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A Visit to Lake Chelan AVA

lake-chelan-ava.jpg

This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit several wineries in the new Lake Chelan AVA (see links below for more info on this area). While the extremely cold weather might have forced one to stay inside and enjoy a few mugs of gluvine, I managed to venture out to sample local wines along the north shore of the lake.

On Friday, I visited Vin de Lac and Hard Row to How and then made trips on Saturday to Wapato Point Cellars, Benson Vineyards, and Lake Chelan Winery (reviews for each visit will be posted soon). At each stop, I primarily focused on wines crafted from local fruit, especially white varieties such as riesling, pinot gris, viognier, and gewürztraminer.

With these four varieties in particular, I found that Lake Chelan AVA fruit offered appealing floral notes, terrific acidity, and intriguing mineral characteristics to each wine, especially when little, if any, oak was used (too much seemed to be commonly used with most reds). For a region that is merely a decade old, this AVA has a lot going for it in the quality of wines produced thus far.

At the same time, it appears that Lake Chelan winemakers might be suffering a bit of an inferiority complex as a result of having larger, more established AVA neighbors. Frankly, I was overwhelmed by the over-the-top display of wine medals and frequent mention of points scored with each wine poured.

It's as if these producers want to prove that they are the real deal, that quality wines are indeed being made in this outpost of a wine region in Washington state. Even the official AVA pamphlet seems to feature a boiler plate, "award winning" description for most of the wineries, with one producer appearing to poke fun at this by stating, "And yes, we TOO have award-winning wines!".

Quite frankly, I found all of the hardware adorning bottles and the call out of 90+ point reviews not only distracting but unwarranted. There is some decent fruit being grown in the Lake Chelan AVA and some good wines being crafted from it. In fact, I came away impressed enough with the quality of these wines to bring home the following:

Benson Vineyards
2008 Chardonnay (14.5%) - $17.50
2008 Gewürztraminer (13.2%) - $19
2008 Pinot Gris (13.1%) - $18
2008 Viognier (14%) - $19

Hard Row to Hoe
2008 "Edelzwicker" Riesling/Gewürztraminer (13.5%) - $18
2006 Syrah Wahluke Slope (13.5%) - $28

Lake Chelan Winery
2007 Gewürztraminer (12.8%) - $18

Vin de Lac
2007 Dry Riesling (13.7%) - $20
2008 "Les Amis" Riesling/Gewurtz/Muscat (13%) - $14
2008 "Vie!" Viognier (14.3%) - $18

Wapato Point Cellars
2008 "Harmony" Pinot Gris/Gewürztraminer (13.8%) - $19
2008 Pinot Grigio (13.8%) - $18
2008 Riesling (13.5%) - $15
2008 "Chelan Noveau" Pinot Noir (13.8%) - $15

For the record, none of these wines were purchased because they won a medal, garnered 90+ points, or were included in a "best of" list. I bought these wines because they appealed to my subjective palate, pure and simple. The true test as to whether or not I will re-purchase any of these wines will come in the weeks ahead as I open each bottle with a meal at my dinner table. Stay tuned for those experiences...

Related Links
Wine Peep's Visit to Lake Chelan
"Lake Chelan: Washington's new wine country" by Andy Perdue
"Small Lake Chelan has big potential" by Paul Gregutt

Comments

Will look forward to reading your posts on the wineries. Am hoping to get mine up soon as well although the writing sits somewhere between reports on recent trips to Walla Walla, Woodinville, and South Seattle. Yikes!

I too noticed the medal madness. I had a bit of a different take on it though. One of the boons and banes from Chelan as a wine region will be, in my mind, their significant, built-in tourism industry.

On the boon side, many of these wineries sell almost all of their wines directly from their wineries or club lists. This is a winery's dream. I'm betting that all of those medals are meant to appeal to the visiting summer tourists who may not have a lot of background in wine. "It won a lot of medals. It must be good!"

On the bane side, I worry about whether there will be sufficient competition to drive the creation of a high quality wine growing region. Don't get me wrong, I sampled a lot of very impressive wines while I was there. As you noted in your post, most of these were whites with a fascinating mix of strong acidity and mineral aromas and flavors. However, I also had some so so wine from places that do a pretty brisk business selling from their tasting room. My point here is I'm wondering whether some of these wineries will end up making great wine when they don't necessarily have to. People will buy it anyway because of the tourism! Increasing competition, production, and other factors could certainly change all that. And there certainly are some great people working there that will help lift the whole area up. It will be interesting to see what the area looks like in ten or fifteen years. This is a potential problem that few other wine areas have. Hoping to write more about it when I get my post up.

Hey Sean,

I think your assessment of the current situation and future potential in Lake Chelan is correct. Thank you for sharing your commentary on this region. I look forward to reading your post soon.

Sincerely,
Thad

Fantastic area to taste wine. It was great to see some of the same wines that you purchased in my cellar from our trip earlier in the summer. The place is beautiful. My take is that when these fine folks work their butt off and sacrifice their financial futures to create a wine and they they finally get the attention and recognition they deserve, they're pretty damn proud. I try to cut some slack when coming across the self promoting marketing. Its no different that what we all do on the internet, beating our chest to be heard and seen.

Sean and Thad I truly appreciate the work you guys do to 'keep it real' and to bring great exposure to the NW. Keep it up and I hope to meet you some day. If you're ever in Spokane for a tour of our small area, please let me know.

Josh

I agree that the medal madness can be off putting. I really enjoy some of Tildio wines but I have to say I appreciated them better at the Auction of Washington Wines than at the tasting room. Maybe because I wasn't drinking in the shadow of medals and reviews?
Like most AVAs, in Lake Chelan AVA I have sampled excellent wines, good wines, average wines and some wines that were eagerly and quickly dumped out. But the excellent ones are the ones that keep me coming back.
We are fortunate to have family with with a tiny trailer and a small vineyard above Lake Chelan Winery so we are able to frequent that AVA more often than many.
Although the tasting room at Nefarious is closed for the season, I strongly recommend stopping in when you have a chance and talking to Heather and Dean Neff. They are a great resource about the Lake Chelan AVA.
Rio Vista is actually on the river not the lake but they are well worth the drive to check them out. We featured them as our August winery of the month, you can read more about them.

Chelan has the potential, they just need someone to really get out there and take some chances. With less than 10 years growing experiences (and even fewer vintages) there is still a lot of unknowns.

Definitely track down some of Nefarious Wines when you get a chance. Tsillan Cellars also has a young winemaker who is putting all of their resources into using only estate fruit - the results to date are very exciting.

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