Cascade Valley Wine: A Symphony of Wine, Water and Mountains

December 7, 2015

First Movement- The Pristine Lake Chelan

We had three regions to cover, with lots of good food and wine in the plans, so we felt compelled to start the adventure with a hard work-out. Always the efficient ones, we combined the work-out and some wine tasting with a bike tour of wineries along the shores of Lake Chelan, located in always sunny Eastern Washington. Well, “hard” work out is an exaggeration, since we were on electric bikes provided by Chelan Electric Bikes. It was a special treat to go up the gentle hills towards the winery and enjoy the scenery, especially with the added benefit of just enough electric power to gently glide up the hills. But even on our electric bikes, we were not able to visit all 28 wineries so we settled for four.

Another very slight exaggeration about Lake Chelan, which is about a three-hour drive east of Seattle, is the claim above that it is always sunny. Close but not quite! Chelan receives less than 12 inches of rain a year and has over 300 days of sunshine, not 365 days. For sake of comparison the Washington Coast (Forks) gets 120 inches of rain and is much cooler in the summer. To really enjoy the lovely weather and the beauty of the lake one should take in the views with some outdoor yoga on the shore.

Lake Chelan has been producing wine since 1891 but it was not until 2009 that they had the AVA officially approved. One requirement to acquire AVA (American Viticultural Area) status is that the area have a different weather pattern or microclimate than the neighboring areas.

It’s the water! That’s what makes the climate different. Lake Chelan is 50 miles long and over 1400 feet deep, making it the third deepest in the US. Bodies of water have the unique physical property that makes it warm and cool more slowly than land.

How does this help the wine grapes? Well, come fall harvest time, morning frost issues are mitigated by the warmth coming off the lake, which has retained some summer heat. Also, in the middle of winter, areas away from the lake might be well below freezing during a blast of cold arctic air. However, areas near the lake will remain warmer. The depth of Lake Chelan causes it to be so slow in cooling that it will rarely freeze. Thus, the lake helps to stop a hard freeze that would bring severe damage to the vines.

Enough weather discussion, let’s get back to the wine tasting. Our first stop was at Lake Chelan Winery, whose owner, Steve Kludt, helped spear-head the effort to achieve AVA status, and opened the AVA’s first winery in the area.

We enjoyed the Stormy Mountain Red with its nice mix of Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet Franc. The unique taste of the wine comes from the use of a red grape for the white wine used in the blend. This is achieved by limiting the amount of time for the grape skins are in the tank. This wine really would have gone well with the barbecue that was being served up in the back patio. However, we were under strict instructions to just to have some wine, light snacks and water during the day. More on that later.

While relaxing in the patio area, we enjoyed watching Merrick, owner of Electric Bikes of Chelan; get a work out during the fall harvest stomp. He, and other visitors to the winery entertained us by stomping while rocking out to the music.

 

After this, we conserved our energy for the short ride to Cairdeas Winery. Upon arriving in the beautiful tasting room we were warmly greeted and treated to a taste of the Reserve Nellie Mae. This blends one of our favorite white grapes, Viognier, and Roussanne. Viognier has a great floral nose with light tropical notes of pineapple. Its origin is the Northern Rhone region in France and dates back to the Roman Empire. Now grown widely in the US, this drought resistant grape does well in arid areas. These grapes can have an early spring flower, which is a problem in areas that are prone to late frosts. As explained above, Lake Chelan tends to minimize this issue.

After tasting this wine, we were in total agreement with the double gold recently won in Seattle Wine Awards. We chatted with one of the owners, Lacey, and she told us Cairdeas is the Gaelic word for ‘goodwill’. That is exactly describes the vibe we felt as we walked in. Her husband Charlie’s roots are Gaelic so that is the connection. Charlie’s roots in winemaking go back over 6 years to their tasting room in West Seattle near Alki Beach.

After purchasing two bottles of Viognier, it was time to conclude our fun bike tour and we checked in at The Lookout at Lake Chelan.

The first thing we did was open the bottle of wine left for us, Viognier of course. It was lovely to enjoy the wine while sitting on the patio overlooking Lake Chelan. After relaxing and soaking up the sun we were tempted to go for swim in the pool, have a nice barbecue on the patio and enjoy the sunset.

 

However, that would have to wait since the Karma Harvest Dinner 2015 was about to begin. We jumped in the car and took the scenic ride around the lake quickly past downtown and ten minutes later pulled into the parking lot at Karma. We then boarded a trolley to be whisked up the hill for the reception. On the hilltop on this beautiful fall evening we enjoyed the sunset along with their delightful Fugio Cinnamon Brandy. This special drink certainly paired nicely with their Hors d’oeuvres of shrimp, steamed mussels, and Dungeness Crab and Artichoke Dip. The wonderful brandy, delicious snacks and beautiful view were made even more special by the background music provided by the mellow guitar and melodic voice of David Flett. It was a truly magical experience.

