Uncorking the region’s newest fruit: wine grapes as diverse as the terrain
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
With 68 tasting rooms and wineries spread over the 55-mile stretch, the region has much more to discover — and drink.
Because Stemilt’s wines are naturally fermented — a finicky process that relies on the yeast naturally present on the grapes to ferment the juice — Jaime takes care to sanitize each cork before yanking it from the barrel so as not to compromise the wine inside.
Approaching Chelan, swaths of sage brush are broken up by orchards and vineyards on the hills.
I learn that last year’s fires are still on every Chelan winemaker’s mind as the 2015 vintages prepare for release this fall.
“It takes a lot of beer to make wine,” jokes Paul Sharpe, winemaker at Leavenworth’s Eagle Creek Winery, when I express surprise that he has ordered a lager instead of a Cabernet. We’re eating at Leavenworth’s Watershed Cafe, where it’s locals’ night and the normally upscale, farm-to-table restaurant is dressed down. It’s a packed house, full of Leavenworth residents enjoying discounted wine and shared plates. The din of the dining room bounces off the walls of the open kitchen.
I’m on a road trip through Chelan County, from Leavenworth to Wenatchee to Lake Chelan, to try wines as diverse as its terrain — and meet the characters behind the labels. The so-called Cascade Valley Wine Country is a region more often thought of for its apples and outdoor adventures, but I find that with 70 tasting rooms and wineries spread over the 55-mile stretch, the region has much to more to discover — and drink.
Leavenworth is my first stop, and I hear again and again how the Bavarian-themed town is changing, becoming more sophisticated. The winemakers based in town — currently numbering 18 tasting rooms throughout downtown — are adapting to an influx of Seattleites relocating here, toting sophisticated palates and big-city expectations. “I’ve got to be on my game when it comes to wine,” Paul says.
The changes underway are evident in the restaurant scene, where newer places like Watershed are a noticeable departure from the bratwurst and schnitzel being peddled at older, German-themed establishments. Another development indicative of that shift is the arrival of Mana Restaurant, a modern, ardently local restaurant from the owners of Seattle’s now-closed Sutra, celebrated for its multi-course meals of entirely vegan ingredients. As Paul sips his beer, we ruminate over whether Leavenworth is finally finding an identity of its own, or simply exchanging one borrowed personality for another.
If nothing else, the town does seem to be growing up. More wine tasting rooms are opening — including some from wineries like WineGirl Wines that are making wine in other regions — while others are adapting to their new clientele. The fancy new Icicle Ridge Winery’s so-called “Uptown” tasting room is a case in point, gleaming with trendy filament light bulbs and plush Ikea couches. It’s just a few steps from the older “Downtown” spot, with its log-home theme and selling of dated home decor.
Reliable standards like Boudreaux Cellars —one of the county’s first bonded wineries — are holding strong, allowing their consistently top-notch wines to speak for themselves. I visit the tasting room, hidden under scaffolding that is touching up the Bavarian-themed facade on the building that faces Front Street, Leavenworth’s main drag.
I try several of the winery’s impressive, bold reds with Keely Newsom, the tasting room’s general manager and daughter of winemaker Rob Newsom. Between pours, Keely tells me about growing up at the winery, set deep in Icicle Canyon and four miles off the power grid.
She admits she was skeptical when her professional alpinist father announced he was retiring from climbing mountains — a dangerous job for a parent with young children — to build Washington’s only self-powered winery. Though Keely reluctantly spent her free time helping with construction projects, she now embraces the family business, proudly pouring her perfectionist father’s noteworthy wines.
The next morning, after a stay at the dreamy Sleeping Lady Resort, I head out of town, driving east on a scenic detour along North Road, paralleling Highway 2 and winding through apple and cherry orchards in full foliage, their branches sagging with maturing fruit. Past the traffic-ridden, chain store–choked streets of downtown Wenatchee, I leave the urban sprawl and climb through an arid, hilly landscape patched with lush orchards to arrive at the main processing plant for Stemilt Growers.
