Chelan wineries are a natural complement to a Washington favorite: the lake
Establishment last year of the Lake Chelan American Viticultural Area has cemented the fame of the area's fledgling wine industry and fueled new growth in tourism to an old favorite destination of Washington families.
NW Weekend editor
Dinner with your wine?
Lake Chelan Winery founder Steve Kludt, the lake's modern-day wine pioneer and one of the local industry's biggest boosters, hopes the lake will next grow as a food destination. It's a natural segue.
So far, five local wineries have dining, mostly open-air affairs such as Lake Chelan Winery's barbecue, with $25 salmon dinners barbecued over apple wood, or the more formal Sorrento's Ristorante, at Tsillan Cellars, or Winemaker's Grill at Kludt's other winery, Wapato Point Cellars. (Also serving food: Karma Vineyards and Vin du Lac.)
The quaint downtown Chelan business district has a few restaurants — our B&B hosts recommended Andante, fine-dining Italian, on Emerson Street. More informal are Tin Lilly, Marcela's Cocina, Local Myth Pizza and an anomalous Scottish hamburger joint, B.C. MacDonald's.
Among bright spots a short drive away is the tiny, year-old Cafe Manson, named not for the 1960s murder-cult icon but for the sleepy burg where the cafe's located, eight miles up the lakeshore (33 Green Ave., Manson; 509-888-4197 or www.cafemanson.com). They didn't know us from Adam, but when we couldn't get one of the seven tables and instead sat at the kitchen-front counter, Chef Erik Cannella, formerly of Seattle's Matt's in the Market, and spouse Adrianne Young spoiled me and my wife with personal attention and dinners of Tuscan chicken and a rich, wine-braised-beef stew ($17 each). Cannella apprised us of which ingredients came from their home garden (fennel and rosemary) and the local farmers market (beets and carrots).
And we got to watch him answer his cellphone while standing at stovefront, then announce to the room with glee only a chef could muster: "The figs are here!" (Anytime friends visit from Seattle, they bring raw materials for the cafe.)
— Brian J. Cantwell
Lake Chelan wine touringSpecial event
Lake Chelan Crush, the local wine growers' harvest celebration, is Oct. 2-3 and 9-10. Cellar tours, grape stomping, live music, juice tasting and more at individual wineries. For details, see websites for various wineries or www.lakechelanwinevalley.com.
Lake Chelan is about a 3 ½ hour drive from Seattle via Interstate 90 (Snoqualmie Pass), Highway 97 (Blewett Pass) and Highway 97A.
Where to stay
The town of Chelan and nearby areas have numerous hotels, condo rentals and B&Bs. Majors include:
• Campbell's Resort, 877-889-5768 or www.campbellsresort.com.
• Best Western Lakeside Lodge, 509-682-4396 or www.bestwesternwashington.com/hotels/best-western-lakeside-lodge-and-suites.
• The Lake House at Chelan, 877-293-5982 or www.thelakehousechelan.com.
• Chelan parks department operates Lakeshore RV Park, on the lake near the center of town, with 165 full hookup sites, $25 to $50 depending on season. 509-682-8023 or cityofchelan.us/parks/rv/rv_park.htm.
Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, 800-4CHELAN (424-3526) or www.lakechelan.com
Most wineries charge for tasting, typically $5, often credited if you buy a bottle. Some offer free tasting (noted below with a *). Pick up a wine touring brochure at any winery or at Lake Chelan Visitor Information Center, 102 E. Johnson Ave., Chelan.
NUMBERS CORRESPOND TO MAP
1. Karma Vineyards, 509-682-5538 or www.goodkarmawine.com.
2. Chelan Estate Winery & Vineyards, 509-682-5454 or www.chelanestatewinery.com.
3. Nefarious Cellars, 509-682-9505 or www.nefariouscellars.com.
4. Tunnel Hill Winery, 509-682-3243 or www.tunnelhillwinery.com.
5. Tsillan Cellars, 877-682-8463 or www.tsillancellars.com.
6. Vin du Lac*, 866-455-9463 or www.vindulac.com.
9. Chelan Ridge Winery*, 509-687-4455 or www.chelanridgewinery.com.
10. Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards, 509-687-3000 or www.hardrow.com.