As darkness slowly crept in we took the ride down the hill for the next round of appetizers and drinks which featured a cheese pairing with their newly released Karma Methode Champenoise Estate Blanc de Noir. The Champenoise is a priority of the owners Julie and Bret Pittsinger, done in the French tradition méthode champenoise. This is a labor intensive and expensive process and we sure enjoyed the fruits of this labor.

Perhaps winemaker Julie’s affinity for wine came from her roots in the French dominated region of Montreal. Her skill was perfected as she studied with French consultant Claude Thibaut on the méthode champenoise Furthermore, she went on to Viticulture program at Washington State University

After enjoying the Champenoise, we were ready for the fall harvest feast served up by Karma restaurant, 18 Brix Restaurant.  The name “18 Brix” is used because champagne is usually made from grapes that are harvested with a lower sugar (brix) level, 18.

The Heirloom Tomato & Cucumber Panzanella Salad was delightful with the Estate Gewurztraminer. Then it came time for the main course: salmon, roasted pacific lobster and filet mignon were served with perfectly paired wines. I especially enjoyed the pairing of the Chardonnay and the lobster.

 

The feast continued with the next highlight: Bread Pudding with Fuego Cinnamon Brandy Sauce. The best!! This was paired with the Methode Champenoise Brut which my wife claimed was prefect. I had stopped drinking a while ago, but did not stop eating and no one went home hungry!

We returned to The Lookout and went back to the patio to enjoy the evening star show over Lake Chelan before we retired for the evening.

We woke up to a beautiful sunrise and began to consider some of the great hikes in the area.

 

Our favorite hiking area is the Echo Ridge area which has 25 miles of trails. Our favorite hike is called The Shoe, which is a 2.5 mile loop in the shape of a shoe. Ever the practical one, my wife points out that it is actually in the shape of a high-heeled shoe. Not a style you would want to be hiking in. By the way if you come here during the winter there are many cross-country ski trails.

Second Movement- Wenatchee – A Capital Time

The short, 45 minute drive from Lake Chelan was very much enjoyed with the sun glistening on the Columbia River. Our first stop in Wenatchee was the Ohme Gardens. Yes – this is a stunning garden in the desert. Not sure what is more impressive, the beauty of this garden or how it was built.

 

Herman Ohme and his wife purchased this land in 1929 and immediately fell in love with the views from the bluff of the Columba River and the Cascade Mountains accented by the majestic Stuart Range. The Ohmes intended to build a house but the fact that this was during the depression and the banks were not loaning out money was a problem.

That did not stop them. Along with of a home they also built a rock garden. During the weekends Herman loaded up evergreens in his old Studebaker and hauled them up the mountain. Planting evergreens in a desert type of environment like Wenatchee? Indeed, many of the locals thought Herman did not understand the local climate. To counter the desert climate Herman hauled water up and built an irrigation system. Done? Not yet! Herman then hauled rocks up and used them to build waterfalls and benches.

Eventually, Herman and his wife opened the the garden to the public in 1939 for the big time cost of 0.25 cents per car load. Not sure that the profits were big but the garden was a big hit.

In time, this gem was turned over to Chelan County and it is a must-see from the middle of April to mid-October. Best time to go? Spring with all the flowers blooming, or summer to enjoy the concerts and Wine and Food Gala, or perhaps autumn to enjoy the fall colors. You pick.

After our hour walk around the gardens we were ready for some refreshments so we checked out the Chateau Faire Le Pont Winery. Since Wenatchee was known as the apple capital of the world it fits that their winery and restaurant are housed in a former fruit warehouse built in the 1920’s. However, they really added an artistic touch by taking original brick and having an artist paint over it.

Their wines are also artistically done. My favorite red was the Sangiovese with its good structure and nice fruit notes. For the whites I enjoyed the Chardonnay, which has a light tropical nose with very light fruit notes. It was getting close to lunch and our eyes drifted over the menu to see which pairing would be best. But we had lunch reservations elsewhere and needed to move on.

Before leaving, it was interesting to note that one of the owners is Debe’ Brazil, sister of Julie Pittsinger, one of the owners of Karma Vineyards. They also have other things in common as sister Julie excelled in swimming (on the Canadian Olympic team) while Debe’ is a recent tennis champion.  

Time for lunch so drove the short distance to the Pybus Public Market. This building is an icon of the past, originally housing a small blacksmith operation where E.T. Pybus first worked, later owned, and then expanded the business into a foundry in 1918. The building that started out as a small blacksmith operation later expanded to cover a quarter of a block. Over the years the foundry supported many industries: steel spray tanks for the orchardists, major dams along the Columbia River, and tractor manufacturing. During World War II he was a major builder and innovator for the US Navy and Airforce.

