Contributing writer Joel Askey meets up with a grassroots community wine and cider maker in Skagit Valley.
“We’re a community-driven winery” Ector DeLeon exclaims in one of his prototypical bursts of energy. Ector is one of the partners behind the Tulip Valley Winery, located at 16163 State Route 536 in Mount Vernon.
To listen to Ector, one soon understands his omnivorous appetite for knowledge and human interaction, and his sense of connectedness to his neighbors in the Skagit Valley. Ector and his partner, Carl Engebreth have together created a laid-back destination for those looking to decompress from the city bustle and enjoy one of Ector’s award-winning ciders or a wine from Washington-produced grapes. In his own words, Tulip Valley Winery is a place to “come sit on the deck with a picnic basket” and watch the eagles and hawks. It’s a casual environment, and this is intentional. Tulip Valley Winery is not only therapeutic for its customers, but has also been for Ector.
Ector served 3 tours of duty in Iraq, as an engineer and communications specialist. Ector claims “I wore many hats”, and when you get to know him, nothing else could be possible. Unfortunately, he came home a disabled combat veteran, spending two years recovering in the hospital. Upon his release, Ector found a supportive partner in Carl, who had purchased the property on State Route 536. Ector offered his handyman services but soon found an interest in brewing cider. The winery became part of Ector’s extended therapy and recovery process.
In 2007, Ector’s “Burro Loco” English Cider won a best in show in the World Cider Competition. A star was born, and the award was the first time a Washingtonian has brought this prize home. English cider is significantly different than the sweet bubbly ciders found on chain store shelves. Ector explains that the apples are key. The varieties of apple used in English Cider are not typical dessert apples. They may be bitter, or one bite might draw all the moisture from your mouth, causing you to throw it away. But the alchemy of these rare varieties of apple makes a distinct and complex cider that finishes clean and dry on the palate. For Ector, this is his artistic canvas.
Speaking of canvas, Ector took time to explain to me his deep connection to the arts. Tulip Valley Winery regularly features a small collection of local art and photography. He has featured photography from Louise Magno and gushed with admiration for her energy level and skill, despite being disabled. Ector’s son, James, is engaged in metalcraft art and will be helping to open a gallery soon in Sedro-Woolley. And Ector himself joyfully related spending time in Europe looking up at artwork on the ceiling of chapels and going to museums.
Ector and Carl are far from a local operation. Recently Carl, a rugby player, visited the town of Wexford in Ireland. He purchased a historical pub and they are in the process of renovating the building, hoping to open in 2018. Ector and Carl own a grape farm of 70 acres in Sunnyside, WA, which they use not only to create their own wine, but as a producer for other wineries.
This extended community has become important to Ector and Carl. They felt that the apple orchard they inherited suffered from too much spraying. As Ector tells me “Happy trees make good cider”, and they abandoned the heavy treatments, and were pleased when the orchard responded. The winery has engaged in programs with Washington State University, teaching cider making to students. In addition, Ector has worked with Skagit Valley College and Children’s hospital. He is committed to more organic processes in his orchard and vineyard. Ector wishes for visitors to “enjoy the fruits of the valley”.
Ector’s story is impressive. His energy and focus have helped the Washington cider industry to grow from 8 facilities a mere 15 years ago to over 30 at present. In his own words, “I enjoy everybody – from all walks of life. You have to run into walls in life. Knock them down, get back up, and you become a happier person. When you get an opportunity, don’t waste it. It’s OK to fail, but don’t stop trying”.
At Tulip Valley Winery, you can taste the experience, effort, and joy invested into the venue and its fine beverages. Visit www.tulipvalley.net for more.
Meet SAM Project team member Joel Askey, photographer and occasional writer. You can see Joel around Anacortes capturing images of the local music scene as well as stalking wildlife and the Northern Lights.