You know the adage “Give me lemons and I’ll make lemonade.” But it also applies to apples. When the apple market went south in the early 1990’s, orchardists around Lake Chelan in eastern Washington state didn’t turn start making cider. They pivoted to making wine.
And a killing.
Over the past two decades, a renaissance of sorts has transformed one of the most productive apple, peach, pear and cherry growing regions in the world into one of the most idyllic micro-winery regions in the world.
As often happens, man outsmarted himself by inventing a vine apple tree that is much smaller and yet yields more fruit than the apple tree you carved your sweetheart’s initials into. And even though the vine tree trunks are barely big enough for your initials, the trees produce bushels of apples. Combine this stunningly 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. A sad day indeed.
I 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.
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 microclimates in the world. Turns out that the same hot summers and cold winters that produced the finest apples are also ideal for grapes.
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 sustainable storyteller, and one who promotes reuse and renewal, the story of Lake Chelan’s reinvention is deeply heartening. When the decline started, I feared the shores being 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 the past 20 years, has around 40 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.
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 basin and the 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.
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 up the country road 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 you’ve ever had. The atmosphere isn’t too nad either.
After you’re carbed-and-caffeined-up, you’re ready for the final peddle past the 100 year-old one-room schoolhouse, 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.
Whew. I’m spent!
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?
- Wapato Point Cellars
- Hard Row to Hoe
- Rio Vista Wines
- Lake Chelan Winery
- Benson Vineyards
- Four Lakes Chelan Winery
- Vin du Lac
- KarMa Vineyards & Cave
- Chelan Estate Vineyards and Winery
- Nefarious Cellars
- Tunnel Hill Winery
- Tsillan Cellars
- Chelan Ridge Winery
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.
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.
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!
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.
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,
at 3:12 pm
[…] the first to admit that I like wine, but don’t really know much about them. I like wineries. There’s just something about the combination of agriculture, and ingenuity, and the […]
at 10:01 am
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