Fast forward to today and you will find a destination shopping experience with a huge farmers market, local restaurants and lovely little shops selling Washington wines, gifts and souvenirs. We were getting hungry – so now came the tough decision about where to eat. Our very excellent choice was Fire, one of a family of restaurants owned by Visconti.

The first thing I noticed was their wood fired clay oven and the pizza coming out of it. My wife and I decided to part ways, not divorce just pizza choices. I went with the Wild Mushroom and she went with “our traditional” order, Margarita pizza. I have to say that was the best pizza I’ve ever had and could not bring myself to share any with Elizabeth. To get even with me Elizabeth did not share the dessert, a giant scoop of chocolate gelato (available next door in their sister restaurant Ice).

After lunch we returned to our wine tasting at Jones of Washington located just down the corridor in the market. What distinguishes their fine wines is not the water, rather it’s the rocks.

 

We sampled their Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Estate Riesling, all of which had a distinctive crisp and rich mineral taste. No surprise that these have all won awards. The mineral is the rock caliche (sedimentary rock). This is one of the signatures of Washington’s newest AVA, Ancient Lakes, located about 30 miles southeast of Wenatchee.

The Ancient Lakes area was formed thousands of years ago by Ice Age floods that roared through Eastern Washington. The Ancient Lakes AVA was granted in Oct. of 2012 and is the 13th AVA created in Washington State. That region is now home to many wineries, excellent hiking and fishing, and the famous Gorge Amphitheater in George.

The Jones family has roots in farming that go back to the 1950 when Web Jones planted potatoes, in large part due to the accessible water from the newly constructed Grand Coulee Dam. Come 1997, a large Washington state winery knew that this region would be great for wine so they suggested the Jones farm plant their first grapes. Today it is still a family run business, making their own wine, with Web’s son Jack and his four kids helping.

We could have stayed to hear more of this fascinating history, but we had one last winery to visit, Malaga Springs. This is  a twenty minute drive southeast of Wenatchee, past the Columbia River, up a hill and we arrived at the unincorporated community of Malaga. This is not to be confused with the city in the south of Spain on the western shore of the Mediterranean. In fact, Malaga is the name of a sweet fortified wine which many claim to be one of the oldest in Europe.

There are some that claim that the Malaga area of Washington also has some of the oldest grapes. We will let the wine historians figure that. We were too busy enjoying the views with the tasting room nestled in the basalt rocks and cliffs above the winery. Along with the dramatic scenery they provide, these rocks also enhance the mineral taste of the wine.

The black rocks are great in the cool fall mornings because they absorb heat during the day and radiate heat at night, which protects the grapes from frost. This comes in very handy, since this vineyard is at one of the highest elevation in the state, over 1700 feet. Owner and winemaker Al Matthews filled us in on the geology and history while we enjoyed sipping the Blanc de Noir. How do you get a white wine from Pinot Noir grapes? The fruit is immediately pressed after crushing to result in this fine tasting white wine. When I get home, this will need to be paired with barbecued salmon. We only had a short time here, but before we could leave, Al insisted we try AL Y Kat Red, which is the perfect balance of Zinfandel and Syrah. The name combines the monikers of Al and his wife and co-owner Kathy (Kat) does most everything while Al spends part of the time in the summer fishing in Alaska.)

Once again, we did not have time to hike, as our next destination waited. On the list to hike next trip is Sage Hills and Saddle Rock.

Third Movement- The New Leavenworth

We were ready for the last movement of our adventure, the new Leavenworth. What’s new? Well, they still have the Bavarian theme restaurants with plenty of bratwurst and beer. However, we noticed some new restaurant fare with the Watershed Café being one of them.

This new restaurant is the brainchild of three old friends who met at culinary school many years again and have now reunited. Dan, Brian, and Joey are the chefs and owners and The Watershed is clearly a labor of love. The menu focuses on local “farm to table” produce and has an emphasis on seafood. For starters, our decision was easy: Hama Hama Broiled Oysters (Classic Rockefeller). Fresh from the Hood Canal (3 hours to the west) the oysters were succulent and tasty. There was serious discussion of making that our appetizer, main course and desert.

However, I decided to have the Wild Caught Alaskan Halibut Collar Udon Bowl as an entrée. This was a combination of these noodles (udon) , peppers, mushrooms, bok choy lemongrass broth, and fresh halibut. This was a special treat for sure. I thought I was full but that did not matter as dessert was brought. Somehow, I managed to not only taste, but totally consume the Cast Iron Flourless Chocolate Cake.

