San Juan Island was a special place for Ross Mickel, 47, and Lauren Hilty, 39, who got married in Roche Harbor in October 2019.
The Medina couple and their 22-month-old son, Remy, were among the 10 aboard a floatplane that crashed off Whidbey Island on Sunday, as it was traveling from the San Juan Islands to Renton, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
“We are deeply saddened and beyond devastated at the loss of our beloved Ross Mickel, Lauren Hilty, Remy and their unborn baby boy, Luca,” read a statement issued Monday night by the Mickel and Hilty families. “Our collective grief is unimaginable.”
The statement expressed gratitude to the searchers and other friends and supporters.
Mickel was a renowned Washington vintner and founder of the Eastside-based Ross Andrew Winery and Hilty was an accountant who worked with small businesses on payroll and accounting, said Mark McNeilly, a fellow winemaker who started Mark Ryan Winery in 1999, the same year Mickel started his. The two men and their families have traveled the world together and for the last decade, have spent three nights a week with each other.
McNeilly, his wife Megan and their two daughters, who live in Kirkland, spent Labor Day weekend with Mickel, Hilty and their son at a mutual friend’s house, hanging out and relaxing as they marked the end of summer.
McNeilly and his family left the island by seaplane 15 minutes after Mickel and Hilty, who was due to give birth in mid-October.
“We were on the dock as they took off,” he said. “We didn’t know anything till we got home. It still feels pretty surreal.”
Hilty “was the kindest soul you could ever meet,” and Mickel was dynamic, charismatic “and so supremely likable,” McNeilly said. Since news of the plane crash broke, he said he’s received hundreds of text messages from others in the wine community, which he sees as a testament to how widely Mickel was known and loved.
Mickel’s longtime friends, Ashley and Fred Northup of West Seattle, last saw him in July, when he popped over to drop off a case of rosé for Fred and a bottle of chardonnay for Ashley.
“Lauren was kind and warm and laughed easily. Ross made 8 million jokes at a time and she was right there with him. They loved each other really well,” Ashley Northup, who grew up with Mickel in Bellevue, said. “The loss of his family is going to leave a really big hole. Their network was so big, the loss is profoundly large.”
In addition to being a talented winemaker, Mickel was an avid outdoorsman who served on the board of Ducks Unlimited. He was also thoughtful and insightful — and intentional about being a good dad to Remy and 12-year-old daughter, Lyla, from his first marriage, the Northups said. He remained close with his ex-wife and her parents.
Mickel, who would have turned 48 this month, had a wide network of friends and made it a point to stay in touch, often taking the time to write personal letters and birthday wishes on his 1963 Princess 300 typewriter.
“The magic of Ross was that he was always happy to see you and you were always happy to see him — and Lauren only made it better. She had that same light,” said Fred Northup, a fundraising auctioneer who officiated the couple’s wedding.
Mickel once donated a 5-liter bottle of wine for a charity auction — and it was purchased by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Fred Northup said. A couple Christmases ago, he showed up at the Northups’ house with a giant wreath, kicking off what became an annual tradition.
“Ross thought it was hilarious … It was the most obnoxious gift to bring someone,” said Ashley Northup, who took down Mickel’s latest offering only a week ago because a pair of dark-eyed juncos had nested in it.
Mark Canlis, co-owner of Canlis Restaurant, met Mickel in kindergarten and said they decided to become friends after realizing they shared the same birthday. They graduated from Bellevue High School together in 1993 and Mickel, a University of Washington graduate, worked at Canlis for a time under Rob Bigelow, who is now a master sommelier, Canlis said.
“He leaned into relationships and he pursued community and he had friendships he wouldn’t let go of,” Canlis said of Mickel.
Canlis, who has a cabin on Whidbey Island, said he witnessed Sunday’s plane crash and he and his 16-year-old son joined the search for survivors, not knowing at the time that Mickel and Hilty were among those onboard.
“That plane didn’t go down alone … There were a lot of people who watched and were right there as soon as we could be,” he said. “They were stolen from the sky and we are heartbroken. Horrified.”
The Washington State Wine Commission in a statement said they were “deeply saddened” by the news of family’s death.
“Ross had an incredible impact on the Washington wine community and he will be greatly missed,” the statement said. “Our thoughts are with his loved ones as they navigate this extraordinarily difficult time.”
Andrew Browne, the founder and CEO of Precept Wine, a Seattle-based wine company, echoed those sentiments in a statement.
“Ross was a dedicated family man, wonderful winemaker and champion of the Washington wine community from a very young age. Our thoughts are with his family and friends during this unimaginably difficult time,” Browne said.
Fellow winemaker Charles Auclair said he met Mickel when he was starting out in 2008 — and Mickel had a wealth of knowledge about wine that he freely shared.
Mickel’s wines, he said, “were very elegant, nicely structured and worthy of aging in your cellar — if you could keep your hands off of it.”
After a short stint working at DeLille Cellars, Mickel joined Betz Family Winery for the 1998 harvest and the next year, worked in the wine cellar, eventually becoming an assistant winemaker, said Bob Betz.
Mickel’s mother, Sheila Nelson, is an outstanding home chef who taught her son to cook and his stepfather, Ned Nelson, is a retired architect and inventor who designed a new wine press now used at Betz Family Winery, he said. For Mickel’s tightknit family, “the table is a celebration,” said Betz.
Mickel brought energy and vitality into his winemaking and would have been a long-term contributor to promoting the state’s wineries, he said.
“We will miss him and his creativity, his promotion of Washington as a winemaking area, and most of all, we will all miss him as a dear friend,” said Betz.
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.