A pilgrimage to taste

Wine columnist Dee Hitch visited Lake Chelan to see one of the younger appellations of the Washington wine industry.

We visited Lake Chelan to see one of the younger appellations of the Washington wine industry. When I originally heard about Lake Chelan entering the wine industry, most of the grapes were coming from other areas. Now, Lake Chelan has many vineyards, replacing many apple orchards.

We had not been to Lake Chelan since our daughters were still in high school, and we had gone there for a summer vacation encompassing swimming and boating. That was about 40 years ago!

We decided to drive over Blewett Pass. Tunnel Hill Winery was our first stop.

Located on the south shore, Tunnel Hill is named after the white stones which from the original excavation in 1937 of the Knapp’s Hill Tunnel which you pass through on your way into Wenatchee.  Guy Evans is the winemaker of Tunnel Hill and is the fourth generation of the family which originally ran farm and orchards. From late spring through early autumn, the Evans family also runs Sunshine Farm Market of locally-sourced fruits, vegetables, jams and gifts. Tunnel Hill is located at 37 Highway 97A. Call 509-682-3243 or email info@tunnelhillwinery.com for updates on tasting room hours. They currently have two rieslings, a viognier, and a white blend. The reds include a pinot noir, red blend, malbec and syrah. A rose from pinot noir rounds out the current offerings.

Many of the Lake Chelan wines do not even make it over to Western Washington. Since Western Washington vacationers are a major part of the Lake Chelan region’s economy, the wineries depend on visitors buying wine to add to their home cellars. Almost every winery has its own wine club. Some are free to join; some have a nominal membership fee. Each winery club member has a menu of pre-selected wine packages which either arrive on the doorstep or is picked up at the winery, often in the fall. The choices are usually a package of all reds, all whites or a mixture of both. Tasting rooms are often free or the nominal fee is deducted from any wine purchases.

We then drove over to the north shore into the town of Manson. One of the more entertaining wineries is Hard Row to Hoe. When it first started, it had another name. The winemaker/owners found that just making good wine was not enough so they added whimsy and storytelling. The name celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit of the man who ran a row boat taxi service on Lake Chelan in the 1930’s ferrying miners to a brothel located up the lake on Point Lovely. The wallpaper is from Germany and discreetly depicts various brothel activities. Hard Row to Hoe is a repeat visit for many wine tourists because of the great fun there. The tasting room was voted in the top 22 tasting rooms in Washington by Seattle Met magazine. The owners report that many Eastsiders are members of their Oar House wine club. Judy and Don Phelps are often hosting the tasting room frivolity which belies the hard work and knowledge behind the scenes. Judy Phelps has a master of science from the University of Connecticut and has her winemaking credentials from the University of California at Davis. She is retired from research and development at Pfizer. She is a past president of the Lake Chelan Wine Growers’ Association. Her husband Don Phelps has a master in civil engineering from Washington State University, specializing in water resources. He is current president of the Lake Chelan Wine Alliance. Cellarmaster Shaun Salimida, formerly of San Juan Vineyards, works with Judy Phelps.

The current offerings are Hard Row to Hoe sangiovese, Burning Desire Estate cabernet franc, Good in Bed Sparkling, Hard Row to Hoe syrah, Land Ho! port-style wine, Shameless Hussy merlot, Shameless Hussy Rose, Hard Row to Hoe Iron-bed Red, Hard Row to Hoe viognier, Shameless Hussy pinot grigio.

The Phelps proudly point out their Ivan Morse estate vineyard which is the first LIVE vineyard in North Central Washington. LIVE refers to Low Input Viticulture and Enology and is a salmon-safe vineyard. No chemical pesticides or weed killer are ever used and the vineyard is only worked manually. The vineyard began its life as an apple orchard and was converted by the Phelps in 2004. Celebrating its ninth anniversary, it is the ninth winery in Lake Chelan. Check hardrow.com or 509-687-3000 for tasting room hours.

Benson Vineyards Estate Winery is up the hill from Hard Row to Hoe. Being up the hill, the view of vineyards leading down to the lake is worth the short drive. All the wines ever produced by Benson have been estate wines which means the grapes on grown in their own vineyards. Obviously, they planned ahead by planting ahead.  Benson grows seven red and four white varietals. Besides being a wedding site, the winery also hosts an ambitious lineup of concerts from May through October. Their motto is “Come for the View, Stay for the Wine.” Phone 509-687-0313 or check  bensonvineyards.com

Lake Chelan Winery produces both wine and apple cider. Lake Chelan Winery was the pioneer. Due to international influences, the Washington apple market crashed in 1998. They were the first to plant vineyards in 1998; their first release was in 2001. The Lake Chelan Valley once teemed with apple orchards. Apple-growing was a source of income, a way of life and the common thread which held the community together. So, to take down apple trees to plant grapes was a brave step.  They also joined with Lake Chelan Cheese and to provide a cheese and wine tasting with a gift shop. Lake Chelan Winery three whites, a white blend, five reds and a red blend. An intriguing offering is Stormy Mountain White which blends syrah, riesling and pinot grigio. Check lakechelanwinery.com or call 509-687-9463 for tasting hours.

