I’ve lived in Washington my entire life and yet I can count on a whopping two fingers the number of times that I’ve visited Lake Chelan – one of the most popular vacation destinations in the state. Both of these visits have been during the “offseason” of late October / early November. Granted, some wineries weren’t open during this time of year and it’s not nearly as enjoyable to sit outside and admire the gorgeous lake views when it’s 40 degrees as opposed to 80. But on the flip side, visiting during the offseason means far fewer crowds and shorter tasting room lines as the population plummets to 1/10th of the peak summer months.
The draw of Lake Chelan by the summer tourists is easily understood, with lots to see and do – and drink! Only a three hour car ride from Seattle to the west or Spokane from the east, it is easily accessible and makes for a (relatively) affordable weekend getaway. However, unlike other Washington AVAs that have built their tourism around an already thriving wine industry, Lake Chelan has done the opposite. Here, tourism was the area’s initial draw and wine has only recently been added as part of the region’s “to do” list. Likely much to the relief of summering parents watching Little Johnny cannonball off the dock yet again.
Lake Chelan is very new AVA (established in 2009) and is wholly contained within the larger Columbia Valley AVA. Although grapes have been grown in this area since the late 1800s, the first truly modern, production vineyard unbelievably wasn’t planted until 1998 (ironically making this particular AVA too young to enjoy its own wines). So really, “serious” grape growing in this region is still in its infancy – although I imagine that some old-timers might strenuously disagree with me on this point.
The lake itself is the AVA’s most unique attribute and is a major factor as to why wines from this area are unlike any others from Washington. Lake Chelan is the 3rd deepest lake in the United States (after Crater Lake and Lake Tahoe) and is a whopping 52 miles long! Which helps explain why the driving time between winery visits can seem like an eternity.
The lake moderates temperatures year-round: helping the region stay much cooler in the summer months than the rest of the Columbia Valley AVA (preserving acidity in its zippy whites), yet also extending the growing season so as to encourage ripening of its red varieties. Speaking as someone who spent her entire childhood in the Columbia Valley AVA, the heat of the summer months can be unbearable.
My most recent visit to Lake Chelan was in early November 2016 and I was thoroughly impressed with the whites of the area (especially Viognier). They’re bright and fruity, but maintain a weight and complexity that make them more than mere porch pounders to enjoy by the lake.
Unfortunately, the reds of Chelan left me underwhelmed, which I fully admit is a gross generalization based on a small sample size. Many I found to be altered too much by oak – with loads of mocha and toasty vanilla flavors that overpowered any varietal characteristics. Other reds were too thin, watery and lacking flavor and interest. Yes, I realize I sound like Goldilocks with my “too much” or “too little” whining. However, I have found over the years that young wine regions come along slowly (see in particular the Okanagan Valley region in British Columbia) and improve in an almost Darwinian fashion of winemaker trial and error as to what works and what doesn’t.
With all of that said, I have an immense amount of respect for those in the region who are willing to experiment with different varieties and clones in Lake Chelan AVA. For instance, Pinot Noir doesn’t grow particularly well in Eastern Washington, and I just don’t know if my beloved home state has it in us to produce a great Pinot. But some winemakers (I’m looking at you Bob Broderick from Chelan Estate Winery) aren’t willing to accept this as gospel and are out to prove me wrong. Bob and others continue to work toward a grape that rivals its much celebrated Oregon brethren. Of course, I’d love nothing more than to be proven wrong and would happily eat crow in so doing….I’ve heard it pairs very well with Pinot!
But until that time, here’s the outline on Lake Chelan.