During this three-hour dinner we were joined by Rob Newsom winemaker of Boudreaux Cellars. Rob brought his Reserve Cabernet, which has received very high marks on the famous point system created by Robert Parker, Jr.

While enjoying this complex red wine, we had a great discussion about how Rob arrived here. Rob’s roots are from Louisiana and when he arrived in Washington in the 1970’s he decided on the spur of the moment to climb Mt. Rainier. Good decision, NOT! 90 mph winds ripped his tent and forced him to abandon the attempt. After that, Rob went back to the Bayou determined to return and successfully climb the mountain. After a year of research and preparation he returned for a successful summit. He had caught the climbing bug in a big way, became a mountain guide and led many ascents in the Himalaya. Rob has had many other adventures and one thing is obvious: when he chooses a goal he does everything possible to be the best.

All during our discussion each of the three owner–chefs stopped by to chat and a common theme is that everyone comes here because of their love of food and the outdoors. Thus, Dan, Brian, and Joey make sure to close the restaurant at least one day a week in the winter so they can enjoy some powder snow at nearby Stevens Pass to snowboard.

We bid everyone a good night and retreated with the short drive from the main core of Leavenworth to our lovely room at Eagle Creek Winery & Cottage. It is a quiet get-a-way, nestled in the woods and surrounded by hills, forests and vineyard.

After a nice sleep we awoke to a wonderful fall day. We discussed which hike to do. I know I have hiked about 50 trails in the area so it was hard to figure my favorite to do. I know I recently did Lake Caroline in the summer and all the wildflowers are outstanding. Here is a partial list of hikes.

What did we decide to do? Well, we really love just kicking back and enjoying the country, so were actually having a hard time mobilizing. Then vineyard manager, Paul Sharpe paid us a visit, so we just settled in for a nice chat. Although we did not sample his wine this morning, we have certainly enjoyed their wine in the past, and had met founder and winemaker Ed Rutledge. We really enjoyed their Chardonnay and serendipitously on this trip the room we slept in at Eagle Creek Cottage is named the Chardonnay Room.

Very recently, Paul was living in New York running a restaurant and flying back and forth. Now he is here full time and has many ideas about expanding his vineyards operation and looking at some different varietals. We thanked Paul for the chat and for giving us an alternative to the hike.

The next stop is back to town for lunch and to enjoy another new restaurant; the Sulla Vita. Their focus is on Mediterranean food, served in the tapas (small plates) style. Our server Chris Kelly rolled out delicious food nonstop for two hours. First came the Prawns in Spicy Dibbia Sauce, great kick in that Dibbia sauce! Then the Stuffed Mushrooms with Chorizo and Cheddar cheese were so tasty that they quickly disappeared.

The tomato basil soup also had nice spice to it, and also disappeared pretty quickly. One item that I needed to be convinced to try was the Cauliflower and Parsnip Gratin. Not the cauliflower that my mom served! This was very tasty and one could have stopped with this. Not!

The Seafood Chowder was next. Just the style I like. Not too rich and not too thick. This was done nicely with halibut, prawns, calamari, scallops, clams, and bay shrimp. The halibut gave it a very unique taste.

Dessert? Chocolate a l ’Orange - so tasty.  The owner Jim Ward stopped by to chat and it was interesting to hear how Jim and Chris go way back to when they both grew up in Leavenworth. Jim is a pilot for a major airline and the restaurant was inspired by his frequent flyer trips to Europe. So he knew the style he wanted and hired a local consultant to design the menu. Very nicely done and greatly adds to the new look Leavenworth.

The last stop was designed by fate I think. This was not planned but our host insisted on that we visit 37 Cellars. Their cellar is just east of Leavenworth on the hill overlooking the mountains. Chuck, one of the owners gave us the tour which was interesting but more intriguing was the upstairs music and recording room. The room hosts a full recording studio and lots of music and wine memorabilia. One of the instruments hanging around was Chuck’s string bass (the big stand-up bass). I picked it to try my hand but found I was a little rusty from my ten year hiatus since I last played. But it was fun – and maybe even inspirational!

Chuck went on to entertain us with some Bluegrass music on his guitar. He and his partner (and brother-in-law) Frank Dechaine are both musicians and own vintage 1937 Martin guitars. Thus the name 1937. 

Since we were about to drive back home we did not sample his wine but I can tell from the awards that it must be good. They learned winemaking from local guru Rob Newsom of Boudreaux Cellars. 37 Cellars wines have won 18 awards since 2009 – so they are certainly doing something right.

The conclusions of our journeys are always difficult, but we know that on our return to the Cascade Valley Wine Country we will have so much more to do, see, and taste. Of course, we will have to catch up on all that hiking we never got around to, plus the bluegrass festival, and of course, more wineries and restaurants to check out. This feels like an unfinished symphony of joy that awaits our next visit.

 

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