Weekend in Washington Wine Country: Lake Chelan



By Kori ~ July 17th, 2009.

On the deck at Nefarious Cellars overlooking Lake ChelanIn May, Lake Chelan was established as Washington State’s 11th AVA (American Viticultural Area). Lake Chelan is home to 13 wineries open to the public and 260 vineyard acres. A 3-hour drive east from Seattle, Lake Chelan has been a popular tourist destination for years especially during the summer months when visitors flock there to enjoy the sunshine and recreation around the lake.

Mom (LaGayle) and Dad (John) visited some of the wineries in the Lake Chelan area during their cross-country road trip last year, but Colby and I had not yet had the opportunity. We had both vacationed in Chelan during college but had not been back. When the new AVA was established, we knew that we had to make time to get over there, and we couldn’t think of a better time to visit than during the middle of summer so we could enjoy the weather and the lake as well. So last weekend, we loaded up the car and headed for Lake Chelan. Thankfully, the weather was gorgeous, and over the course of two days, we were able to visit all 13 wineries in the new Lake Chelan AVA.

On Saturday, we visited seven wineries located on the North Shore of Lake Chelan: Vin du Lac, Benson, Lake Chelan Winery, Tildio, Hard Row to Hoe, Wapato Point, and Rio Vista. While I had not previously visited any of the wineries in Chelan, I had tasted the wines from some of them.

Spectacular view of Lake Chelan from Benson Vineyards Estate WineryOne that was completely new to me and turned out to be our best discovery of the weekend was Benson Vineyards Estate Winery. Located on 28 vineyard acres with a spectacular view of Lake Chelan, Benson Vineyards was founded by Paul and Kathy Benson and their sons, Scott and Jeff. They bought the land in 1998, ripped out the existing apple orchard, and began planting their vineyard in 2002. Their first harvest was in 2004, and they released their first wines in 2005. Currently, they produce about 4,000 cases per year using 100 percent estate fruit. Benson boasts a stunning new facility which has only been open for a little over a month. Our favorites of their wines were the 2006 Rhythm (a blend of Syrah, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot) and the 2005 Syrah.

The other two wineries that made an impression on Saturday were Hard Row to Hoe and Rio Vista. We had the pleasure to visit with the owners at both wineries. Don Phelps at Hard Row to Hoe loves to tell stories. Last year, he and his wife Judy rebranded their winery which was formerly known as Balsamroot. The new Hard Row to Hoe name has a bit of a “naughty” story behind it, and Don is more than happy to share it with visitors. We really enjoyed their 2006 Zinfandel. Owner John Little of Rio Vista is a much more reserved guy, but his wines speak for themselves. He and his wife Jan founded Rio Vista in 2008 and currently produce 740 cases per year. Rio Vista is a little off the beaten path but is a great find along the Columbia River. In fact, they get as much boat traffic as they get car traffic. Our favorite of their wines was the 2007 Cabernet Franc.

Kori and John visiting with owner Don Phelps at Hard Row to HoeOn Sunday, we visited five wineries on the South Shore of Lake Chelan: Tsillan, Nefarious, Tunnel Hill, Chelan Estate, and Karma. We also returned to the North Shore to visit one more winery, Four Lakes, which we were unable to find on Saturday.

In my opinion, Nefarious Cellars is producing the best wines overall in Lake Chelan. Founded in 2005 by the husband-wife winemaking team of Dean and Heather Neff, Nefarious currently produces about 2,000 cases per year and plans to remain small. The Neffs are extremely nice folks, and their winery and estate vineyard boast gorgeous views of the lake. We were blown away by their 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Riverbend Vineyard. Located in the Wahluke Slope AVA, Riverbend Vineyard is owned by Mike and Karen Wade of Fielding Hills Winery. We also really liked their 2007 Syrah Defiance Vineyard. Produced from estate grown fruit, this wine is composed of 86 percent Syrah, 9 percent Grenache, and 5 percent Viognier.

Brand new tasting room at Four Lakes WineryAfter several dry runs and wrong turns, we finally found Four Lakes Winery. It sits high up on a hill overlooking, what else, four lakes. The view is amazing. Founded in 2003 by owner Don Koester, Four Lakes’ new tasting room has been open less than two weeks. Our favorite of their wines was the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon.

If you live in Washington or have plans to visit, I highly encourage you to include Lake Chelan in your travel itinerary. The gorgeous lake which offers a host of summer recreation opportunities as well as the 13 wineries in the area make Chelan a fabulous Washington wine country destination.

