WRITTEN BY PAUL GREGUTT
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
UNTIL RECENTLY, wine tourism was more a dream than a reality in Eastern Washington. Sure, there were wineries to visit and friendly folks behind the counter at dozens of small tasting rooms from Yakima to Walla Walla.
But to put it bluntly, a tour of Washington wine country has always fallen a bit short in the romance department. The Napa-type wine-touring experience, the epitome of this romantic ideal, features splendid landscapes dotted with picture-book vineyards, and a wide mix of wineries, large and small, that all somehow manage to shine like beacons of impeccable taste.
In other words, it's not just good wine but The Good Life that wine tourists are eager to discover. Along the trail they expect to find charming restaurants, comfortable lodging and an entertaining mix of shops and recreational activities. Bottom line: They want a vacation, not a slog through dusty vineyards in the hot sun, with a fast-food burger and a cheesy motel at the end of the road.
If you haven't been to Eastern Washington wine country lately, it's time to go. Because virtually overnight, the wine-touring landscape has changed dramatically. Some of the changes are subtle; most are cumulative. More wineries, better wines, more vineyards in more places, small cafés and better wine lists all make exploring Washington wine country far more exciting than it has ever been.
Small winery associations have taken root in every corner of the state. They organize regional tasting events, publish brochures and serve as one-stop sources of information on member wineries (see the accompanying list). Head in any direction and you will find plenty of opportunities for tasting and talking, and there is really no better way to see all that's new in Washington wine and to find those little gems that so many winemakers save just for tasting-room visitors.
But here's a real discovery. If you are in search of the new, the unknown that special excitement that comes with being among the first to visit an emerging community of wineries I recommend you spend a weekend in Columbia Cascade wine country.
Loosely clustered around Leavenworth, Lake Chelan and the Wenatchee Valley, two dozen wineries have set up shop, most in the past two or three years. Another dozen are in the works. All are scattered across the foothills of the eastern flanks of the Cascade Mountains in country that is unrivaled for superb scenery and seemingly endless, four-season recreational opportunities. In addition, restaurants are now pouring from increasingly interesting regional wine lists, and tasting rooms suddenly seem to be popping up everywhere, staffed by owners and winemakers delighted to chat about everything from barrels to bald eagles, breakfast places and the nearest B&Bs.
It's all deliciously true. And all coming together in a flash.
Most Columbia Cascade wineries still measure their production in hundreds, not thousands, of cases, and, by and large, their wines are made from grapes grown elsewhere. The few local vineyards are almost all too new to evaluate their long-term viability, and the area is years away from being legally designated as an official AVA (American Viticultural Region).
But the Columbia Cascade wineries are already piecing together a unique regional identity creating a sensational wine-touring region that blends the best of everything this state has to offer. Right now the unifying factors are their very newness, their proximity to existing tourist centers and their relative accessibility to the urban centers of Western Washington.
The possibilities are as exciting as the emerging realities.
WHY THIS SUDDEN blossoming of wine tourism? Why here, and why now?
The rise of wineries seems to have begun with the decline of apples. "I'd had about all the doom and gloom I could take,"
"We had some nice benches (of land) above the valley floor," he says, "so we took a 10-acre block and planted two reds and four whites in '99."
At their home and orchard on North Road, a few miles out of Leavenworth, Louie and Judy Wagoner did the same, adding 4½ acres of lemberger and cabernet grapes to their 90 acres of organically farmed pears. Their Icicle Ridge winery now makes about 1,000 cases a year.
Some version of the same story is told again and again, along with a fair number of second- or third-career, change-of-life tales. Doug Brazil at Chateau Faire Le Pont in Wenatchee is a retired Navy helicopter pilot who has turned an abandoned apple warehouse into a winery and tasting room. Ed Rutledge at Eagle Creek north of Leavenworth is another retired military man, who also owns a bookstore downtown.
"I put a little love and kindness into every bottle," he says with a wink, adding that "five years ago you couldn't find a winery here. Then I planted and a couple of others started, and then Chelan started booming. It's just like dominoes."
Columbia Cascade, if indeed that is what the region is destined to be called, is so new, and changes are coming so rapidly, that the ultimate quality of the wines, and any thoughts about what might stylistically become the hallmark of the area are all questions that must be put on hold.
What does seem clear is that the region, under the sheltering influence of the Cascades, offers protection from the worst of the winter blasts that periodically ravage other Washington vineyards.
So contends Cameron Fries, who is president of the Columbia Cascade Winery Association and has the most history growing grapes and making wine here. His White Heron Cellars between Wenatchee and Quincy is the only surviving winery of the four that first established themselves in the region back in the 1980s.
"In 1986," he recalls, "there was me, Hunter Hill, Champs de Brionne and Wenatchee Valley Vintners." When asked why it took so long for more to appear, he echoes the apple theory. "Too profitable," he maintains.
