Lake Chelan wineries take advantage of the scenery, water, open spaces, local restaurants and nightly barbecues to keep both adults and kids having fun.
WINDING INTO the city of Chelan this past Memorial Day weekend, I noticed the sign outside the quaint stone cottage of Tunnel Hill winery encouraging visitors to “come meet our baby goats.” Baby animals plus wine tasting equals the family perfecta. On a family road trip, juggling blood-sugar levels, naps and kid stuff trumps a parents’ to-do list. But Lake Chelan strikes a balance between super-happy-fun time for kids and adults. Chelan also presents wines as friendly as the retriever who welcomes you at Nefarious Vineyards on the south side of the lake.
The vineyards slinking up the hillsides here take advantage of the heat-moderating effects of the 55-mile-long lake. This allows the grapes to retain acidity from the cooler nighttime temperatures, and avoid too-hot temperatures in the summer and the potentially murderous freezes of Eastern Washington in the winter. Production from these wineries is small by industry standards, one reason a four-hour drive may be the only way to try some of them.
The viognier from Nefarious’ own Defiance vineyard shows how the white wines here can exhibit lush, ripe fruit with acidity and minerality. The lake’s glacial sediment can take credit for the last bit. Vin du Lac has achieved the most consistent balance with their whites, and their winery restaurant, on a hill that frames Chelan and every full moon.
The pinot grigio from Lake Chelan Winery, between Chelan and the tiny town of Manson, will remind you of any number of apple varieties known in the region, with a zing from a bit higher alcohol. That zing comes in handy with the winery’s popular nightly barbecue out back, where kids can run freely between picnic tables and vines. These whites are the epitome of food wines, especially when that food is cured meat and gooey cheese served within view of the impossibly deep aquamarine color of the lake.
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Hard Row to Hoe’s organic cabernet franc shows off the potential for the color red in the area, with intense fruit that’s not too heavy on the palate, and has spice and mineral notes for days. A number of the reds I tried from Chelan have this feature, like the difference between a plain jam and a spicy chutney, a little more oomph. Tildio Winery, with vineyards around a trio of small lakes near Manson, makes a tempranillo true to the grape’s darkest expressions — blackberry and baked plum with a ton of natural spice — from the grape, not oak barrels.
Don’t overlook Manson, seven miles uplake from Chelan. You’ll be close to winery tasting rooms, a new creamery, wood-fired pizza and the best place for breakfast in town, Blueberry Hills (also a you-pick berry farm in summer). Wapato Point Cellars, owned by the Lake Chelan Winery people, has a tasting room next to a well-trafficked restaurant next to a giant lawn with a big play area. There’s even an amphitheater at Manson’s Mill Bay casino, cool enough for Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who recently graced the stage, should you meet a nice, eligible babysitter in your travels. It happens.
The lake allows you to be where you’re at, nobody judging your swirl, your adjectives or your taste, while you experience a part of our wine world really coming into its own.
Maggie Savarino is a Seattle-based freelance writer.