Bentryns honored for their business, charity

Living legends Gerard and Jo Ann Bentryn, closing in on 50 years of marriage, started growing grapes on Bainbridge Island in 1977 and bottled their first wine five years later.  - Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo
Living legends Gerard and Jo Ann Bentryn, closing in on 50 years of marriage, started growing grapes on Bainbridge Island in 1977 and bottled their first wine five years later.
— image credit: Dennis Anstine/Staff Photo

For Gerard and Jo Ann Bentryn, the Bainbridge Island Vineyard and Winery has been a celebration of experience.

Hard work, of course, since making a variety of delectable wines from scratch involves singular tasks that are endless and multifarious: nurture the soil that begets the vine that produces the grape that creates the wine... all fruit of their labor of love.

Such a task is often seamless for conglomerates like St. Michelle or Columbia wineries, but few vintners have the courage these days to create product from small plots. In Washington, it’s wise financially to buy grapes or even bottled vintages from growers east of the Cascades and then establish tasting rooms that are essentially retail shops.

But the Bentryns, who were pioneers in successfully growing wine grapes in the island’s cool climate, have long preferred a traditional approach to their business and the land they have grown to love during their 33 years here.

For this, and more, they are being honored this year by the Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce as its 2010 Business Couple of the Year.

The New Jersey natives have been outspoken advocates for their way of life and the importance of saving the shrinking amount of farmland still available on the island. Stubbornly, they’ve made a respectable living, which has allowed them to share their enthusiasm with hundreds of school children and their generosity by contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to numerous island and county causes.

“What we’re most proud of is that through our pushiness and the help of many others,” Gerard said, “65 acres of farmland are now protected. That and our donations – before profits – to people and their causes in cash and merchandise.”

“We love our hometown and we’re proud of what we have accomplished,” Jo Ann said. “It hasn’t been easy, we’ve had to work very hard at it. We’ve learned that we had to do it ourselves – helped, of course, by others who were equally devoted – or it wouldn’t get done.”

The winery, which currently offers 10 varieties, is definitely a full-time job when combined with the care of the property they share off Day Road with long-time islander Akio Suyematsu.

Annually, they grow as many as 30 tons of grapes and make more than 10,000 bottles of wine, most of which is sold to local visitors and tourists. They estimate that up to 10,000 people visit the winery and tour the vineyards each year.

“We can’t say enough for the people who share our dream, especially our neighbor, Betsy Wittock,” Jo Ann said. “We couldn’t make it without their help.”

The recognition is timely because they are considering retirement and are looking for someone interested in leasing the land and taking over the business – hopefully under the same terms they have operated it.

Plus, Gerard is suffering from Cushing’s syndrome, a rare hormone disorder. He had a tumor removed from his pituitary gland in March, but hopes to be feeling better in a few months.

“In a way it has been good for me,” he said. “I feel more loved by the community than I did before.”

The farm and business, he said, are all-consuming “and has left us with no social space. Now, all of a sudden, people are coming out of the woodwork in letting me, and Jo Ann too, know how much we mean to them. I guess maybe people like me after all.”

Making them islanders to the core, they will admit.

Couple of the Year

The Chamber of Commerce will honor the Bentryns with a banquet on May 19 at Wing Point Golf & Country Club, beginning at 11:30 a.m. Call 842-3700 for more information or to RSVP.

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