CHELAN — When international and interstate travel drastically decreased over a two-year period in the midst of a raging pandemic, a tucked-away region in North Central Washington once known for apples flourished: the Chelan Valley.
“Word got out that there was this mecca of wine and food only three hours away, and it was a beautiful place,” said Tsillian Cellars founder Bob Jankelson. “I would go so far as to say Chelan was discovered during the pandemic by many, many people.”
According to the Washington Wine Commission, the Lake Chelan American Viticultural Area, founded in 2009, is 269 vineyard acres, relatively small compared to the Columbia Valley’s 59,234 vineyard acres or the Yakima Valley’s 18,924 vineyard acres.
The Chelan Valley houses around 40 wineries, 34 of which are members of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce. Despite the small size and relative youth, the industry has taken notice. Among other recognitions, Jankelson’s winery took home the 2020 Washington Winery of Year and Chelan’s Rocky Pond Winery was the 2019 Winery to Watch, both awarded by Wine Press Northwest.
In addition to breathtaking scenery and the growing wine industry, Chelan’s centralized location offers an easy escape from Seattle, Spokane and Yakima.
“We’re no more than three hours from almost anywhere in the state,” Jankelson said. “We actually had growth in wine sales in 2020 and 2021 — significant growth.”
The easy access to Washington’s population centers is part of the reason for growth during the pandemic. Alysha Ottrix, Rocky Pond’s tasting room lead, said wine shook a reputation as a drink reserved for rare occasions.
“I think wine is just becoming more and more popular, you know. It’s not a special occasion drink, it’s not a special dinner drink, you know. It could be a Wednesday night at home relaxing kind of drink,” she said. Ottrix has been with Rocky Pond for about a year. “I think a lot more age groups are becoming interested in wine, it’s a huge range. From freshly 21 to retired, I see everyone come through.”
Ottrix said wine interest can begin at the grocery store and segue into wine tasting and exploring. With so many varieties, the wine world can feel overwhelming. Part of the appeal of wine tasting, Ottrix said, is that people can branch out.
“When I have people that come in and say, ‘I know nothing about wine,’ that’s totally okay,” she said. “I think that’s why wine tasting is so fun because you get to learn what you like or don’t like. And I just always remind people that there’s no rules.”
But wine tasting is more than tasting wines, according to Holly Brown, who co-founded Siren Song Vineyard Estate and Winery with her husband, Kevin.
“It’s about where are they drinking it? How is it being served up? What is being served up with? What other activities are going on around the wine drinking experience?” she said.
A surprising level of growth
Despite the potential and strong reputation in the state as a tourist attraction, Chelan’s accelerated rise as a wine industry destination has surprised some.
“I think we believed that Chelan was kind of in the early stages of its growth, but I don’t think we anticipated it to grow so much, so fast,” Brown said. “And I can you, for sure, we didn’t anticipate our business to grow so big, so fast.”
Jankelson was surprised by the growth, though he added the area has evolved. When Tsillian opened its doors in 2004, Jankelson wanted his facility to lead the way.
“I thought it would probably top out at 18 to 20 wineries,” he said. “It’s outrun the number of wineries I thought it could support.”
A year-round attraction
“Memorial Day to Labor Day, the lake. You heard that term, the lake, it was all about the lake and sunshine and the heat,” Jankelson said. “Now, we have really pushed out the shoulder seasons.”
Fueled by wine, the Chelan Valley transformed from a summer tourist attraction into a year-round destination. Siren Song has seen year-over-year visitation and revenue increases that “astounded” the owners, Brown said. In 2021, nearly 40,000 people walked in the door of the winery.
The increased popularity and expected growth led Siren Song to enter a management and partnership agreement with Columbia Hospitality, based out of Seattle, in December.
“What it allows us to do as owners is step back a little bit and really think about the future and be part of the growth of this fabulous community,” she said. Still transitioning, a commitment to “growth actuality,” potential and a focus on hospitality led to the agreement.
“There’s all kinds of things going on around Lake Chelan that are taking the wine drinking experience and expanding it to a multifaceted hospitality experience,” she said.
Brown compared the area’s growth to Napa, California’s world-renowned wine destination.
“It started with vineyards. Then it grew with tasting rooms. Then it grew with experiences around visiting the wine valley and going on tastings and things like that. Then the restaurants blew up around that. Then the hotels, and overnight stays and hospitality industry blew up around that,” Brown said. “What Chelan has that’s unique compared to Napa Valley or Walla Walla or any other wine region is this lake.”
Brown highlighted several of the valley’s events. One, the Lake Chelan Wine and Jazz Festival from May 19-22 includes nearly 50 performances at 14 wineries and venues.
“People are coming for experiences, for fun, a place to spend time with their friends,” Brown said. “There’s so much going on here, both from a quality of wine standpoint and a quality of experience standpoint, that really can’t be compared to anything else.”
The scenery and ease of access may draw people to Chelan’s wineries, but the wine itself is what holds their attention.
“The thing about wine is that it’s always new,” Brown said. “Every year it’s a new vintage. The fruit is different. Every year, it’s like a new painting, it’s a new canvas.”
Several wineries, including Siren Song, offer wine clubs where members receive different wines throughout the year. Brown described the model as a “subscription” that allows people to try the different wines Siren Song offers.
“There’s so many reasons to enjoy the product,” she said. “It appeals to different people for different reasons.”
Jankelson said every winery “dreams” of having a robust wine club.
“I can’t say enough for our wine club members,” he said. “The wine club is very, very central to our business model and a lot of smaller wineries around here. The wine clubs are really the driver of our business model.”
Tsillian faced doubt when opening and Jankelson referenced the Rodney Dangerfield line, “I don’t get no respect,” when discussing the early days of Chelan’s wine industry. The assumption was Chelan could only grow a few white wines due to cold temperatures. Tsillian currently grows nine varieties of red wine grapes and five white grapes.
“20 years later, I guess I get the last laugh,” he said.
Jankelson said “for years” he limited his production to 7,500 cases a year. An investor in a wine project in Woodinville, Jankelson has set a goal of 9,500 cases, or about 120,000 bottles, of wine a year, though he doesn’t “want to get any bigger than that.”
“It wouldn’t be comfortable of our production facility,” he said of pushing his production to 12,000 cases a year, “and it wouldn’t be, I think, I’m going to start sacrificing the experience for our guests.”
The boom is recent, but wineries don’t see it dying down any time soon. Chelan’s growth “has just started” according to Brown.
“We’ve just seen the start for the potential,” according to Jankelson.
The future is not without concern.
“Land has become so valuable in this valley. The best vineyard property is also the most premium development property,” Jankelson said. “It’s going to take a lot of stewardship and people coming in and saying, ‘this is too valuable to develop, we’re putting vineyards on it.”
According to Jankelson, the high cost of property is “going to limit the estate production of wine in this valley.”
What’s next? Jankelson’s hope is a five-star wine resort.
“My dream is that we eventually can do that right here,” he said, mentioning additional land he owns near his business. Tsillian Cellars sits on 34.6 acres of land, with the vineyards, tasting room, restaurant and other facilities taking up about half of the plot.
Jankelson said he keeps the land as a “contingency” rather than seeing it developed into high-density housing. Without hesitation, Jankelson said he envisions an eventual resort in the valley.
“I don’t want to say too much, there’s already been some steps taken towards that. But I would say in five years, macroeconomic things not getting in the way,” he said.
(c)2022 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.)
Visit The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.) at www.wenatcheeworld.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.