MANSON — She was a blackjack dealer and he was a bartender at the Nugget casino in South Lake Tahoe when they met in 1971.
He found her good looking and, in the era of miniskirts, equipped with “nice legs.” She liked cute bartenders and “he had a really nice Volkswagen.”
She found him shy and a challenge. He finally figured she was really interested when she sat, in her miniskirt, in his cold Volkswagen on a snowy day while he installed a defroster in the car.
Steve and Bobbi Kludt, now 62 and 61 respectively, liked a bit of the glitter and glitz of casino life. Neither one of them gambled much, but the risk they’ve taken in the last decade as pioneers of Lake Chelan’s wine industry is paying off.
They own two wineries that produce 16,000 cases of wine a year, 8,000 that they sell and 8,000 for other wineries in the region and state. They own two restaurants. They have 35 full-time and 245 seasonal employees.
They grow wine grapes on 60 acres and have Ray Sandidge and Sean Akin, who they say are the best winemaker and chef, respectively, on the West Coast. Their son, Jonathon, their daughter, April, and their son-in-law, Ben Williams, all work in the family businesses. Williams, a West Point graduate, gave up an Army career to run one of the wineries and restaurants.
This year, for the first time since planting their first grapes in 1998, they’ll turn a profit, Steve Kludt says.
And the Lake Chelan wine industry they started has blossomed into 15 competing but friendly wineries that have applied for federal recognition as its own appellation, a distinct wine region.
None of it was in the dreams of the bartender and blackjack dealer when they married, decided South Lake Tahoe wasn’t where they wanted to raise their kids and moved to Manson in 1974. They bought a 47-acre apple and cherry orchard, eventually doubling its size.
“We weren’t hippies, but the idea of being self-sufficient on your own land was real popular then,” Steve Kludt says. “So our idea was to come up and be self-sustaining, raising our own fruit and vegetables.”
They had many good years and made money, but by 1998, apple prices had tanked. The Kludts owed more on their property than it was worth, and they were looking for alternatives.
Steve Kludt remembered a late 1970s visit by Walter Clore, a Washington State University horticulturalist regarded as the father of Washington’s wine industry. Neighboring orchardists John Sather and Ed Eckberg had invited Clore to their orchard to get his opinion on growing wine grapes.
Steve recalls Clore saying Sather and Eckberg’s orchard elevation was too high but that the Kludts’ orchard was just right.
“It didn’t mean much to me at the time, but I remembered it,” he says. “I remember Dr. Clore (who died in 2003 at age 91) contacted me, and we walked through my orchard, and his comments were this was ideal conditions for growing wine grapes. All the reasons he held at that time are true today”
The moderating effect of Lake Chelan keeps the area cooler in summer and warmer in winter, and it has just the right amount of summer heat, comparable to the wine regions of southeastern Washington and California’s Napa Valley.
It was risky to start a new venture, but Bobbi Kludt figured, “God is in charge of everything, and if we’re led into a direction it would probably work out.”