Apples to grapes: The path to the Lake Chelan AVA

By on June 2, 2019
Judy Phelps is the winemaker/co-owner of Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards in Manson, Wash., on the north short of Lake Chelan. (Richard Duval Images)

Editor’s note: This marks the second of a two-part series by Judy Phelps, past-president of the Lake Chelan Wine Growers, in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the Lake Chelan American Viticultural Area.

MANSON, Wash – It is hard to wrap my head around the fact that it was 10 years ago when Lake Chelan was designated as an American Viticultural Area.

At the time, I was president of the Lake Chelan Grape Growers Association – the organization that initiated the petition – when the AVA was granted in 2009.

The petition to establish the AVA — which had been submitted to the U.S. Department of Treasury, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, now known as TTB — had languished in federal bureaucracy for at least three years. The petition stalled in 2007 because of a controversy over the Calistoga AVA within California’s Napa Valley, and the use of the word Calistoga in a winery name. (That petition was put forward by Bo Barrett, whose father produced the Chardonnay that won the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris.)

Federal officials put a freeze on any new AVAs until the Calistoga issue got resolved. That came when the TTB issued a regulation that any winery with a name similar to, or containing the same name as the AVA, must source at least 85 percent of their grapes from that AVA in order to use that name on the wine label.

AVA regulations restrict 6 Chelan wineries

Estate vineyards for Tsillan Cellars overlook Lake Chelan. (Richard Duval Images)

What that meant for us here in Lake Chelan was that wineries with Chelan in the name had to agree to abide by this law. At that time, there were six wineries impacted by this – Chelan Estate, Chelangrila, Chelan Ridge, Chelan Wine Co., Lake Chelan Winery and Tsillan Cellars.

This ruling had a major impact on the existing wineries with Chelan in their name because for any wine they made from grapes sourced from outside of Lake Chelan, their winery name could not be used on the label. To abide by this regulation and to secure our AVA recognition, all the wineries impacted had to agree to change some of their labeling to be in accordance with the regs.

Some created new brands for those “non-AVA” grapes. For example, Chelan Estate launched the “CE” label. In other cases, wineries with Chelan in their name began to produce wines only sourced in the valley. That immediately solved their problem.

However, because of the delay, Snipes Mountain, which submitted its petition AFTER Lake Chelan, was approved for an AVA before we did. Snipes Mountain became Washington state’s 10th AVA in January. Our approval came in May of the same year.

Lake Chelan grape growing began in 1890s

Don Phelps, vineyard manager and co-owner of Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards brings in Sauvignon Blanc from the Lake Chelan American Viticultural Area. (Richard Duval Images)

Recently, I began thinking about how much of a leap into the unknown it was for all of the 19th century pioneers to try to grow grapes here. Grapes had been planted around Lake Chelan in the 1890s by Italian immigrants. We have some of these ‘heirloom’ Black Hamburg vines planted at the entrance to Hard Row to Hoe, but there was no precedence for fine wine grapes of the vinifera species.

Lake Chelan, while part of the Columbia Valley AVA, sits at a higher elevation and more northern latitude – one of the most northern AVAs in the country – than any of the other growing regions in the state.

One of the early assumptions about the capability to grow grapes here was that, at nearly 2,000 feet elevation, Lake Chelan is considered a ‘cool-climate’ area. That is why the first plantings consisted mainly of Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

Another assumption, which has been proven to be wrong, was our vines would freeze out every five to six years. That may have discouraged some orchardists from trying to plant grapes instead of apples.

A decade later, we can factually demonstrate that Lake Chelan is a great environment for growing grapes. Our growing degree days – GDD, a measure of heat units – prove that ours is one of the five warmest AVAs in the state, warmer than the Yakima Valley and Walla Walla Valley.

One factor that contributes to the great wine here is the late growing season. We harvest grapes two to three weeks later than some of the other regions in the state. This long hang time allows us to pick the grapes during the cooler temperatures of October, when nights are cool and grapes retain their acidity and freshness – hallmarks of world-class wine.

The glacial-derived soils lend distinction to our wines while the later harvest adds lushness and fullness to the reds. This long and late season also allows us to be successful in making wines with a wide variety of styles as well. We were as right on many fronts as the naysayers were wrong.

Lake Chelan faces housing vs. agriculture

Rob Mellison of Mellisoni Vineyards in the Lake Chelan Valley tends his vines above the south shore of Lake Chelan. (Richard Duval Images)

In the past 19 years, since the first wineries opened, Lake Chelan Wine Valley has become a destination for wine aficionados, talented winemakers and dedicated grape growers. We’ve formed a community that has embraced the excitement of a new AVA. People visit from all over the country, not just for the natural beauty, but also as a wine destination, so the AVA has been very successful in putting Lake Chelan on the ‘wine’ map.

But has the AVA lived up to the potential we envisioned? Can we do better? Even though wine grapes were first planted here 20 years ago, there are less than 400 total acres planted today. There is strong pressure for our agricultural land to be converted into housing developments as the orchardists retire. Therefore, the cost of land suitable for vineyards is getting quite expensive.

I would love to see an increase in the acreage planted to grapes, but for that to happen there must be increased interest by winemakers and consumers in varietals that excel here – Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet Franc, for instance.

AVA celebration June 7-9

Judy Phelps is the winemaker and co-owner of Hard Row to Hoe in Manson, Wash.
Judy Phelps and Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards will present a historical 10-year vertical tasting of Cabernet Franc on Sunday, June 9 at her winery in Manson, Wash. (Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Today, a number of wineries are making most of their wine from grapes that are grown outside the AVA. At the same time, vineyards here have a difficult time selling all of their grapes. I hope that changes in the future. The AVA celebration in June will feature the most promising varietals grown in the valley, so it is an opportunity for us to showcase these wines and let them shine!

The Lake Chelan AVA anniversary celebration runs June 7-9, with events featuring some of the pioneer grape growers and winery owners in the valley — leaders such as Steve Kludt of Lake Chelan Winery, Dr. Bob Jankelson of Tsillan Cellars and Bob Broderick of Chelan Estate.

I look forward to the presentation by Alan Busacca, the soil scientist and geologist from the University of California-Davis and Washington State University who was responsible for the research, gathering the meteorological data, soil analyses and editing the AVA petition. He will look back and then ahead on how the AVA has fulfilled its vision – and where it’s headed.

To complement the anniversary celebration, Hard Row to Hoe will feature a 10-year vertical tasting of our Burning Desire Estate Cabernet Franc on Sunday, June 9. Check for more details.

About Judy Phelps

Judy Phelps is past-president of the Lake Chelan Wine Growers Association. Prior to becoming winemaker and co-owner of Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards in Manson, Wash., she was an associate director at Pfizer, Inc. She holds a master's degree in zoology from the University of Connecticut and completed the University of California-Davis winemaking certificate program.

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