There’s something particular about a ferry. Skimming the water, the place that you came from seems so far away—a world apart from the place where you’re going. From the moment you step onto the boat until the moment you step off, the everyday world is suspended. Separated. This is how traveling to Orcas Island feels.
Part of the San Juan Islands in Northwestern Washington, Orcas is a place where the pace slows down and the landscape is breathtaking at every turn, no matter what season you visit in. It’s here, right up the hill from the ferry landing, that Amelia Carver and Brian Crum opened Champagne Champagne, a bar whose wine list is as unique as its location.
Carver and Crum’s building overlooks the ferry dock and Shaw Island to the south. The two call it an “irreverent natural wine temple by the sea.” Ferries or sailboats invariably pass by as you sit and drink a glass and stare out the windows. What inspires a couple to open a natural wine bar on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest?
“My first job was up the street,” Carver says, pointing up to the Orcas Hotel. Having grown up on the island, she went to Massachusetts for school, where she met Crum in Cambridge. The two were working in the food and restaurant industry, but eventually Carver felt a pull to come home. Her family owned a piece of property on Orcas, and the couple used it to start a small farm, where they grew produce for themselves and local chefs. Then, a space overlooking the ferry dock opened up, and Crum and Carver had the vision for Champagne Champagne.
While moving to an island may sound idyllic, it’s a change that comes with certain realities, particularly for new business owners. Carver says she has given the attitude towards island living an acronym: IHTFP. Depending on the day, that can mean, alternately: “I Hate This Fucking Place,” or, “I Have Truly Found Paradise.”
“Making the fantasy a reality has been an interesting process,” she adds. While they signed the lease in spring 2017, the reality of renovations and getting the space ready for customers meant that Champagne Champagne didn’t officially open until February the next year.
Fortunately for those interested in natural wine, we get to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Champagne Champagne’s wine list changes regularly, and is themed a bit differently than your average menu. Instead of traditional categories like “sparkling” and “red,” things here are little more creative. On a recent day, there were sections like “Hard to Pronounce, Easy to Drink,” “My Cherie Amour” (sherry, duh), as well as one called “I Fink U Freeky and I Like U A Lot,” which included a very funky Basque cider.
“To break down expectations,” Crum says of the menu’s style. “I think we get to take people by surprise here.”
That element of surprise comes from not just the wine list, but the overall attitude that drives the business. Both Carver and Crum are easygoing and readily available to help customers experiment with what they drink. They want you to be interested in what you’re drinking, and while most places pour a little to taste, just to make sure a wine isn’t corked, here it’s all about whether you like it or want to try something else entirely.
“I want to be as serious as I need to be to run this place,” she says. “Otherwise I don’t give a shit about being serious.”
Both in demeanor and product, Crum and Carver are trying to offer up a catalyst to change people’s perception of wine. “You really should be drinking this stuff because it’s fun and intrinsically interesting,” Carver says. “I always tell people, ‘I don’t know anything about wine, I am here to learn.’”
Focusing on natural wines has allowed them to bring something new to customers, but the drive to serve these wines is about more than changing palates.
“The reason we’re doing natural wine is that’s the way we farm, it’s how we treat the land,” Carver says, referencing their own plot of land. For her, serving natural wines is a way to make a connection for local growers on the island who care deeply about how their food is grown.
“So many people live and die by the principles of permaculture here, but will drink bad wine,” Carver says. “I am someone who is ruled by natural forces.” But because it’s Carver, she quickly adds: “But also, fuck pesticides.”
Stocking a wine cellar on an island comes with its difficulties, particularly as a young business. “We want to keep ourselves flexible to the whims of being out in the middle of nowhere,” Crum says. Champagne Champagne has good relationships with distributors like Walden Selections (for whom Crum used to work), Cavatappi Wine, and Selections de la Viña.
The realities of being a young business in a remote location can mean that it’s more difficult to get things that might be readily available in a city, but Crum says that it’s a challenge they meet with enthusiasm.
“Being out here has forced us to do more legwork to dig in and find stuff that fits with our ethos,” he says.
Champagne Champagne has a selection of small plate food, which comes on a menu organized by a “Dirty, Fancy, Fun” scale. Options include freshly popped popcorn topped with an assortment of spices (like dukkah), different tinned fishes, and even pork rinds (for the record, in the “dirty” category). Eventually, Champagne Champagne will be a fully operating restaurant, which Crum and Carver hope creates a true community space that has something for everyone, whether a casual drink or an elevated dinner. And if you want to buy wine to take home with you, they also operate a wine shop called the Bodega.
“One of the things I love about wine,” Carver says, “it’s so dynamic you can approach it from many different directions. Like art, you get to appreciate it on your own terms.”
She could just as easily be describing the feeling of embarking for Orcas—of coming to these islands and disconnecting. Taking a few days to breathe in the salt air, explore the roads of a rural island, walk through its forests. All are on your own terms. And if there’s a glass of interesting wine to go with it, as you look out over the water, feeling far removed from the usual to-do list and expectations, all the better.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.