Here’s a breakdown of the wines that we tasted in Lake Chelan. Under each Quality heading, the wine name and region will be listed along with price and QPR rating. Wines in bold type received a QPR rating of 5 bangs for your buck (out of 5).

Note: Since the Lake Chelan AVA is so new, even wines that are produced from vineyards in the Lake Chelan AVA are currently labeled as Columbia Valley.

Quality: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
2007 Nefarious Cabernet Sauvignon Riverbend Vineyard, Wahluke Slope, $29.99, QPR: 5

Quality: 4 stars (out of 5)
2005 Four Lakes Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $29, QPR: 5
2007 Rio Vista Cabernet Franc, Columbia Valley, $25, QPR: 4
2006 Benson Estate Rhythm (Syrah/Sangio/Cab/Mer), Chelan County, $26, QPR: 4
2005 Benson Estate Syrah, Chelan County, $26.50, QPR: 4
2007 Nefarious Syrah Defiance Vineyard, Columbia Valley, $26.99, QPR: 4
2006 Tsillan Syrah, Columbia Valley, $28, QPR: 4
2006 Hard Row to Hoe Zinfandel, Wahluke Slope, $35, QPR: 4
2007 Tsillan Dolcezza d’Oro (Late Harvest Riesling), Columbia Valley, $35 [375ml], QPR: 4
2008 Rio Vista Ice Wine, Columbia Valley, $40 [375ml], QPR: 4

Quality: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
2007 Four Lakes Chardonnay, Columbia Gorge, $14, QPR: 5
2007 Rio Vista Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $15, QPR: 5
2008 Benson Estate Reserve Chardonnay, Chelan County, $17.50, QPR: 5
2004 Chelan Estate Merlot, Columbia Valley, $20, QPR: 5
2007 Rio Vista Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $25, QPR: 5

2007 Rio Vista Riesling, Columbia Valley, $15, QPR: 4
2007 Tunnel Hill Riesling, Columbia Valley, $15, QPR: 4
2007 Vin du Lac Cuvee Rouge (Mer/Cab/Syrah), Columbia Valley, $19.99, QPR: 4
2006 Four Lakes Trinity (Cab Sauv/Mer/Syrah), Columbia Valley, $24, QPR: 4
2006 Four Lakes Merlot, Columbia Valley, $24, QPR: 4
2007 Four Lakes Sauvignon Blanc, Columbia Valley, $15, QPR: 3
2008 Nefarious Consequence (Sauv Blanc/Aligote/Viognier), Washington State, $16.99, QPR: 3
2007 Tildio Ideale (Chardonnay/Viognier), Columbia Valley, $17.99, QPR: 3
2008 Hard Row to Hoe Pinot Noir Rosé, Chelan County, $18, QPR: 3
2008 Hard Row to Hoe Edelzwicker (Riesling/Gewurz), Columbia Valley, $18, QPR: 3
2008 Nefarious Viognier Defiance Vineyard, Columbia Valley, $18.99, QPR: 3
2006 Tildio Tempranillo, Columbia Valley, $24.99, QPR: 3
2006 Tildio El Buho (Cab/Mer/Syrah), Columbia Valley, $26.99, QPR: 3
2006 Four Lakes Syrah, Columbia Valley, $29, QPR: 3
2006 Benson Estate Reserve Syrah, Chelan County, $32.50, QPR: 3
2008 Benson Estate Viognier, Chelan County, $19, QPR: 2
2008 Rio Vista Sunset on the River (Gewurz/Pinot Gris), Columbia Valley, $20, QPR: 2
2007 Nefarious Malbec Upland Vineyards, Snipes Mountain, $26.99, QPR: 2

