Julie Pittsinger checks on her four-year-old planting of Pinot Meunier, one of the grapes traditionally used to make Champagne.
Julie and Bret Pittsinger, owners of Karma Vineyards at Chelan, believe that the Lake Chelan area could become Washington State’s champagne-style wine region.
Chelan’s relatively cool climate is ideal for producing high-acid Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier grapes, the varieties traditionally used to make wines in the méthode champenoise, Julie said. Karma Vineyards’s 2011 vintage will be made entirely of estate-grown grapes, making it one of very few estate champagne-style wines in the country.
It was by chance that the Pittsingers got into the grape growing and winemaking business almost a decade ago. Bret, who grew up on an orchard, runs Van Doren Sales in Wenatchee, which supplies packing equipment to the tree fruit industry. Julie, who grew up in Montreal, Canada, is a former competitive swimmer and triathlete, and operated her own advertising agency. With their daughter and son, Karle and Matthew, in elementary school, they decided to buy an orchard to help their children understand the value of a dollar and the rewards of hard work.
As they looked around for orchard property, they came across a piece of land for sale on Lake Chelan’s south shore where Bob Jankelson of nearby Tsillan Cellars had planted several acres of Pinot Noir grapes on a north-facing slope. They bought the property in 2003 to develop a vineyard instead of an orchard and later purchased an adjoining 56 acres. Julie, who has a degree in communication, went back to college and earned a second degree in viticulture from Washington State University. She is in charge of the vineyards.
The Pittsingers sold their first grape harvest to other wineries, but Julie said she felt attached to the grapes she’d carefully tended, and they decided after the first year to make their own wine. She began talking to winemakers and equipment suppliers to find out what it entailed. As a champagne fan, she believed there was a need for a premium Washington-made sparkling wine.
“Champagne is served so readily in other parts of the world, but not here,” she said. “I just felt if we did it right and didn’t cut corners, we could create a market.”
When she mentioned to a Napa Valley bottle supplier that she would love to make champagne-style wine, but didn’t know where to begin, she was put in touch with Claude Thibaut, a Frenchman who is considered a master of the méthode champenoise and consults around the world. He went to Chelan to help the Pittsingers get started and taught them the nuances of making the sparkling wine. The Pittsingers had seen champagne produced during an earlier visit to France and went to New Zealand to visit Cloudy Bay, a state-of-the-art winery that produces highly rated méthode-champenoise wines.
They also tasted sparkling wines from around the world to decide which styles they liked and might emulate. Julie likes them very dry, toasty, and yeasty.
At first, the Pittsingers had their grapes custom-crushed by Lake Chelan Winery. They opened their winery and tasting room at the vineyard in 2007. A year ago, they purchased a 20,000-square-foot former fruit warehouse in Entiat, Washington, and remodeled it into a fully equipped winemaking facility.
About a third of their production consists of sparkling wines. Until this year, they sold all their sparkling wine at the winery, but, with production reaching 1,400 cases, they are beginning to distribute the wine in the Seattle area. Restaurants have been asking for it for a couple of years, Julie said.
Although most of their sparkling wines are made from blends of grape varieties, they sell a pink bubbly made from just Pinot Noir grapes. Next year, they’ll have a pink sparkling wine made entirely from their own Syrah grapes.
Several wineries, including Columbia Winery in Woodinville, Washington, have asked them to custom-make sparkling wine for them. Julie said they are equipped to do so, but the other wineries will need to supply their own recipes for how the wines are made.
Another possible venture in the future is making sparkling water from a spring on the property, as they already have the bottling equipment. However, Julie said she’s focusing for the time being on producing premium wines and forging good relationships with her customers and staff. “I want to feel I’m not pushing the business outside the quality parameters,” she added.