Lake Chelan, WA: A Lake for All Seasons
Washington’s Lake Chelan offers food, wine, and fun—year round.
Killer views of the lake! That is what Chelan Butte in the state of Washington is all about.
There are two ways to the top of Chelan Butte and three ways back down. We choose driving up the Butte, but did not go full speed ahead as the road can be narrow and has some pot holes. The other option is to hike up the road which is a two mile hike and 1,400 foot gain, so a good workout. We saved the workout for a later hike. Once at the top, we relaxed and were treated to glorious views of the mighty Columbia River, serene Lake Chelan, and surrounding Entiat Mountains.
On the way down, we were lucky to enjoy spring wildflowers. We also saw others taking the third way down – paragliding –a thrilling way to experience the killer view. However, we decided it was safer to remain earthbound.
We then took the short ride to Echo Ridge just north of Lake Chelan. In the winter, this area boasts more than 25 miles of groomed cross country trails. This spring day our goal was views, a short hike, checking out wildflowers, and then an afternoon nap.
The old saying is “if the shoe fits wear it.” Our hike was aptly named The Shoe. You know that you’re at the correct trail by the tiny shoe hanging next to the trail sign. This hike is excellent for beginners (or the not-so-ambitious). It’s a 2.25 mile loop with some minor ups and down with views of Lake Chelan and the surrounding rolling hills.
After our hike, we got in a short power nap, but hunger set in so it was dinner time. At the Vin du Lac Bistroin Lake Chelan, we were in for a special treat. Chef Nina Criscuolo was training a new assistant and we were her only guests. Nina has more than 20 years of experience, including culinary training in Italy. She also learned from her dad, Jerry, who operated a famous pizzeria in San Francisco. Tina’s roots in the industry go all the way back to her grandparents who ran a restaurant in Sorrento, Italy. Good food is definably a family passion – the fine restaurant Sorrento in Lake Chelan is run by her brother and dad.
Chef Nina first rolled out Jumbo Prawns served with Spicy Créole Remoulade . This had a nice gentle kick and a garlic and butter accent that paired wonderfully with Vie Viognier. The wine’s crisp citrus notes really highlighted the seafood. The wine is from Vin du Lac (wine of the lake) in Chelan. The winery’s tasting room is open during the day so you can sample all of their wines. However, tonight the wine and food were paired for us.
Next, we were served Quinoa and Kale Mediterranean Salade. This salad, with fresh cherry tomatoes, capers and tangy balsamic vinaigrette, with was both tasty and healthy. (Nina’s mantra is healthy food, which is the theme of her forthcoming cookbook). We also enjoyed Barrel Select Malbec along with Steak Roulade, made with locally-sourced beef. The rich taste of the wine enhanced the favors of the steak.
Before leaving, we chatted briefly with winemaker/owner Larry Lehmbecker. Larry’s wines have won awards that go back to his first vintage in 2002. Larry also worked with others in Lake Chelan Valley to get the official federal destination in 2009as an American Viticulture Area (AVA). The next day we planned to enjoy more of the great wines and scenery of this special AVA.
“You are wasting your money on wine grapes,” so-called experts said about growing wine grapes in the Lake Chelan area. They were wrong. Record cold temperatures to the north have reached -30 F, certainly cold enough to cause major damage to grapes. Luckily, Lake Chelan’s weather is much milder. Why? This huge lake (55 miles long and 1,486 feet deep) acts as a heat sump, storing the heat from summer, and making winter lake water temperatures in the 40’s, not warm enough for swimming, but warm enough to moderate the area’s weather.
In summer, parts of the lake warm to the 70’s to the joy of both swimmers and growers. The warm water extends the growing season and minimizes frost issues. The difference in temperatures between the land and water along with the deep valleys can also generate winds that minimize mildew on the vines.
Sampling Lake Chelan Wines
We started with a glass of Stormy Mountain White and enjoyed this zesty tasting wine while viewing Stormy Mountain on the horizon. This is 100% Syrah, which is a red grape, but this white wine was the result of an experiment during a bad weather season. They created a white wine by using a minimum time for grape skins in tank. This happy experiment won Chelan Lake a double gold medal. We also really liked the Pinot Gris with its touch of sweetness; a perfect wine for sipping on a warm summer day.
Ray Sandidge, known as the “wine guru of Lake Chelan Valley,” is the winemaker. Ray has more than 25 years in the trade with experience ranging from Germany to Washington.
We headed next to Tildio Winery to check out Katy Perry’s wines. Katy majored in Enology (winemaking) at UC Davis. She modestly insists that she headed for college when no one would give her a job in Napa. That changed quickly after college as Katy became a winemaking star, working in Napa for 10 years at many of the area’s fine wineries. Next she worked in Washington at Ste. Chateau St. Michelle, honing her skills with some of the area’s elite winemakers. After several years at St. Michelle, Kay opened her own Tildio Winery just outside of Lake Chelan.
The day we visited, Katy was out of town, but her able assistant and husband, Milum, was on hand. He first poured the Chardonnay, a lightly oaked wine with light vanilla notes. This wine would be perfect with crab cakes or shrimp. The Rosado was served next, with a soft fruit nose and a light peach finish. This one is definably a sit-in-the-sun with some cheese and crackers drink.
Then we moved on to several reds. Our favorite was the Estate Cabernet Franc, with a rich taste light on tannins and a slightly smoky taste and nose. Milum said this interesting combination of flabvors resulted from 20 months of aging in French oak barrels, and, of course, Katy’s magic. This wine would pair perfectly with a nice cut of roost beef.
Savoring the Spring Flavors
All this talk about wine and food pairing led to our next stop, “Savor the Flavor of Spring,” a dinner event at Campbell’s Resort. One of the highlights at Campbell’s was chatting with local winemakers/owners and the hosts of Campbell’s. We talked about wine making, family adventures, and got to know these fine folks a little bit.
Between chatting, we enjoyed all the fine foods, my favorite being the Duck Ravioli with Sage Beurre Blanc Sauce. The lightly buttered and tender duck woke up my taste buds with the sprinkling of chopped mushrooms and onions. The duck paired perfectly with the Benson 2009 Estate Pinot Noir. This Pinot is a light red and the cherry notes really brought out the soft flavors of the duck. After three hours, it was time to bid farewell to our new-found friends.
Lake Chelan Shoreswas our home for the weekend and we retreated there after dinner. These modern units offer views of Lake Chelan and Clean Butte. The next morning we sat on the patio watching the clouds and colors streaming over the hills. We did not have time to enjoy the barbeque or the swimming pool since we promised Jeff Benson of Benson Vineyard a visit before we left.
Benson Vineyard is just a few minutes outside of Lake Chelan and sits on top the hillside with views of the Lake and the mountains. The tasting room is in a Mediterranean style building, a beautiful setting for weddings and other events. Benson Vineyard is a family business with dad, brother Scott (winemaker) and Jeff (who is Mr. Everything). We tasted a number of his wines, but the Pinot Noir remained our favorite.
Lake Chelan is truly a lake for all seasons. Lake Chelan Wine Valley organizes events by year around. We highly recommend visiting a number of times through the year before trying to pick a favorite season!—Story by Michael Fagin, photos by Elizabeth Fagin