Tasting Notes: The Lake Effect

Lake Chelan's most picturesque winery, Tsillan Cellars, sets the scene for the state's newest AVA

Category: Tasting Notes


Lake Chelan's most picturesque winery, Tsillan Cellars, sets the scene for the state's newest AVA

The Lake Chelan area is the sleeping giant of Washington wine regions. With 15 wineries and 260 acres planted (of the region’s 24,040 total), this newly minted American Viticultural Area (AVA) around Lake Chelan is emerging as one of the state’s most promising areas for growing white wines. The climate—with long, warm days and the “lake effect,” which keeps the vineyards from freezing in winter and getting too hot in summer—helps the grapes ripen slowly and develop great balancing acidity.

For decades, the area around Lake Chelan has been known for its apple orchards and as a summer vacation spot. That began to change in the late 1990s, when the first vineyards replaced orchards in a declining fruit market. Then, in 2000, Bob Jankelson, a dentist and now owner of the area’s largest winery, Tsillan Cellars, launched his retirement project, planting the first vines for Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay and other grapes on his 135-acre property. Later, realizing how good white wines could be, he added Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Grigio, in hopes of helping to transform Chelan into one of the state’s best white-wine-growing—and wine-touring—regions.

Tsillan Cellars (pronounced “Chelan,” the spelling taken from a 19th-century explorer’s map) released its first wine in 2003, and opened its Tuscan villa–style tasting room, amid gorgeous scenery and lake views, in 2004. “I feel that Chelan fulfills the description of an AVA better than any other AVA in the state, because it is so unique,” says Jankelson. No other AVA in the state has a large, single body of water like Lake Chelan to regulate temperatures, surrounded by steep hills perfect for vineyards. And many grape varieties, including Syrah, Merlot, Malbec and cooler-climate grapes such as Riesling, Pinot Grigio, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and even the notoriously difficult to grow Pinot Noir, are thriving here. Jankelson, along with Vin du Lac Winery owner and winemaker Larry Lehmbecker, Washington State University geologist Alan Busacca and a few others, spent two and a half years lobbying for Chelan to receive AVA status (until May, it was part of the larger Columbia Valley AVA).

Jankelson’s vision for Lake Chelan involves more than excellent wine (Tsillan Cellars’ wine is created by winemaker Shane Collins, a Chelan native and graduate of the Walla Walla Institute of Enology). His plans include bringing great food and the good life to the area, modeled after his experiences while traveling in Tuscany. Those plans came closer to fruition when Sorrento’s Ristorante opened at Tsillan Cellars last October, serving classic Italian dishes. Jankelson’s plans also include adding an Italian marketplace, wine spa, more gardens and resort villas.

“The people who come to Lake Chelan to taste wine want the whole experience—great food always follows wine,” says Jankelson. “It’s a natural.” More natural yet—with the new AVA in place and the growing number of acres being planted—may be fulfilling the promise of this region with great wine, and great wine country experiences.