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How the souring apple industry in Lake Chelan, Wa, ripened a burgeoning wine region

The suns sets over Lake Chelan and the Vineyard of Tsillan Cellars

The sun sets over Lake Chelan and the Vineyards of Tsillan Cellars in Washington state.

The old adage of, “Give me lemons and I’ll make lemonade,” also applies to apples. Only in this case, the orchardists around Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state aren’t making cider. They’re making wine.

And a killing.

Over the past decade, a renaissance of sorts has transformed one of the most productive apple, peach, pear and cherry growing regions in the world.

Apples

Photo by our friend Karen Walsh of KarenWalshPhotography.com

As often happens, man outsmarted himself by inventing a vine apple tree that is much smaller than the apple tree you carved your sweetheart’s initials into. And even though the vine tree trunks are barely big enough for half a heart and arrow, the trees produce bushels of apples.  Combine this new and efficient growing method with expanding produce coming out of Asia, and you have a market buried in apples.  It almost seemed like overnight that the Chelan growers started closing their packing plants and cutting down entire old growth orchards.

MapI know, because sunny Chelan was our summer retreat as moss covered kids growing up in rainy Seattle. My folks had the foresight to buy an orchardist’s home on the lake, and about 3 acres of apples, in 1976.

We used to drive beneath an arbor of apple trees canopying the long, narrow road  that ends at our cabin. It was the most beautiful lane cloaked in red delicious fruit.  But those orchards are gone now. It’s sad for the nostalgic in me. But the falling of the trees has made way for an entirely new crop. Vineyards.

Grapes

Another wonderful image by KarenWalshPhotography.com

Lake Chelan has become a classic Chamber of Commerce study on how to reinvent yourself when your primary livelihood is in decline. It didn’t take years to figure out how to save their economy and small community. The seeds were sewn by a few entrepreneurs that had the vision to nurture one of the most remarkable and unique micro climates in the world. Turns out that the same hot summers and cold winters that produced the finest apples are also ideal for grapes.

And wine!

For a mental picture of the Lake Chelan Wine Valley, imagine this:

Sonoma on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Now add abundant fruit orchards and the pine forested Cascade mountains climbing from the crystal blue waters, and you should have a pretty good picture of this one-of-a-kind environment. “God’s country,” as my Dad calls it.

As a green marketer, and one who promotes reuse and renewal, the story of Lake Chelan’s reinvention is deeply heartening. When the decline started, I feared seeing the shores stripped of the beautiful old fruit trees. Or worse.  I pictured orchardists replaced by developers.

Then in the late 1990′s, the first wineries emerged.  These were primarily built from big California money and rich attorneys from Seattle coming to Chelan to dally in vineyards. They didn’t have the intrinsic connection to the place I had, and I figured their interest and money would shrivel in a couple years and that’d be it.

I was wrong.

Lake Chelan, in just 10 years, has around 20 wineries. Staggering growth. And it recently received the coveted certification as an American Viticultural Area, as deemed by the Federal Alcohol Administration Act. This means that Chelan’s boutique wineries are playing with the big boys.

The Harding's apple packing plant, which handle my folk's small orchard, has since been renovated into Lake Chelan Winery. The best barbeque, blues and wine on the lake. AND, it's at the end of our driveway!

The Harding’s apple packing plant, which processed my folk’s small orchard, has since been renovated into Lake Chelan Winery. The best combination of barbeque, Blues and wine on the lake. AND, it’s at the end of our driveway!

Apples and Grapes Aren’t the Only Things Happening at the Lake

Michele and I just took our family back up to Lake Chelan from Phoenix for a week’s vacation. It takes a day, given the three hour flight to SeaTac airport, and then the gorgeous 3.5 hour drive over the Cascades, down along the Columbia river, and up and over the 2,500 foot pass that drops you into the Chelan Valley that holds the glacier-fed lake.  Sitting at about 2,000 feet above sea level, Chelan is the third deepest lake in the country at 1,486 feet. And it offers more than just fruit and wine.

