With AVA designation pending, the Lake Chelan wine region is gaining a reputation as a tourist destination with winning wines in a grand setting.

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Call him crazy.

In 2000, when Dr. Bob Jankelson began planting grapes on a north-facing slope overlooking Lake Chelan in Central Washington, that’s exactly what skeptics did.

“Chelan was perceived as a summer-destination village ‘up in the mountains’ and not suitable for viticulture,” says Jankelson, a retired dental clinician and educator.

But the region produced world-class apples and cherries. Its climate and geography were similar to grape-growing regions in Italy, a country Jankelson loved to visit. So Jankelson persevered.

Soon, a sprawling, multimillion-dollar, Tuscan-style winery began to rise from the glacial-till soil overlooking the lake. In 2004, Tsillan Cellars threw open its doors.

And just eight years later, Tsillan (pronounced “Chelan”) has become the destination winery in the Lake Chelan wine region, as well as the largest producer, hovering around 7,000 cases a year.

The winery has racked up more than 30 best of show, double gold and gold medals in regional and national wine competitions for everything from its estate-grown pinot grigio and syrah to its Columbia Valley Syrah and Bellissima Rossa (a Bordeaux-style blend).

More validation for the wine region came in 2004, when veteran winemaker Ray Sandidge (who has worked internationally, as well as in Washington at Kestrel Vintners and other wineries) moved from the Yakima Valley to become the winemaker at Lake Chelan Winery, the valley’s first winery, opened in 2000.

Why move to an emerging wine region? Sandidge replies, “With fantastic grape-growing potential, pristine surroundings and great fly-fishing, backpacking and mountain biking, the Lake Chelan area is a very nice package indeed.”

Sandidge, who now serves as winemaker or consultant for five Chelan-area wineries and makes award-winning syrah, red blends and KISS (a dessert wine) under his family’s label, C.R. Sandidge, foresees 15 to 25 wineries springing up in the next 10 years.

And early in 2009, 24,040 acres in the Lake Chelan Valley are expected to receive American Viticulture Area designation to become Washington’s 10th AVA.

Here’s a quick tour of the wineries circling America’s third-deepest lake and the people behind them:

Balsamroot Winery & Vineyard. Don Phelps (a civil engineer) and his wife, Judy (a retired businesswoman and graduate of the prestigious University of California-Davis winemaking program), opened for business in 2006. They make several outstanding wines, including 2007 Edelzwicker (just call it “Ed”), a light and lovely Alsatian-style white wine. The complex yet food-friendly Hard Row to Hoe 2006 Vineyards Zinfandel is one of three wines bottled under their new premium label.

Benson Vineyards Estate Winery. Maverick winemaker Scott Benson produces 100 percent of his dozen-plus wines from estate grapes. The 2007 Curious is an off-dry blend of equal parts viognier and chardonnay with a lingering finish, while the winery’s sangiovese has become its signature red wine. For dessert, try the appealing viognier ice wine.

Chelan Estate Vineyards & Winery. Estate-grown chardonnay and pinot noir are the specialties.

Chelangr’La Winery. Billing itself as one of the region’s smallest wineries (at about 500 cases per year), it shares the distinction with Tunnel Hill Winery and Rio Vista Wines, the only winery on the Columbia River (accessible by car, boat or even floatplane!) that offers four estate-grown wines.

Four Lakes Winery. You can sample its award-winning red wines at the production facility four miles east of Chelan.

Karma Vineyards. Sandidge crafts a wide range of wines, including the region’s first sparkler. The Karma Kafe offers small, medium, big and last bites.

Lake Chelan Winery. The Kludt family owns and operates this one, which boasts a 3,000-square-foot tasting room and gift shop, plus wine garden surrounded by pinot noir vineyards; nightly summertime barbecues are featured. Sandidge not only crafts his own wine here but serves as consulting winemaker, producing about 6,000 cases a year of pinot gris, muscat, pinot noir rosé, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and red blends.

Nefarious Cellars. Heather Neff crafts the white wines while husband Dean handles the reds at this home for “wickedly good wine.” The Neffs, Chelan-area natives, spent their formative years making and marketing pinot noir in Oregon. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate rated Heather’s 2007 Stone’s Throw Vineyard Riesling 90 points, and the wine stood shoulder-to-shoulder with producers from Germany, Austria and Australia at an international riesling conference in Woodinville this past July.

Tildio Winery. Wine Press Northwest magazine voted Tildio the 2008 Washington Winery to Watch. Milum and Katy Perry, a UC-Davis grad, craft nine notable wines including estate-grown riesling and syrah; sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, viognier and malbec; plus three interesting red blends. The distinctive Tourmalet is made of syrah, pinot noir and grenache.

Vin du Lac. On the patio at Larry Lehmbecker and Michaela Markusson’s sunny-bright, Provençal-inspired Vin du Lac, you can order from a bistro-style menu at the cafe and enjoy nonstop views of the lake. Set amid seven acres of vineyards, the tasting room boasts Lehmbecker’s award-winning wines with whimsical names such as Savvy! Blanc, Grisant! Pinot Gris and Cuvée Rouge.

Wapato Point Cellars. Opened in 2003, the winery has a large outdoor terrace and rolling lawns that are a perfect setting to taste winemaker Jonathon Kludt’s Chelan Nouveau (a light-bodied red reminiscent of Beaujolais) and Red Delicious (his robust, award-winning signature wine). The menu at the Winemaker’s Grill (open year-round for dinner) features steak, lamb chops, pasta and Chef Sean Akin’s daily-changing, seafood-centric fresh sheet, along with suggested wine pairings.

The latest buzz concerns the proposed Tuscan Village on the Golden Mile. Jankelson, a key player in the 270-acre development, envisions a world-class Italianate resort complete with wine spa, piazza/marketplace and resort villas interspersed with vineyards, organic gardens and plenty of open space.

Call him crazy, but Jankelson is betting that retirees, empty-nesters and 206-ers will pay premium prices to buy into his dream.

Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of “Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining” (Wiley, 2007) and writes the food-and-wine-pairing column for Wine Press Northwest magazine. Visit her blog at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com.