Sometimes, it takes a big injection of new ideas to shake up old ways of thinking. This is never more true than in the world of wine.
Arguably, we have seen this in the New World, where innovative ideas have infiltrated the Old World and in many ways changed the way wines are made in Europe.
And here in the Pacific Northwest, the old guard can learn a thing or two from emerging wine regions.
Take, for instance, Lake Chelan, Washington's newest American Viticultural Area and the subject of our cover story this issue.
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Two areas of Washington are the state's traditional "playgrounds," where residents go for family vacations and getaways: the coast and Lake Chelan. Aside from a new winery in Westport, the rugged Washington coast is not what one would describe as "wine country." And until the past decade when the apple industry has struggled, neither was Lake Chelan.
But with more than a dozen wineries within short drives of each other and 250 acres of wine grapes, Lake Chelan is a legitimate part of the Washington wine scene. And in a remarkably brief period, Chelan actually has been able to quickly leapfrog over more traditional regions in one vitally important area: tourism.
You see, Chelan has been welcoming visitors for darn near a century. It knows how to treat folks when they arrive. In fact, before the wine industry came along, some 80,000 people came to play in Lake Chelan between May and October. This didn't count the folks coming for the great snowmobiling in the winter.
Meanwhile, longtime wine regions are more rural and agricultural in nature and have had to learn the tourism end of the business. Walla Walla, with all of its success in the past decade, is just making those inroads by offering more restaurants and other amenities that appeal to visitors. Same with the Yakima Valley, which has had woefully few places for people to dine until the recent explosion of activity in Prosser.
In Oregon, we see the same trends. Yamhill County, which is the heart of the Oregon wine industry, is just now gaining a reputation for good restaurants beyond a small handful of pioneers such as Tina's in Dundee, Nick's in McMinnville and Joel Palmer House in Dayton. The Ponzi family is one of the few to have this vision, first launching BridgePort Brewery in the 1980s and the Dundee Bistro in the late 1990s.
This attention to the needs of visitors quickly gives Lake Chelan a big advantage over other wine regions. Yes, the vines and winemaking need to mature, but they are well on their way, thanks to the arrival of veteran winemakers and an agricultural background that stretches back more than a century.
Here is the only fact you need to know to understand my point: Off the top of my head, I can think of seven wineries in Washington that have on-site restaurants (open year-round or seasonally) - and five of them are along the shores of Lake Chelan: Tsillan Cellars, Karma Vineyards, Wapato Point Cellars, Lake Chelan Winery and Vin du Lac (and I wouldn't be surprised if Benson Vineyards joined that group in the next year or two). This is a huge advantage because visitors receive the full wine country experience. They don't just elbow their way to the tasting bar, pay their fee, taste some samples and move on. Rather, they can slow down, savor the wines, walk the vineyards and eat delicious meals prepared with fresh local ingredients - all while taking in some of the most spectacular views in the Pacific Northwest.
From a pure business point of view, Lake Chelan wineries have it made. Most winery owners will tell you they love selling 25 percent of their product directly to visitors. They might just make a deal with the devil to push that to 50 percent. Meanwhile, Lake Chelan wineries are accustomed to selling anywhere from 80 percent to 95 percent of their wines directly to consumers. Their accountants must love that.
This does not happen because the wines are better than those in Walla Walla, Prosser or Woodinville. It's because Lake Chelan is a destination, an experience.
The same thing is happening in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley, another very young wine region (it didn't start clicking until the late 1990s). The valley, particularly Penticton, has been the summer playground of those living in Vancouver and Victoria for decades. Long before they planted Syrah, Riesling, Pinot Noir and Merlot in the soil, folks in the Okanagan knew how to treat visitors. Today, no fewer than 20 wineries have on-site restaurants.
The rest of the Pacific Northwest can learn a lesson from Lake Chelan and its skyrocketing success. It would not be difficult to create a wine-country experience that includes food and other amenities. Walla Walla has begun to understand this, as has Prosser. Washington's vast Columbia Valley produces dozens upon dozens of crops that can be used by local-minded chefs. Same goes for all of western Oregon. A few folks are doing it now, and more should follow.
John Bookwalter of J Bookwalter in Richland, Wash., knows this as well as anyone. A few years ago, he had a vision for what he wanted his winery to become. Today, it's not just a tasting room; it's an experience with live music, small plates and wine by the glass or bottle. Despite a recession that has caused dozens of restaurants to close across Washington, Bookwalter is having his busiest year yet.
Those of us who visit or live in wine country want these amenities, and those who learn from the success of Lake Chelan have the opportunity to prosper.
ANDY PERDUE is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.