One of the great ways to explore the Chelan Valley is to take a trip up to Stehekin, the sequestered outpost at the head of the lake in the North Cascades. You can only get there by horse, boat, float plane or hiking in from the North Cascades Trail. Once there, rent a mountain bike and head up the four-mile road to Rainbow Falls (See the Flickr link for photos of the falls).  There are three must-see sites on your way to the spectacular 312-foot waterfall.

Click on the photo to read the Sunset Magazine feature, "Stay and Play in the north Cascades"

Click on the photo to read the Sunset Magazine feature, “Stay and Play in the North Cascades”

First stop at the end of the Lake Chelan and take a photo of one of the most storybook log cabins you’ll ever find. Sunset Magazine featured this same shot on its cover.

A mile east of there you’ll happen upon a two-acre verdant organic flower and vegetable garden. The caretaker (I didn’t get his name) has lived in the woods adjacent to his colorful and fragrant garden for more than 30 years. Check out his abode. It’s worth a peek.

By now you’ll be famished, right? So you must knock down your kickstand at the Pastry Company log cabin bakery for the most incredible home-made cinnamon rolls, pies and cookies.

After you’re carbed-and-caffeined-up, you’re ready for the final peddle past the 100 year-old one-room school house, around the bend of the Stehekin river, through the trees to the refreshing, etheral mist of Rainbow Falls. Funny, this is the one place the Sunset Magazine writer didn’t cover. Perhaps she didn’t make it past the bakery. Too bad, too. Because the setting for the two-tiered Rainbow Falls is right out of a Tolken novel. And the bike ride is as great for the kids as it is for your cardio health.

Whew. I’m spent!

A can't miss cafe in downtown Chelan.

A don’t miss cafe in downtown Chelan.

So that’s my travelogue. I know I sound more like a destination writer than a green marketer. But walking our ritual 2.5 mile loop everyday above the Howell family retreat we call the “Happy H Chelan” (there were twenty-something of us sharing the place, so the walk is essential for mental health) through the remaining orchards and their newest sibling, the rows and rows of grape vines, and looking over this most spectacular lake, I just felt I had to share a bit of me and this place with you.

Thanks for being my companion today. Enjoy the photos.

Now you didn’t think I was going to leave without sharing links to all of the great Chelan Valley wineries, did you?

Some of the newest wineries don’t have their sites up yet.

At the end of September, Michele and I will be heading to her aunt and uncle’s winery, Wines of the San Juan, in northern New Mexico for their annual festival.  I hope you can join us.

BTW, our friend Karen Walsh took the apple and grape photos, as well as a couple in my Flickr slideshow. Check out all of her incredible pictures here.

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6 Comments On This Topic
  1. Coach Pete posted
    August 3, 2009 at 9:16 am

    Thanks for the uplifting story! It makes me want to return to Chelan! My wife and I enjoyed a wonderful week there and think it is such a special spot.

  2. Bean posted
    August 3, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    This is a great article about the gorgeous Lake Chelan area and the the burgeoning wine industry. I was also a moss covered kid in Seattle and never made it over to Lake Chelan until a few years ago when in-laws purchased land amidst the cherry orchards to grow a small vineyard. We chose a Lake Chelan winery, Rio Vista as our featured winery for August and are hoping to get back there this weekend. Now we have a few new places to check out!

  3. Park posted
    August 3, 2009 at 12:56 pm

    Thanks Bean for your comment. I’ll be in Dallas for work while you’ll be hanging at the lake. LUCKY!

    Look for the “Happy H” sign across from Lake Chelan Winery, and that’s our place at the bottom of the road on the lake.

    Cheers!

  4. Karen Walsh posted
    August 11, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    Wow, Park, great article. Really makes me want to be there!!! Thanks for my feature and link!
    You guys are the best,
    Karen

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