Primarily known for its fruit — the company distributes its apples and cherries around the world — Stemilt was founded in 1964 and added wine grapes under the label Stemilt Creek Winery in 2007. I tour the winemaking warehouse, which competes for space with the fruit-packing and storage facilities.
Winemaker Jaime Reyes leads me from barrel to barrel as we sample aging Cabernet Franc, and Syrah and red blends. Because Stemilt’s wines are naturally fermented — a finicky process that relies on the yeast naturally present on the grapes to ferment the juice — Jaime takes care to sanitize each cork before yanking it from the barrel so as not to compromise the wine inside.
Jaime says the vineyard’s high elevation of 1,700 feet brings cool nights and hot days that provoke complex flavors from the grapes. Owners Kyle and Jan Mathison wanted to pay homage to the family’s long agricultural history in the region, so each label features a sepia-toned photo of an ancestor.
Back in downtown Wenatchee, it would be remiss to skip the hip new Pybus Market, a modern, high-ceilinged collection of retail vendors and restaurants in a former steel-fabrication plant along the Columbia River. I find lunch and a quick sip at the Jones of Washington wine tasting room before continuing my drive north to Lake Chelan.
Arid hillsides constrict against Highway 97 and the deep blue artery of the Columbia River, which seems out of place amid the desert landscape. Approaching Chelan, swaths of sage brush are broken up by orchards and vineyards on the hills.
My first stop brings me to the downtown Chelan tasting room of Rocky Pond Winery, which opened on Memorial Day. Last year, as historic fires — the largest in the state’s recorded history —raged in the vicinity, Rocky Pond owners David and Michelle Dufenhorst, long-time grape growers for other wineries, were preparing to pick grapes for their first wine.
As I taste through several wines with Sales and Marketing Manager Tova MacLennan, I learn that last year’s fires are still on every Chelan winemaker’s mind as the 2015 vintages prepare for release this fall. Rocky Pond was hard hit, having to throw out all of their pinot noir grapes, losing what would have been their first batch of Michelle’s favorite wine.
As Tova explains, vintners are wary of so-called “smoke taint,” a phenomenon whereby smoke residue imbues acrid, off-putting flavors like ashtray into the wine. The ill effects are seen mostly in the skin of the grapes, so white wines, in which the fruit is fermented sans skin, aren’t impacted.
Around the same time that the Dufenhorsts were tossing out buckets of pinot noir, Rob Mellison was wading through a thick black cloud that hung heavy over his Mellisoni Vineyards, set on a steep hillside just above the lakeshore.
I visit his winery next, tasting several wines on the patio with a panoramic view of the Caribbean-hued lake and the surrounding terrain. Tearing myself away from the view, I follow Rob inside his winery, where we sample from a few barrels. His 60 Degree red blend, a nod to the angle of his steeply sloped vineyards, was most potentially affected by the smoke. Instead of tossing it out, he’s hoping that any smoky hints, which have seemingly disappeared, won’t crop back up. In the sample I try, I don’t detect any hint of the previous year’s destruction.
“I’m holding my breath,” Rob says, “but the longer the smoke flavor stays away, the more promising it is.”
It’s a different story at WineGirl Wines in nearby Manson, on the eastern side of the lake. Here, former roller-derby competitor Angela Jacobs wields degrees in chemistry and biology and crafts outstanding wines from small-yield harvests. She hasn’t shied away from the smoke, embracing it and taming its intense flavors.
Angela made a red blend called “Fire Starter” that had a noticeable smoky component, and it’s completely sold out today. As I tried several wines at her tasting room, a customer stopped in and tried to buy more but was turned away.
On my last night in Chelan, I dine at Vin du Lac Winery, where dinner guests are given blankets as the setting sun cools the air. I sip Cabernet Franc and admire the view over the lake, a recent development after owner Larry Lehmbecker cleared the apple orchards once hugging the hillside, with plans to replace them with grapes. Proof positive, perhaps, that in a region long dominated by apples, grapes may be in hot pursuit.
Megan Hill is a freelance writer specializing in food, travel, and the outdoors. She also acts as Edible Seattle’s social media manager.