11. Wapato Point Cellars*, 509-687-4000 or www.wapatopointcellars.com.
12. C.R. Sandidge Wines, 509-682-3704 or www.crsandidgewines.com.
13. Tildio Winery, 509-687-8463 or www.tildio.com.
14. Four Lakes Winery, 509-682-9028 or www.fourlakeschelanwinery.com.
* offers free wine tasting
Why make wine at Lake Chelan?Ducking the fruit bomb
There's more than one reason why the lake part of Lake Chelan is good for wineries, besides the tourist draw. There's the "lake effect" on the local climate.
The lake makes this more-northerly Washington AVA more friendly to wine grapes. Lake Chelan — at up to 1,400 feet deep, the third deepest lake in the United States — is believed to temper winter cold and summer heat. Akin to a heat sink, it naturally absorbs and then radiates heat from the winter sun so that freezes near the lake aren't as harsh, while helping to circulate air on the hottest summer days, when 95-degree+ temps can otherwise shut down grapevine photosynthesis, which feeds grape clusters.
While Chelan's growing season is shorter than warmer climes such as Walla Walla or Red Mountain — it's a tough world for long ripeners such as cabernet sauvignon — the cool nights that begin around Labor Day help grapes retain their natural acidity. September's typically warm days help with ripening.
Tildio Winery's Katy Perry said she was drawn to this part of the wine-growing world by "natural acidity I could only dream of in California."
"We don't see things screaming toward ripeness and we don't lose acidity, which helps keep delicate aromas and flavors," added Milum Perry.
Local wine stars include viognier reminiscent of the white peaches you can buy at local stands; pinot gris that's like a big bite of Granny Smith apple; complex and crisp rieslings, and even syrahs that have blackberry, spice and depth without being what Dean Neff, of Nefarious Cellars, calls the "fruit bomb" you can get from hotter climes.
— Brian J. Cantwell
Northwest travel guides
CHELAN, Chelan County — As we first arrived at the shore of Lake Chelan on a blazing blue August day that would hit 92 before the sun dipped behind the Chelan Mountains, my wife and I looked out and counted:
• One seaplane, landing;
• Three Jet Skis, speeding;
• Four water skiers, zigzagging;
• One parasailor, soaring;
• Two kayakers, waiting timidly by the shore.
Oh, and in the space of a half-mile we passed three wineries, a count that would rise to 14 before our visit was over.
The 50-mile-long lake and its pretty setting — think hills of Old West sagebrush intermingled with ponderosa pines and a patchwork of lush green orchards — has long been the reason visitors come to Chelan. The glacier-fed water is cold and summers are hot. Generations of happily sunburned Washington families have returned year after year.
So surely the lake will always be the primary tourism draw here. But — those wineries...
"Before, people came for the lake — and they happened to visit wineries because they were here," said Milum Perry, a partner in Tildio Winery, whose name is the Spanish word for a killdeer that lays its eggs in the vineyard. "Before, it wasn't necessarily a sophisticated wine clientele. But now, some people are coming just for the wine."
"It's happening more and more," agreed Heather Neff, whose title is "head chick and white-winemaker" across the lake at Nefarious Cellars (motto: "Just a chick, three guys and a dog, striving to blow your mind").
The game changer came in spring 2009, when 24,040 acres around the south tip of Lake Chelan became Washington's newest American Viticultural Area (AVA), a federal designation reserved for winemaking areas with unique geography, soil and/or climate — and, by implication, unique wines.
"It literally put us on the map as a wine-growing region," said Katy Perry, Tildio's chief winemaker and a past president of the Lake Chelan Wine Growers Association.
Young, but precocious
Lake Chelan's wine industry, arguably still in its infancy, is at best a preteen, with the oldest commercial winemaker, Lake Chelan Winery, just celebrating its 10th anniversary.
But while the lake's wine scene may be at that awkward age, it is surprisingly sophisticated. Mom-and-pop winemaking operations have quickly transitioned from sheds and garages into lakeview villas, art-filled tasting rooms, and digs that are quirky and unique:
• At Hard Row to Hoe winery, with its bawdyhouse décor and eye-winking back story about a local character who used to row miners to a nearby brothel, you can step out on the deck with your wine glass and cool off under a vegetable-misting system strung from a grape arbor. (It felt really good in August.)
• At Karma Cellars — named for the owners' kids, Karle and Matthew — you can dine at Karma Kafe, next to the carp pond and waterfall, then go explore the cave, where Chelan's first sparkling wines are hand riddled — turned regularly to circulate the lees' yeasty flavors.
"I love the personal stories and the personality of each winery," said Amber Falaschi, visiting from Puyallup, as she sipped wine with her mother-in-law, Julie Squires, in Nefarious' tasting room next to a picture-window view of blue lake, purple-brown mountains and jade vineyard.