Though grape-growing and wine-making are not likely to provide the same sort of widespread prosperity, the tourism they are already stimulating offers an enticing alternative economy with room to grow.
Fries suggests three different itineraries for those interested in seeing it all: a valley tour headquartered around Leavenworth, a lake tour centered on Chelan, and a desert tour taking in the string of wineries stretching east from Wenatchee into the increasingly arid, basalt-sculpted sagelands abutting the Columbia River around the Gorge at George. The changes in landscape as you drive from one part of the region to the next are startling and frequently breathtaking.
Your feelings about Leavenworth, Washington's self-styled Bavarian Village, may be a bit mixed, as are mine, but the addition of more than half a dozen tasting rooms in the heart of downtown makes it a must-see for wine hounds. Nearby are at least six small wineries, all worth a visit.
Some, like Boudreaux Cellars, are open only by appointment (call first!). But its spectacular location on Eightmile Creek, set deep in the interior of Icicle Canyon, makes it unforgettable. Owners Rob and Tamara Newsom have lived "off the grid" for two decades in a log home surrounded by steep, rocky cliffs and within earshot of the creek rapids. A small log bridge must be negotiated to get to the property, so no Hummers, please!
Eagle Creek Winery, a few miles north of town on Eagle Creek Road, has a sweet little tasting room and a very comfortable B&B attached. Icicle Ridge, set amidst pear orchards, welcomes you into the family's spacious log home.
Turning north on 97A, you'll see signs for Ohme Gardens, a shady park set high on a bluff above the river. Even on the warmest days it offers coolness and solitude, and makes a perfect rest stop. Continue on up the road to Tsillan Cellars. Built like a Tuscan villa, this impressive winery includes 30 acres of vineyard, an amphitheater for live performances, and a spacious tasting room. Owner Bob Jankelson, who grew up on a farm in Black Diamond, says he knew from the quality of the apples grown there that it would be a great spot for grapes.
"There is not a single wind machine here," he notes proudly. "Since 1868 they've never had a killing frost. This lake is just a great big heat sump!"
Tsillan (pronounced Chelan) is one of a string of Chelan wineries along the shores of the lake, which looks more and more like the Okanagan wine country of British Columbia. At Lake Chelan Winery, the first in the area, Ray Sandidge has recently been announced as winemaker and will ramp up production to 10,000 cases over the next five years. Sandidge, most recently at Kestrel, will also make wines for Wapato Point Cellars, as well as his own C.R. Sandidge brand.
The final leg of the Columbia Cascade wine region takes you to East Wenatchee and the little towns that follow the river as it winds south and east. Once again, the landscape, though drier and more desert-like, is spectacular.
At Saint Laurent, in the hills above Malaga, Mike and Laura Mrachek have renovated a pretty little farmhouse, added a pond and waterfall, furnished the tasting room with lovely antiques, and offer a pleasing lineup of wines made by Charlie Hoppes. Most of the grapes come from a 250-acre vineyard they planted five years ago on the Wahluke Slope.
At Rock Island, a few miles east across the river, the Ryan Patrick Vineyards winery, though not the prettiest picnic spot, makes some of the region's best, most time-tested wines. Continue down the road toward Quincy and you'll pass their main vineyard.
Nearby is White Heron, its cozy tasting room adjacent to the Fries' home and surrounded by the estate vineyard. Native plants sage, threadleaf daisies, wild asters and more scent the air with desert herb, and the view extends straight down the river to the Saddle Mountains, 30 miles to the south. The grand sweep of the Columbia River, the scrubby eastern edge of the Cascade foothills and the craggy cliffs around the Gorge are all in sight.
Anyone who has seen a concert at the Gorge won't soon forget it. Its rugged beauty, especially at sunset, has been known to upstage the performers, even compel them to turn their backs to the audience so they, too, can enjoy the view.
But few people realize that the original Gorge amphitheater was just a small, grassy knoll attached to the now-defunct Champs de Brionne winery. Vince and Carol Bryan purchased 500 acres in 1980 and developed the original winery and first vineyards, some of which are still bearing. Some years ago they sold the amphitheater to fund a medical-research project; in 2002, they returned to their remaining land and began building Cave B. The talented Rusty Figgins, formerly with Glen Fiona, is the newly appointed winemaker. The winery will anchor a major resort that's being designed by the same architect who built the visually stunning Mission Hill winery outside Kelowna, B.C.
When completed next spring, it will include an inn and 15 individual casitas. Still in the planning stages are a pro-quality golf course, a self-guided vineyard tour (with audio) and amenities such as a center for weddings and conferences.
Even a brief tour is likely to leave a visitor convinced that Columbia Cascade has what it takes to be a world-class wine-touring destination, replete with affordable, hand-crafted wines that the critics have not yet found. Now's the time to see it and taste them firsthand, before this newest addition to The Good Life club gets discovered.
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