Quality: 3 stars (out of 5)
2004 Chelan Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Stillwater Creek Vineyard, Columbia Valley, $25, QPR: 4
2005 Lake Chelan Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $28, QPR: 4
2008 Vin du Lac Les Amis (Riesling-based blend), Columbia Valley, $13.99, QPR: 3
2007 Vin du Lac Savvy! Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc), Columbia Valley, $13.99, QPR: 3
2008 Tildio Estate Riesling, Columbia Valley, $14.99, QPR: 3
2008 Tunnel Hill Riesling, Columbia Valley, $15, QPR: 3
2008 Benson Estate Chardonnay (unoaked), Chelan County, $17.50, QPR: 3
2007 Tunnel Hill Pinot Noir, Columbia Valley, $25, QPR: 3
2005 Wapato Point Red Delicious (Syrah/Sangio/Mer), Columbia Valley, $26, QPR: 3
2008 Hard Row to Hoe Sauvignon Blanc, Yakima Valley, $18, QPR: 2
2007 Four Lakes Gewurztraminer, Columbia Gorge, $18, QPR: 2
2008 Lake Chelan Winery Sweet Gewurztraminer, Chelan County, $18, QPR: 2
2004 Chelan Estate Merlot Stillwater Creek Vineyard, Columbia Valley, $25, QPR: 2
2006 Tildio Syrah, Columbia Valley, $26.99, QPR: 2
2006 Benson Estate Meritage (Merlot/Cab), Chelan County, $27.50, QPR: 2
2006 Lake Chelan Winery Syrah, Columbia Valley, $28, QPR: 2
2005 Tsillan Merlot, Columbia Valley, $28, QPR: 2
2007 Tunnel Hill Syrah, Columbia Valley, $30, QPR: 2
2008 Tsillan Bocciolo di Rosa (Syrah Rosé), Columbia Valley, $19, QPR: 1
2008 Wapato Point Harmony (Pinot Grigio/Gewurz), Chelan County, $19, QPR: 1
2008 Rio Vista Rosé, Columbia Valley, $20, QPR: 1

Quality: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
2008 Vin du Lac Grisant! Pinot Gris, Columbia Valley, $17.99, QPR: NR
2006 Rio Vista Loony Red, Columbia Valley, $18, QPR: NR
2008 Benson Estate Pinot Gris, Chelan County, $18, QPR: NR
2007 Tsillan Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley, $20, QPR: NR
2007 Chelan Estate Chardonnay-Viognier, Columbia Valley, $22, QPR: NR
2007 Tildio Tourmalet (Pinot Noir/Syrah), Columbia Valley, $22.99, QPR: NR
2007 Karma Chardonnay, Columbia Valley, $22.99, QPR: NR
2006 Karma Estate Syrah, Columbia Valley, $24.99, QPR: NR
2007 Rio Vista Loony Red, Columbia Valley, $25, QPR: NR
2004 Chelan Estate Pinot Noir, Columbia Valley, $25, QPR: NR
2007 Lake Chelan Winery Harding Syrah, Columbia Valley, $28, QPR: NR
2005 Wapato Point Syrah, Chelan County, $28, QPR: NR
2005 Kludt Family Winery Reserve Estate Merlot [Wapato Point], Chelan County, $48, QPR: NR

Quality: 2 stars (out of 5)
2007 Lake Chelan Winery Gewurztraminer, Chelan County, $18, QPR: NR
2007 Karma Estate Gewurztraminer, Columbia Valley, $19.99, QPR: NR


Filed under: American Wine, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Dessert Wine, Five-Bangs For Your Buck Wines, Gewurztraminer, Malbec, Merlot, Pinot Grigio/Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Red Wine, Riesling, Rose Wine, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz/Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier, Washington State Wine, White Wine, Wine Travel, Wines NOT To Buy (1 & 2 Star), Wines Over $25, Wines Under $15, Wines Under $20, Wines Under $25, Zinfandel

Reader's Comments

  1. Jared | July 17th, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks guys! Your report couldn’t have been more timely as a bunch of friends and I are heading to Lake Chelan for some wine tasting, gambling, and golf!! Keep up the good work :)

  2. Judy Phelps | July 17th, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    Good job in getting to ALL the wineries (especially Four Lakes and Rio Vista)! Very thorough job. For full disclosure, I own Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards that was written about in the piece.

  3. Kori | July 17th, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Jared,
    So glad you found it helpful and timely. You’ll have a great time in Chelan. Safe travels!

    Judy,
    Thanks! We were determined to make them all. Four Lakes and Rio Vista were the hardest to find but worth it. It was a pleasure to meet Don; hope we get a chance to meet you on our next visit to Hard Row to Hoe.

  4. Josh LaRosee | August 2nd, 2009 at 1:07 pm

    Nice writeup on one of the great (and more accessible) wine tours of Washington. Easy to get to, fun to tour and some really good wine.

    Enjoying the site!

  5. Kori | August 3rd, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Thanks, Josh. Yes, Chelan has a lot to offer which makes it a great wine country destination. Cheers!