It’s tough to decide what’s more impressive about Lake Chelan wineries these days. The number of people who fill the tasting rooms. Or the number of ways you can get to them. The area’s limousine-tour business is booming. And tour groups arriving at tasting rooms on electric bikes have become common sights. You can get to some tasting rooms by helicopter. And Tsillan Cellars even welcomes visitors who drop in by parachute. Now home to about 30 wineries and tasting rooms, it’s hard to picture life at the lake without its viticultural amenities. But that’s mostly how things were up until 2000, when Steve Kludt and Bob Christopher established Lake Chelan Winery. Others would follow, and by 2009, Lake Chelan wineries and growers had established their own American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation.
This summer, the Lake Chelan AVA turns 10. And to commemorate this anniversary, Lake Chelan Wine Valley, the local winegrowers’ association, is throwing a party. The group’s Vintage Lake Chelan event, June 7–8, will feature receptions, panelist-led tastings and a grand tasting. In honor of the event and the anniversary, I reached out to a few of the area’s wine pioneers for their perspectives on this special milestone.
[Pictured above: Benson Vineyards Estate Winery, courtesy of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce]
Born out of necessity
The collapse of apple prices in the late-1990s created dire circumstances for area farmers. Kludt remembers horror stories about long-time farming families having their land auctioned off on the courthouse steps. Since Lake Chelan was already a thriving tourist destination, Kludt and some of his fellow orchardists decided to explore opportunities in agritourism.
Back then, the wine industry had already gained steam in the Yakima Valley, Tri-Cities, Walla Walla and elsewhere in Washington. And even though Lake Chelan was already part of the Columbia Valley AVA, no one really knew if wine grapes would grow as well by the lake as they did farther south. Christopher, who had purchased a 7-acre orchard in Manson in the mid-1990s, remembers a visit he made farther north to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, in 1997. When he saw how well their vineyards and wineries were doing, he thought, “Why the hell couldn’t we do this in Chelan?” So, after that fall’s harvest, he ripped out his orchard to plant vineyards the following spring.
Kludt would also begin planting vineyards on his nearby farm around then, and the two men soon joined forces to create a winery with a third partner, who had winemaking experience. Unfortunately, this third partner left the group before Lake Chelan Winery’s first harvest in 2000. But one of Christopher’s best friends was the brother of winemaker Katy Perry (not to be confused with pop star Katy Perry). Perry was making wine for MacRostie Winery and Vineyards in Northern California at the time. And she agreed to talk Christopher (pictured above) through the winemaking process over the phone.
“She was diligent with me,” Christopher recalls. “I took copious notes, but I pretty much ‘worried’ those grapes through fermentation.”
Perry, who would establish TIldio winery, in Manson, a few years later, has a different recollection of these conversations. “To this day, Bob says it helped, but I barely remember doing it,” she says. “What they were asking were pretty standard winemaking questions.”
By then Perry had already worked for Robert Mondavi and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley, as well as others in Sonoma. So, the then-new Lake Chelan grape-growers association invited her up to share her expertise. They then invited her back the next summer.
During this second visit, Perry warmed up to the idea of making wine at Lake Chelan, particularly after she saw an 8-acre property that had come up for sale in Manson. Since she was still living and working in California at the time, it didn’t make sense for her to buy the property right away. But that changed when a job with Chateau Ste. Michelle brought her back to Washington (she grew up in Seattle). Upon her return, she bought the Manson land. She began planting vineyards in 2002. And she and husband, Milum, opened Tildio’s tasting room in 2005. (Fourteen years later, the Perrys are ready to retire and are in the process of selling their winery.)
Perception v reality
In the early 2000s, many of Washington’s wine experts considered Lake Chelan to be too cool for some of the most popular red wine grapes. Based on these opinions, Bob Jankelson, who was semi-retired from dentistry when he moved to the area in 1994, dedicated two-thirds of his initial plantings to white varietals when he established Tsillan Cellars in 2000. (The winery opened to the public in 2004.) These included riesling, gewürztraminer, chardonnay, pinot grigio and viognier.
Then a funny thing happened. His red varietals, including syrah, merlot, malbec, sangiovese and barbera, began to thrive. Today, these and other reds account for about 60 percent of his annual production, which totals about 7,500 cases a year.
“I made my investment with the conviction that we could grow world-class grapes,” Jankelson says. “But then the self-doubt crept in. We got our expertise from the lower Columbia Valley. And when we mentioned Chelan, they thought we were in the mountains and it was a cold climate. But nothing could be further from the truth.”
It’s true that Lake Chelan is slightly cooler than most other Washington growing regions. But the lake’s 1,100-foot elevation is not much different from that of the city of Yakima, which sits at 1,066 feet.
In general terms, those slightly cooler temperatures allow the grapes to retain a little more acidity. And longer hang times lead to more-complex fruit profiles. The conditions have proved suitable for the familiar, including syrah, merlot and chardonnay, and rare-for-Washington varietals, such as aglianico and dolcetto. Those that do well in cooler areas, such as riesling and gewürztraminer, are also represented. The region’s microclimates allow cabernet sauvignon to ripen in some locations, and pinot noir to thrive in others. And the malbecs are delicious.
A winning formula
If you’re wondering why you can’t find wines from Lake Chelan Winery, Tildio and Tsillan Cellars in your local bottle shop, it’s because they are not there. Many Lake Chelan wineries are small estates that only sell their wines at their tasting rooms, on their websites and through their wine clubs.
This business model speaks to the reason why the area’s winemakers wanted to establish their own AVA from the get-go. “Even when we started, we were talking about building an industry,” says Kludt. “We knew that, if we wanted to succeed in the wine business, we needed more than one winery. We needed to build a wine destination.”
And what a destination it is. Wines that are unique to the area. Kissed by the lake’s nourishing combination of soil, sunshine and airflow. Served in tasting rooms and patios that overlook scenic treasures. All providing precious opportunities to literally drink in the flavors of a sublime setting.
[Wine-barrel photo: Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards, courtesy of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce)
Before and after
Kludt bought out his original partners in 2003 and also established Wapato Point Cellars with his son, Jonathon. Today, the family produces about 11,500 cases of wine under its two labels, plus 30,000–40,000 cases of Washington Gold Cider. They offer fine dining at the Winemaker’s Grill at Wapato Point Cellars. And their BBQ in the Vineyards, offered nightly at Lake Chelan Winery, from mid-May to mid-October, is phenomenally popular. Kludt is still involved in the business. But his daughter, April Williams, oversees operations as GM. And Jonathon heads up production.
It’s a success story that is made all the more fascinating when you consider how much was at stake 20 years ago. Had this venture into the wine business not worked out, Kludt believes his family would have lost their farm.
“People say what a good decision it was for us to get into the wine business, but there really was no choice,” Kludt says. “I didn’t have too many options. We had to do something.”
[Photo: Steve Kludt, courtesy of Lake Chelan Winery/Facebook]