Lake Chelan, Washington
The Methow Valley region of Washington State was once known for some of the best apples in the nation. Still today, the rolling hills from Winthrop to Chelan are lined with apple orchards laden with plump red fruit, while the aroma of ripening fruit from apple packing houses permeates throughout the area. The temperate shores of Lake Chelan with its glacially rich soil make the perfect growing environment. But the cost to produce apples has exceeded the income generated, so apple orchards are slowly being replanted with more profitable crops of grapes and cherries. Great news for the wine drinker, but I sure hope they strike a balance in continuing to produce their delicious apples.
It just so happens that my visit up lake to North Cascades National Park's Stehekin coincides with Lake Chelan's "Crush," weekend, an annual event to celebrate the grape harvest. Many of the wineries offer special events to commemorate the harvest, from the opportunity to taste the grapes straight from the vine, to an old fashioned I Love Lucy-style grape stomp. While momentarily intrigued at the thought of feeling the slippery skins between my toes, I decide I'm not up for it on this chilly autumn day. Instead, I opt to visit some of the Lake Chelan wineries that have been recommended by a local woman I met on the Lake Chelan boat trip.
One of Washington State's younger wine regions, Lake Chelan is home to over two dozen wineries. The gradually sloping hills toward the lake, along with lake-effect weather patterns create an optimal growing season, extending the summers for developing sugars in the grape through a longer "hang time" on the vine.
What the Lake Chelan vineyards may lack in age, they more than make up for in beauty. The wineries line the shores of the deep blue lake, half located along the north shore, with the remaining half along the south shore, separated by the scenic lakeside resort community of Chelan. The wineries are all in close proximity, making it easy to tour multiple wineries by bike, or without long distance driving between stops.
First up on my list in my DIY wine tour would be Karma Vineyards, known for their "Method Champenoise" or making sparkling wines in the French method. However, this method must be quite pricey, as they wanted over $20 for a tasting flight. So I opted for their red wine sampler at $5 a flight instead. Lasting impressions from this winery were the atmospheric underground wine cave available for special events, and the soft, fuzzy blanket the server brought to counteract the chill while sipping on their outdoor patio.
Next up would be Siren Song Vineyard Estate and Winery, my favorite of the five wineries visited. The ambiance "speaks Italian," all the way down to the wood-fired pizza enjoyed on their Ravello-style patio overlooking Lake Chelan.
I love their motto, "Everyone has a Siren Song...What's Yours?" which prompts some self-examination. What is your siren song, or irresistible calling? Mine, no doubt has to be exploratory travel in my Winnie View...and when that includes good wine, even better!
Across the parking lot from Siren Song is the Fielding Hills Winery. Having just finished lunch along with a generous tasting from Siren Song, I didn't do any tasting at Fielding Hills. However, I was impressed by their beautiful property overlooking the lake and elegant tasting room.
In order to give equal time to both sides of the lake, I drive across Chelan on a tip to visit one of the more "playful" wineries, A Hard Row to Hoe. Typically, one associates that idiom with an agricultural term, signifying for example, the difficulty of removing weeds from a row of cotton. But in this case, it's actually a double entendre for the brothel of working girls who "served" the miners working along the lake. From their website: "One story has it that a long-time Manson resident ran a rowboat taxi service from Lucerne to Point Lovely in support of the thriving enterprise." Therefore, all names of their wines have some reference to the world's oldest profession, such as "S & M" (a blend of Syrah and Malbec) right down to their "Oar House" wine club.
The wine tastings were good here, but what stood out was the smooth and polished gentleman behind the bar who knew when to laugh at a joke and when to tell his own. Oh, and the Port wine drank from shot glasses made of chocolate made the visit to A Hard Row to Hoe even more sinfully delicious!
Last but not least was the family-owned Lake Chelan Winery, the first winery on the valley to innovate after the collapse of the apple market in 1998. By far the largest winery we visited, they offer a lot more than wines, to include their BBQ restaurant, a 3,000 sq ft gift shop, and a gourmet cheese shop with a vast selection of cheeses, offering some of the smoothest blue I've tasted since Rogue Creamery.
Lake Chelan Winery is known for its Falling Cow brand of wines. In 2007, a cow fell from a hill overhead, landing on a passenger van. The event was commemorated by naming the next vintage after the incident. As the story goes, "Everyone lived happily ever after...except the cow!" A country wine festival and BBQ is held every summer to mark the anniversary of the cow's demise.
Lake Chelan Winery also has the unique distinction of offering complimentary tastings with few apparent limitations. As long as I kept tasting, they kept pouring.
Tasting good wines along the beautiful Lake Chelan, all decked out in Fall color makes for a great way to celebrate the harvest season, the harbinger of autumn. Many of the wineries apply the cost of the tasting toward wine purchases, making it a great way to stock the "Winnie Wine Cellar on Wheels." And if the old adage is true, "We are what we eat," then maybe if I drink enough of it, I will become like fine wine and only improve with age!