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Visiting Zillah and Portteus Winery
Continuing the series on Mercer High School graduates who became winemakers, Paul and Marilyn Portteus are owners of Portteus Winery, one of the pioneer wineries in Washington state. There were only 14 wineries in the state when they began in 1981. Now there are over 600.
Not only are they pioneer winemakers, Paul and Marilyn are Mercer Island pioneers. As a young boy, Paul delivered the Seattle Times on the southeast end of the Island and frequented hydroplane driver Bill Muncey’s Thriftway before it became the South end QFC. Both Paul and Marilyn attended Mercer Island schools from kindergarten. In first grade, Paul and Marilyn had a reading class together. Paul graduated in 1967; Marilyn, in 1966.
They both moved onto the Island around 1952. Paul’s parents bought a former governor’s summer home on East Mercer Way. Paul’s parents still live there. Marilyn Dehn’s family first lived in Shorewood and then moved to Lansdowne Lane. Marilyn’s dad came to Washington state to work on the B52 for Boeing; he later worked on the 747. Both of Marilyn’s parents have died.
“I grew up with wine on the table,” said Paul. “My father was introduced to wine in Belgium during World War II. In fact, there was a Reporter article a few years ago about my father’s service in Belgium. He marched well into his 80s with fellow soldiers, commemorating the Battle of the Bulge.
“In addition, my Uncle Howard made beer and wine in his basement. Our families would join for Sunday suppers and enjoy his cellar endeavors,” he said.
When Paul was at Camp Orkila, he received postcards from his folks, who were vacationing in Napa Valley in 1961. Paul still has those postcards.
“In 1968 I left home and bought a houseboat on Northlake Way. Being underage and entertaining a lot, I set up a home brewery to supply my guests’ needs. In 1970 after my junior year at the University of Washington, I took one of the UW’s charter flights to Europe and spent four months on a motorcycle from London to Spain to Norway, ending in Amsterdam. I visited all the wine regions as well as testing the local beers. I bought Bordeaux in France for 13 cents a bottle and wine in Spain was 10 cents. Imagine that!”
For his 21st birthday, Paul received a suitcase full of wine from his parents. There were 21 splits of wine of various vintages from California and France.
“In the early ’70s, I made trips to visit friends in southern California, always stopping in Napa and Sonoma along the way,” said Paul. “So I guess wine was in my blood!”
Marilyn Dehn became Marilyn Portteus in 1973, and the newly weds continued visiting Napa and Sonoma, buying wine and enjoying the vineyards and the wine country.
“By 1977 we shifted our interest in wine to searching for an opportunity to join the wine industry. After reading reports in Seattle newspapers on pioneering wine growing in our own Washington state, we changed our search from California to Eastern Washington,” Paul said. “We found the perfect vineyard site in the hills above the town of Zillah after a year’s research. We now have 74 estate acres of grapes and produce around 11,000 cases of wines, mostly reds.”
They grow zinfandel, sangiovese, syrah, petite sirah, cabernet franc, malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. All Portteus wines are estate-bottled. Approximately 20 percent of the harvest is sold to other wineries.
Paul was once named one of America’s Great Cabernet Producers by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. The Rattlesnake Hills, where Paul and Marilyn planted their first grapes, was authorized as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2006. Seth and David, Paul and Marilyn’s sons, have joined the winemaking team.
The winery is open for tastings seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is closed on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. It is located in Zillah at 5201 Highland Drive and can be reached at (509) 829-6970 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other Mercer Island High School graduates who have become winemakers and/or winery owners are:
• Chris Howell, winemaker, Cain Vineyard and Winery of Napa Valley, class of 1970.
• Craig Leuthold, winery owner, Maryhill Winery in Goldendale, class of 1974.
• Leslie Lind Balsley, winemaker and owner, William Church Winery in Woodinville, class of 1976.
• Andrew Lodmell, winemaker and owner of Lodmell Cellars in Walla Walla, class of 1982.
• Nina Buty Foster, winemaker and owner of Buty Winery in Walla Walla, class of 1993.
• Anna Shafer, winemaker and owner of aMaurice Cellars in Walla Walla, class of 1997.
All of these winery “kids” still have parents living on the Island.
Taste Washington is March 23-24
Taste Washington, now a two-day event, will be held March 23-24 at Century Link Field Event Center in Seattle.
Two days of tasting Washington wines is accompanied by food from local Seattle restaurants. Seminars will be held both days.
To learn more, visit tastewashington.com.
Dee Hitch can be reached at email@example.com.