dynamo White, Washington, $15: This blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Riesling opens with aromas of baked pear and apple, followed by flavors of sage and orchard fruit.

Harbinger Winery 2009 Sagemoor Vineyard Barbera, Columbia Valley, $28: This Italian-style red begins with aromas of spicy oak, woodruff, black cherry, dark chocolate and cola. It’s an alluring wine on the palate with flavors of plum, spice and bittersweet chocolate. Beautifully balanced, it will pair well with beef stroganoff, lasagna or a ribeye topped with sauteed mushrooms.

Harbinger Winery NV Dynamo Red, Washington, $16: Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Franc combine for a delicious and affordable red wine that offers aromas of smoked bacon, black cherry and plum, backed by flavors of boysenberry, plum, lime zest and minerality. Pair this with ravioli, split pea soup or hot wings.

Harbinger Winery NV Blackberry Bliss, Washington, $22: Blackberries are a late summer gift in western Washington, and a longtime tradition is picking berries and turning them into pies, cobblers and jams. Gagnon turns hers into a delicious wine. It opens with aromas of blueberry, maple syrup, vanilla and, of course, blackberry. On the palate, it is nicely textured with off-dry flavors of blackberry and vanilla ice cream.

Harbinger Winery 2009 Elephant Mountain Vineyards Sangiovese, Rattlesnake Hills, $30: This Sangiovese shows how well Italy’s signature grape can fare in Washington. It opens with aromas of oak, black cherry, black olive and cola, followed by rich flavors of cherry, vanilla and a sprinkling of cocoa. It’s a big wine with the fruit to support it. Pair with lasagna, spaghetti and meatballs or grilled portabella mushrooms.

Harbinger Winery 2009 El Jefe, Rattlesnake Hills, $27: This Rhone blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache opens with aromas of sarsaparilla, vanilla extract, black cherry and black pepper, transitioning to flavors of black currant, black olive, boysenberry and granite dust. It’s an elegant wine with great length and breadth.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue run Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company. Learn more at GreatNorthwestWine.com.

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