"We came for the lake," Squires said, "but we definitely like to visit wineries. The views are wonderful and the wines are great."
From apples to grapes
Lake Chelan Winery, the pioneer, was born of necessity rather than whimsy. Owner Steve Kludt, 65, was a longtime apple and cherry orchardist here before, he says, world competition torpedoed the local market for apples in 1998.
"Almost overnight, my income was gone," recalls Kludt, a former Marine whose cellphone ringtone is "From the Halls of Montezuma."
That year he and a partner planted the first modern-day commercial vineyard on Lake Chelan, based on advice he'd heard "maybe 35 years ago" from the horticulturist now known as the father of Washington wine, the late Dr. Walter Clore, of Washington State University's Prosser research station.
A neighbor had asked Clore, widely credited for convincing the world that Eastern Washington's climate and soil could grow fine wines, to look at his property for the feasibility of growing vitis vinifera — the European-style wine grape, differentiated from the concord and other American grapes (and apples and berries) commonly used by Pommerelle, Nawico and other now-defunct Washington wine labels up until the 1960s. (By today's standards, they'd be called "plonk," or maybe "dreck" — you choose.)
Clore deemed his neighbor's site too high in elevation, Kludt said.
"But Dr. Clore came out and walked my property and looked at the grade of slopes and the location and soil and said we could grow wine grapes. He was right 30 years ago, and we're proving that just now."
Diversity in the winery
Following Kludt's lead, like Marines storming a beach, people of diverse backgrounds and talents converged on Lake Chelan to plant grapes and open wineries.
Katy Perry, a Seattle native and graduate of the nation's seminal wine program at the University of California at Davis, put in stints at Robert Mondavi, Stag's Leap and other Napa wineries before being recruited to work for Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville around 2000. At the same time, she bought the property for Tildio.
Winemaker Judy Phelps, who has a master's degree in zoology, retired from a corporate career in research and development at Pfizer pharmaceuticals in 2006, when she completed the winemaking-certificate program at Davis to help build her talents at Hard Row to Hoe.
At Nefarious — a play on the last name of the owners — Heather, 33, and Dean Neff, 42, are pretty much locals, raised down the highway in Pateros and Wenatchee, he a third generation orchardist. They learned winemaking in Oregon's Willamette Valley before building their modern winery, which includes upstairs living quarters they share with sons George, 5, and Cooper, 1 ½, and golden retriever Lucy (designated "head of hospitality").
A tourism bonus
For Chelan tourism, the AVA designation has put a tiger in the tank — in this case, of course, it's a stainless-steel tank likely to be fermenting viognier with bright floral notes and good natural acidity.
A big boon for local inns, restaurants and shops has been the creation of a shoulder season for tourism, as visitors come for wine tasting and events such as the fall crush celebration that Lake Chelan will host the weekends of Oct. 2 and 9.
"July and August were always busy here, with Jet Skis and parasailors and what have you, but come September, you could hear the crickets cricking!" Katy Perry said. That's rapidly changing; spring has more visitors, too.
The typical wine tourist also comes with more money to spend, with household incomes averaging $20,000 to $30,000 more than average visitors to nearby Leavenworth and Wenatchee, according to Mike Steele, executive director of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce.
That's the kind of statistic promising more changes in Chelan's future. A makeover of the lake's south shore is expected with development of Tuscan Village, a hillside development approved this summer by local governments, to be built on almost 300 acres adjacent to tony Tsillan (pronounced "Chelan") Cellars, owned by Dr. Bob Jankelson, a retired dental clinician and researcher who formerly taught in Italy. Plans call for Italianate homes, restaurants, shops and a high-end hotel and conference center.
There's symbiosis between Lake Chelan's century-old tourism tradition and the grape groupies. Those ready-made hotel rooms, RV sites and restaurants give Chelan wineries a competitive edge over several of the state's 10 other AVAs — some, such as Wahluke Slope, distinctly out in the boondocks — especially since the lake's winemakers sell most of their wine at the tasting room.
"Wineries have really added to the visitor experience here," Steele said. "And you can't experience the wine without experiencing the lake. The lake climate has created the right place for grape growing, and when people visit wineries, they sip and enjoy the view of the lake and the relaxing atmosphere it creates."
Relaxing, if you like Jet Skis. But — never mind. Sip your wine. Soak up some sun. Enjoy.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or firstname.lastname@example.org