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Originally published October 7, 2014 at 6:25 AM | Page modified November 24, 2014 at 10:12 AM

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From apples to wine around Lake Chelan

Almost two dozen wineries, including some award-winners, put it on the map.

The New York Times


When the apple market collapsed about 15 years ago around Central Washington’s Lake Chelan, a handful of farmers decided to make the transition from apples to grapes. Though the apple market has recovered, there has been no turning back for these erstwhile orchardists. Along the shores of Lake Chelan, wineries have been popping up as quickly as bubbles in a newly uncorked bottle of Champagne.

Designated an official American Viticultural Area in 2009 and one of Washington’s fastest-growing wine regions, Lake Chelan now has almost two dozen wineries clustered around its southeastern end. The narrow lake, about 50 miles long, has long attracted visitors from Seattle, but now its award-winning wineries have put it on the map for other travelers. The cool nights, arid climate and unique mixture of volcanic and glacially formed soil all make the lake conducive to winemaking, the region’s vintners said.

The glacial water often used to irrigate helps create “this wonderful minerality that makes Chelan wines unique — a brisk, almost wet-stone feeling in your mouth,” said Judy Phelps, an owner, with her husband, Don, and winemaker at Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards ( Hard Row to Hoe, known for a cabernet franc with whiffs of spice and chocolate, opened in 2006, though it did so under the less-than-memorable name of Balsamroot Winery and Vineyard, Phelps said.

Hiring a historian to dig up local stories, they re-christened the winery in 2008 with a saucy nod to miners of the late 1930s who used to row across the lake at night to a waterfront brothel. Sample the Shameless Hussy viognier, which has fruits that pop; a sharp eye will see silhouettes of nude women that pop out of the antique-style wallpaper.

To underscore the up-and-coming region’s appeal, Lake Chelan’s winemakers said they are emphasizing the topography of the lake as ideal for winemaking to distinguish it from the more than 800 wineries in Washington state, and beyond.

At Nefarious Cellars (, its name derived from the surname of the owners, Dean and Heather Neff, the husband-and-wife team splits the winemaking duties: He does the reds; she, the whites.

“You’re getting two very different perspectives under one roof,” said Heather Neff, who studied winemaking in Oregon’s Willamette Valley with her husband before opening Nefarious in 2006. Perched above the lake with dramatic views, the winery typically sells out quickly, closing for winter.

The majority of Lake Chelan’s wineries remain open in winter, many with limited hours, such as Tunnel Hill Winery ( The winery and tasting room are housed in 1930s buildings constructed of stone salvaged from blasting the nearby Knapps Hill highway tunnel; hence, the winery’s name. Denny and Jaclyn Evans, former apple growers, switched to grapes in 2001 and have made a name for themselves with a silky, spicy pinot noir.

Tunnel Hill’s assistant winemaker, Michelle Fanton, spent six years in the Finger Lakes region of New York and said the two regions have a lot in common. But while Lake Chelan was initially thought to be ideal for the cool-climate grapes that thrive in the Finger Lakes, such as pinot, chardonnay, riesling and gewürztraminer, “we’ve come to realize that because we’re a little drier, because we’re also high desert and, in certain areas, a little warmer, we can also grow a lot of other grapes as well,” Fanton said.

At Tsillan Cellars (, modeled after a Tuscan villa, owner Robert Jankelson has his own ideas about how to set apart his winery from the increasingly crowded field cropping up around Lake Chelan. Tsillan Cellars, which opened in 2004, produces all estate-grown wines but also features a natural amphitheater, waterfalls, stone bridges and a 35-foot bell tower as a backdrop for its tasting room and Sorrento’s Ristorante, the on-site restaurant owned by the chef, Gennaro Criscuolo.

Jankelson, a dentist by profession who spent 40 years teaching dentistry around the world, envisions transforming his winery into a world-class spa resort. “Even if only 200 of Washington’s 800 wineries are making great wine, that’s still a lot of competition,” he said, “so you had better have a story to go along with a great wine.”

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