Lou Wagoner and Don Wood produce 2,000 cases of wine at Icicle Ridge, including dessert ice wines made from estate-grown grapes.
On a sunny afternoon, Dean Neff can gaze out the windows and drink in some great views—the blue waters of Lake Chelan, the Cascade Mountains ringing the lake, and seven acres of grapevines sweeping up the gentle hill and surrounding his building. Neff is the proprietor and winemaker at Nefarious Cellars at Lake Chelan and is part of an expanding cadre of growers there who are digging into the world of wine.
Neff is no newcomer to agriculture. He is a third-generation farmer. His family operated an 85-acre orchard near Pateros, where they grew apples, pears, and cherries before leasing out the land. But in 1998, Neff decided to indulge a whim. He took five acres of the Pateros orchard, converted it to vineyard, and planted it to Syrah and Riesling. "It was kind of a hobby. I wanted to see what we could grow well there," he says.
At that time, tree fruit ruled. The area called the Columbia Cascade is rugged country, climbing the slopes of the picturesque Cascades and reaching across the hills and basins that tie the Columbia River to the mountains. It has long been the heart of –Washington State’s orchard territory, producing prolific crops of high quality apples, pears, and cherries.
But when the apple market slipped into a dizzying downturn in the late 1990s, many long-time growers began to reevaluate the best use of their land. Today, the region boasts 300 acres planted to grapes, and Neff’s hobby has turned into a full-time business, with an additional seven acres of vineyard at his winery. Viticulture in Lake Chelan is a growth industry.
Neff’s 2006 Riesling, made from the fruit of his Stone’s Throw vineyard at Pateros, garnered 92 points from Wine Enthusiast. His vines are too young to reveal distinct vineyard-specific characteristics, he says, and he works with grapes grown in the Columbia Valley as well as his own crop. But this year, his estate-grown Syrah revealed the potential he sees for the vineyards around Lake Chelan, showing much more intensity and concentrated flavors than the fruit he sourced. "It’s a really big, monstrous Syrah," says Neff, "which I didn’t expect."
The potential for grapes at Lake Chelan hasn’t always been obvious. High elevations and mountainous winters don’t usually translate into premium wines. The area’s assets didn’t reveal themselves until a decade ago, when researchers at Washington State University, led by Ray Sandidge, took a cold, hard, statistical look. The picture that emerged helped launch a new chapter in the Lake Chelan region.
Today, Sandidge operates CR Sandidge Wines in Manson, as well as serving as the winemaker for Lake Chelan Winery, and consulting for an array of other winemaking operations. He didn’t arrive at Lake Chelan until 2004, when he answered a call to go to work for Steve Kludt’s Lake Chelan Winery, but his knowledge of the area’s strengths helped launch the spurt of vineyards there. He worked in the late 1990s gathering and analyzing various statistics about different regions across the state. Records from 50 years of growing seasons—average temperatures, rainfall, duration—revealed what he thought was an ideal place for wine grapes in the Cascade foothills. With an average of 3,200 heat units per year, the hot summer days were an obvious boon, but the biggest surprise was buried in the winter snows: Lake Chelan averages a killing freeze only once every 17 years. Compare that to a terminal cold snap every six to seven years in Yakima, four years in Walla Walla, or 12 years at Canoe Ridge, near Paterson.
At 1,100 feet of elevation, winters can be harsh, but Lake Chelan’s 50-mile stretch of water creates a blanket of warm air that rises up the slopes, which in turn drain cold air, helping grapevines survive.
Rhone varieties like Syrah and Riesling are likely to be the region’s hallmark. Steve Kludt, owner of Lake Chelan Winery and a long-time grower in the area, planted his first vines in 1999, tearing out apple orchards for the new crop. Today, he has 35 acres on Lake Chelan’s north shore planted primarily to Merlot and Syrah. A large investment in Cabernet Sauvignon, he says, is better left to the Columbia Valley, with its long, hot, growing season. "We’re trying to grow things the rest of the state can’t grow," he says. Other promising varieties include other Rhone grapes like Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Gewurztraminer, which thrive on the lake’s north-facing south shore.
Vin du Lac
Just down the road from Kludt’s tasting room, Larry Lehmbecker tends seven acres of grapes at his winery, Vin du Lac. His vines include Riesling and Viognier, as well as a few red varieties that are well suited to the area. Cabernet Franc, he predicts, will be noteworthy, "and Pinot Noir is doing surprisingly well here. It’s starting to take on a nice expression."
Lehmbecker credits the summer heat patterns for the quality of his fruit. Gentler swings between daytime highs and nighttime lows during the growing season help balance the acids and flavors in grapes like Riesling or Pinot Noir, while they continue to develop sugars. In addition, the heat in the Columbia Valley sometimes works against ripening by shutting down the growing process. "Slightly less diurnal variation makes a big difference. When they’re at 105 degrees in the Columbia Valley, and we’re at 95 degrees with a cool breeze, we’re still ripening."
Still, growing conditions vary within the area’s expansive boundaries, so much so that it is divided into four distinct growing regions—Lake Chelan, the area surrounding Leavenworth, the Okanogan, and the Wenatchee Valley, where Lou Wagoner and his son-in-law Don Wood produce wines from eight acres carved out of Wagoner’s pear orchard. Wagoner planted the first vines seven years ago at Icicle Ridge, and has continually expanded the vineyard since then. Wood predicts the entire property—30 acres—will eventually be converted from pears to grapes, with an emphasis on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Today, he annually bottles around 2,000 cases of wine, of which 80 percent is made from grapes sourced from the Columbia Valley. The remaining 20 percent—Icicle Ridge’s estate wines—showcase the unique conditions there in a different way. Wood has devoted the estate-grown grapes to ice wine, the rich, sweet dessert wine produced from late-harvested grapes left to freeze on the vine. "It takes a couple days of subzero weather to kill vines," Wood explains. "To pick ice wine, all you need is 15 degrees to 17 degrees."
In addition, the higher acids brought on by the cooler nights during the growing season help balance the intense sugars in juice extracted from frozen grapes. Wood is particularly optimistic about Icicle Ridge’s Pinot Noir. Now in its third vintage, he calls it "spectacular."