In less than a decade, a Seattle lawyer with no formal training in winemaking has learned to craft some of Washington's finest reds and created a destination winery.
Larry Lehmbecker, who grew up in the Seattle area and continues to practice law there, launched Vin du Lac on a bluff above Lake Chelan with the 2002 vintage and found almost immediate success. His 2002 syrah won best in show of the annual Capital Food & Wine Festival. And beginning with the 2003 vintage, his cabernet franc has won five consecutive Platinum medals in Wine Press Northwest's annual year-end best-of-the-best competition.
Not bad for a guy who went to college in California to practice law, not make wine.
"The best winemakers don't necessarily have an academic background," Lehmbecker said. "Either you have it or you don't."
He developed his love for wine while attending school in the Bay Area and traveling on weekends to the Napa Valley. When he returned to Washington, he decided he wanted to open a winery, ultimately finding property in Lake Chelan, which he commutes to on weekends.
In March, Vin du Lac was named Wine Press Northwest's 2010 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year for its wine quality as well as its tasting room and year-round on-site restaurant.
Here are a few of Lehmbecker's wines well worth checking out.
Vin du Lac of Chelan 2007 Barrel Select cabernet franc, Columbia Valley, $35: Dusty cherry aromas include hints of vanilla bean, mocha and minerality. Ripe blackberries step upfront on the palate with black cherries and acidity that carries all the way through. Winemaking components of leather, vanilla and chocolate don't overpower the variety's food-friendly crushed herb character.
Vin du Lac of Chelan 2006 Barrel Select cabernet sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $35: One of Lehmbecker's secret weapons for his string of successful reds is the Newhouse family's Upland Vineyards on Snipes Mountain. Bing cherry, blackberry, cola and citrus aromas are joined by hints of crushed walnut, Spanish almonds, Ponderosa pine and minerality. Think of chocolate-covered cherries on the palate, with plums and a thin slice of fruit cake. The tannins are substantial but not taxing.
Vin du Lac of Chelan 2006 Barrel Select merlot, Columbia Valley, $35: Lehmbecker used grapes from three of his favorite vineyards: Stillwater Creek, Snipes Canyon and his estate vineyard on a bluff above Lake Chelan. This opens with aromas of sweet oak, spicy blueberries, cherries and vanilla, followed by lush flavors of raspberries, blackberries, licorice and chocolate. Firm tannins back up all the ripe, delicious fruit.
Vin du Lac of Chelan 2008 Cuvée Rouge, Columbia Valley, $20: The staff will serve many glasses of this food-friendly wine at the on-premises bistro overlooking Lake Chelan, and it's a skillful blend of merlot (57 percent), cabernet sauvignon (27 percent), syrah (13 percent) and cab franc from six vineyards -- including the Yakima Valley's up-and-coming Dineen. High-toned red fruit aromas include roasted coffee, tar and porcini mushroom.
Vin du Lac of Chelan 2007 Barrel Select syrah, Columbia Valley, $28: Aromas of Bing cherry, fresh boysenberry, tar and drip coffee transcend into more cherries and blackberry jam flavors with a chocolaty mouth feel and cracked green peppercorns in the finish.
Vin du Lac of Chelan 2007 Red Cafe syrah, Columbia Valley, $20: Lehmbecker blends petite sirah into his Rhône wines, and this features nearly 13 percent of it. There's a plumpness to the nose with boysenberry, macerated cranberries, milk chocolate, tar, cedar and coffee. On the entry is a stream of sweet raspberries and huckleberries, followed by chocolate-covered graham cracker on the midpalate, then cedar and saddle leather in the finish.
*Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman run Great Northwest Wine, a website that provides news and information about the wines of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Idaho.