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If you grew up in Washington, you know that gorgeous Lake Chelan has long been a summer hot spot for family vacations. For decades, the region was mostly known for apples, cherries and jet skis. But about 20 years ago, the rolling hills surrounding the lake began sprouting vines; the Chelan area’s first bottle of wine was sold in 2002. Since receiving its AVA (American Viticultural Area) status in 2009, Lake Chelan has emerged as a legit Washington wine region, with 32 wineries whose fruit (especially Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Viognier grapes) benefits from the way the lake, Washington’s deepest, holds heat well into the fall, extending the growing season.
As in most wine regions, Lake Chelan offers plenty of opportunities to let someone else do the driving while you’re doing the wine tasting, via limos or stretch Hummers. But with good new asphalt and clean, wide shoulders on some local roads, it’s also a great wine region for cycling. If you’re fit and don’t mind a few hills, you could easily do a wine tour here on a regular road bike, but as anyone who’s ridden with the wind at the start of a hot day of wine tasting knows, puffing home with wine-riddled legs can be significantly more difficult than beginning the ride. On a recent visit to Lake Chelan I decided to save my legs the effort and sign up for a winery tour with Merick Hill, the jovial Brit whose tour outfit and bike shop, Chelan Electric Bikes, is in its sixth year.
Hill is himself a reason to visit Chelan. Sweet, bald and pithy, he has both the ability to introduce complete novices to electric bikes successfully and the right social skills to help a group of strangers bond over a common experience—in this case, not pedaling. Although his exhortations of “We ride!” seemed phony as we left town, by the time I reached Karma Vineyards with a friend and five British Columbian visitors, I had five new best friends and become an expert at riding uphill with my feet splayed out in a “V”. Eight miles from town, I ordered a “tasting flight” of Karma’s bubbly, which turned out to be three full glasses of lovely dry sparkling wine, all made with the traditional méthode champenoise (which requires a secondary fermentation in the bottle).
Fortified with crunchy sweet potato fries from Karma’s outdoor restaurant, 18 Brix, we mounted our sturdy steeds with fresh gusto. “We ride!” we hollered, laughing because there was really very little effort involved, and headed to Nefarious Cellars, where the Syrah, one of the darling varietals of the Chelan area, was deemed the favorite. Passing the swish new Mellisoni Vineyards tasting room—because many of the valley’s tasting rooms are up big hills, Hill wisely avoids the steepest driveways—we landed at One Wines, