Lake Chelan’s history with wine offers a few more chapters than one might think, starting in 1891 with a newspaper report of an Italian immigrant and his 60-acre vineyard.
It began in earnest, however, a century later when orchardist Bob Christopher first transitioned some of his apple trees to grape vines. His colleague, Steve Kludt, soon followed and established the valley’s first bonded winery — Lake Chelan Winery.
For decades, Lake Chelan has served as a summer playground for Puget Sound families. When the weather warms, the population swells from 4,000 to 25,000, so wineries were naturally positioned themselves to take advantage of the tourism.
Success came rather quickly for some wineries, and they all give credit to that picturesque, glacial-carved body of water, the third-deepest lake in the United States at 1,486 feet. Lake Chelan’s tempering influence helps protect the vines during the winter, while the heat during the growing season is similar to that of the Walla Walla Valley.
In 2009, just 11 years after the first vines were planted, the federal government approved the Lake Chelan American Viticultural Area. The petition for the AVA was filed by famed geologist Alan Busacca and the Lake Chelan Wine Growers Association, led by Judy Phelps of Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards in Manson.
Today, the region, nested completely within the massive Columbia Valley AVA, is home to nearly 300 acres of vineyards, a tiny fraction of the state’s total. Many of the more than 30 wineries around Lake Chelan rely on fruit from beyond the region’s borders, a practice not uncommon in Washington, so grapes come from the warm Wahluke Slope, the cooler Yakima Valley and other areas.
Lake Chelan’s wine scene tends to be divided between the north and south shore, so planning for a two-day visit makes for a delicious weekend. Several wineries have on-site restaurants, setting the table for the ultimate wine country experience. Be sure to take advantage of this feature.
Rocky Pond Winery 2018 Clos CheValle Vineyard Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir, Lake Chelan, $24: Shane Collins, who grew up in the Lake Chelan town of Manson, spearheads the winemaking for the Dufenhorst family, which owns these vines near Bear Mountain Ranch Golf Course. This classic pink wine is as delicious as it is balanced, loaded with aromas and flavors of ripe strawberries, plum, hints of delicate rosewater through the impressively long finish. Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 2019 Washington Winery to Watch operates tasting rooms in downtown Chelan and Woodinville.
Tunnel Hill Winery 2017 Estate Syrah, Lake Chelan, $40: After spending a decade in New York’s beautiful Finger Lake region, Seattle native Michelle Fanton makes wines on the south shore of Lake Chelan for the Evans family. Their impressive syrah from estate vines reveals aromas and flavors of dried cherries, plum and a hint of clove. Persistent tannins backup flavors of blueberry pie, mocha and notes of violets in the finish.
Benson Vineyards Estate Winery 2016 Encore, Lake Chelan, $38: This fascinating Super Tuscan-inspired red, which leads with sangiovese, is loaded with flavors of strawberries, plum, red cherry, black tea and a hint of sweet oak. Firm by pliable tannins swirl behind a profile of food-friendly acidity.
Radiance Winery 2015 Syrah, Lake Chelan, $38: This family-owned winery in the town of Manson on the north shore of Lake Chelan has crafted a delicious syrah, which might be the region’s signature red grape. The Crowders present it in a Cote-Rotie style that carries a theme of saddle leather, plum, blackberry, a hint of oak, dark cherry and black pepper.
WineGirl Wines 2018 Reserve Rosé, Columbia Valley, $32: Many of Washington’s top roses are crafted using sangiovese grapes, and Angela Jacobs’s pink wine is no exception. Whiffs of black cherry, strawberry and black pepper give way to suave flavors of strawberries and cream and red licorice, all backed with juicy acidity. Enjoy with a chef’s salad, scallops, roasted turkey or a sunset on the back porch. Jacobs operates tasting rooms in Manson and Leavenworth.
Sigillo Cellars 2017 GSM, Columbia Valley, $35: Mike Seal and his family are widening their footprint in the Cascade foothills town of Snoqualmie, but they also operate a tasting room on the south shore of Lake Chelan. This Mourvedre-heavy blend reveals just how delicious Rhone-style wines made in Washington can be. Though Grenache only makes up a third of the blend, it stands out as a dominant part of the wine, which features notes of bright red cherries and plum along with earthiness and leather. This is a complete wine that needs to only age on your way home.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.