For decades, it's been Washington's playground, a mountain getaway with stunning vistas, the heart of the state's famous apple industry and the nation's third-deepest lake. And for the past decade, grapes and wineries have crept in amid the orchards, and this spring it officially became a part of Washington wine country.
The Lake Chelan AVA was approved this spring, making it Washington's 11th appellation. The region is small, with just 16 wineries and about 250 acres of grapes planted. It's also young, with the oldest vineyard planted in 1998. However, Chelan has a vaunted agricultural history, primarily with apples and other tree fruits.
"The wine in this area has become kind of a staple for us around here," said Tony Race, owner of the Red Apple Market in Chelan. "It used to be apples, and now we've discovered that it's wine. With local wineries, this is pretty fun. It's something new and exciting, and it's a year-round event. The apple orchards were a short, seasonal thing. There was no spring barrel tasting, no new releases, none of that."
One of the more established wineries on the lake is Vin du Lac on the north shore. Owners Larry Lehmbecker and Michaela Markusson launched it in 2002 as Chelan Wine Co., but as more wineries opened and took advantage of the famous regional name, they chose the new moniker.
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Vin du Lac's most famous wine is its Cabernet Franc, which has earned an astonishing four consecutive Platinum awards in Wine Press Northwest's annual best-of-the-best competition. While some of the grapes for that wine come from the new Lake Chelan AVA (approved in June), the majority are brought in from Snipes Mountain, another newly approved appellation in the Yakima Valley.
As the region matures, many wineries use grapes from outside of Lake Chelan, though more and more producers are relying on their own fruit sources for their wines. In fact, Wine Press Northwest conducted a tasting of more than 50 wines that used grapes solely from the AVA. And last year for the first time, grapes from Lake Chelan made up part of Chateau Ste. Michelle's acclaimed Eroica Riesling blend, indicating the state's flagship winery's growing interest in the region.
The Lake Chelan AVA is markedly different than any other in Washington. Unlike all but the Puget Sound AVA, Lake Chelan was not shaped by the Ice Age floods that ravaged Eastern Washington and the Columbia Gorge some 15,000 years ago. In fact, glaciers were busy carving out the lake, the third-deepest in the United States (after Crater Lake and Lake Tahoe). Alan Busacca, the geologist who shepherded the AVA petition through the federal government, said the glacier that created the 50-mile-long lake was some 2,000 feet thick.
"This area really is special and quite different from any area in the state where wine grapes are grown," Busacca said as he stood along the shore of Lake Chelan. "Almost all areas in the Columbia Valley for the most part were influenced by the outburst floods from Lake Missoula."
Additionally, he said, the vast majority of the bedrock of the Columbia Valley is basalt, while that of Lake Chelan is granite. On top of that, a volcano about 20 miles to the west called Glacier Peak erupted some 12,000 years ago. It was on the scale of Mount Mazama, the Oregon volcano that erupted nearly 10,000 years ago and became Crater Lake.
"This whole area was just being de-glaciated," Busacca said. Thus, the soils in Lake Chelan are very young in geologic terms and are a mix of crushed granite and pumice.
Busacca, a retired WSU geology professor, also was the primary force behind the formation of the Wahluke Slope AVA in 2006 and helped with the applications for the Horse Heaven Hills and Rattlesnake Hills AVAs. He has since launched a winery project called AlmaTerra that focuses on wines that exhibit a region's sense of place.
Though the oldest vineyards in Lake Chelan are barely a decade old, Busacca said the region actually has a rich history in wine grape growing. An 1891 edition of the Chelan Falls Leader included an article about Louis Conti, an Italian immigrant with a 60-acre vineyard in the area.
"(The article) clearly lays out that there are quite a few Italian immigrants who had been coming into the area and bringing wine grapevines from California," Busacca said. "One leader is quoted as saying this area will soon be covered in wine vineyards and will be producing the finest wines that will rival anything from California and Europe in just a few years."
Busacca said he isn't certain why this never happened, but he suspects a combination of Prohibition and the quickly profitable tree fruit industry were likely culprits.
A new beginning
In 1998, the Kludt family, owners of Lake Chelan Winery and Wapato Point Cellars, planted the first grapes in the modern era, replacing apple orchards. Others soon followed.
Bob Jankelson, owner of Tsillan Cellars on the lake's south shore, planted grapes in 2000 immediately after removing 135 acres of Red Delicious, the top apple variety of Washington - and one hard hit in the 1990s when it fell out of favor with consumers. Jankelson has built a stunning facility reminiscent of an Italian villa. In fact, Jankelson spent much time in Italy teaching dentistry and turned to that region for inspiration when he designed Tsillan.
The name (pronounced the same as the lake and town) is thought to be the original spelling of "Chelan" and appears on maps of the region from the early 1800s. It is a native word for "deep water," Jankelson explained.
Jankelson is all about providing a wine country experience. The winery's beautiful grounds and views inspire visitors to return, and he has brought in the owners of the famed Sorrento restaurant in San Francisco to operate the food service at Tsillan.
"It really is about giving people experiences, something that leaves memories, something you want to experience but don't have the opportunity frequently," Jankelson said, describing his operation as "passion unleashed."
"The wine industry is, I think, the foundational cornerstone of the Chelan economy right now," he added.
Mike Steel, executive director of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Information Center, certainly sees the wine industry as an important part of the region's future. He said about 80,000 people visit the valley annually between May and October, and wineries have helped to fill hotel rooms.
"A different group is now being exposed to Lake Chelan," he said, including couples who tend to be older, more sophisticated and with more discretionary income. And they tend to visit in the "shoulder" seasons when fewer families are vacationing on the lake.
Though Lake Chelan is a young wine region, it is quickly catching up. Veteran winemakers such as Katy Perry of Tildio and Ray Sandidge of Lake Chelan Winery bring near-instant cache. Varieties being grown are all over the board and described by more than one winemaker as a "big science experiment." Whites such as Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Pinot Gris already are shining. For reds, Sangiovese, Syrah, Tempranillo and Malbec are beginning to stand out.
A warm & scenic experience
Contrary to popular belief, Lake Chelan is not necessarily cooler than the rest of the Columbia Valley (nearly the entire AVA is within Washington's largest appellation). In fact, it is not much cooler than Red Mountain and the Wahluke Slope, generally considered to be the two warmest regions in Northwest wine country. However, the region's most famous feature - the lake - keeps the vineyards along its shore from becoming too warm in the summer or too cold in the winter. The vineyards' elevation (often around 1,100 feet above sea level) and temperature shifts between day and night preserve the grapes' all-important acidity better than most regions of Washington.
"We have an amazingly scenic environment," said Vin du Lac's Lehmbecker. "We hope to make some world-class wines, and I think we're starting to. But we also offer something with a wine-touring experience that is fairly rare," he added. "That's something unique about Chelan. Most of us have been inspired to create venues where people want to come and hang out for a while, so you don't just come to our tasting bar, taste the wines, buy the wines and you're out of here. We have this great view to enjoy. We do what we can to entice people to hang out and come back frequently." e
Andy Perdue is editor of Wine Press Northwest.