We drove further into Manson to stop at CR Sandidge. His main winery is in Prosser while a storefront retail tasting room is in Lake Chelan, but it was on my list because of the many awards which this winery has received over the years. The New World International Wine Competition awarded his 2002 Tri’umph the best Bordeaux-style wine in all of North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Ray Sandidge’s resume is impressive. After studying horticulture at Washington State University, he was part of a winemaking team on Long Island, New York. He then made rieslings in Germany at the well-known Georg Breuer Winery garnering accolades and awards. He received 97 points for a trockenbeerenauslese, which is a German difficult-to-make sweet wine. The high score was both from both Wine and Spirits magazine and the Chicago International Wine Competition under the Breuer label.  He then returned to Washington, working at Apex, Hyatt and Kestrel before starting his own winery.  His whites reflect his time in Germany: a gewürztraminer and a riesling/gewürztraminer blend. He has five red blends, utilizing merlot, malbec, cabernet franc, syrah, syrah and petite sirah in various amounts and combinations. Call 509-682-3704 or check crsandidgewines.com for more.

The Lake Chelan AVA (American Viticultural Area) or “appellation” was granted in 2008. An AVA is a designated wine grape-growing region which is distinguishable by geographic features with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau which is part of the United States Department of the Treasury.  It usually takes two years of submitting documentation to obtain an AVA. Lake Chelan is the 11th Washington AVA; there are now 13 AVAs in Washington State. The Lake Chelan wineries credit the winds and climate from the lake itself as setting their growing region apart. The Wenatchee, Leavenworth, and Lake Chelan wineries have also combined to call themselves “The Cascade Wine Valley.” Among these three cities, visitors can visit almost 70 wineries.

Besides wineries, there are many attractions to entertain visitors. The downtown city of Chelan has been has been designated a national and state “main street” historical district so much of original charm of the town has been retained. The Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce at 216 East Woodin Avenue is a great resource for winery maps, hours and attractions around the greater Lake Chelan area.

One non-wine activity is the Lady of the Lake boat cruise up to the City of Stehekin which is a three hour narrated ride. In a year of normal snowfall, the surrounding mountains are covered with snow. While the boat seems like a tourist event, the boat ride started as the lifeline for the town of Stehekin which is 50 miles upriver and is totally dependent on the boat for all its supplies. The 75 Stehekin residents phone in their orders to the grocery stores and the boat brings the food up to them. There are no roads leading into Stehekin. The only other access into the town besides the boat is by foot or horseback. The one-room school house is attended by 13 kids.

Besides a ride on the Lady of the Lake, Slidewaters is a waterpark for the kids. Mill Bay Casino also has Deep Water Amphitheater with a lineup of music. And don’t forget what made Lake Chelan famous: the lake and its watersports. If you run short of time, the two grocery stores have a good selection of Lake Chelan wines.

Since we drove into Lake Chelan over Blewett Pass, we decided to drive back over Stevens Pass, stopping for lunch at Leavenworth and visiting Boudreaux Cellars. Winemaker/owner Rob Newsom originally hailed from Louisiana, hence, the name “Boudreaux.”  The winery is named after a fictitious Cajun character named Boudreaux whose sense of adventure and good humor lead to mischievous antics. Newsom has a tasting room in downtown Leavenworth while his winery itself is eight miles out of Leavenworth. Shortly after I met Newsom, he was voted Seattle Magazine’s Best New Winery of the Year and Best New Winemaker of the Year. That was eight years ago. He makes merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and a reserve cabernet.  He also makes a frangiovese which is a blend of cabernet franc and sangiovese. We were lucky to see Newsom in the tasting room and were fortunate that he had a magnum of cabernet reserve available. Check online at Boudreauxcellars.com or call 509-548-5858 to make reservations at the winery itself.

The greater Leavenworth area has over 25 wineries. Check cascadevalleywinecountry.com or call the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce at 509-548-5807.

Dee Hitch can be reached at rockypointlane@aol.com.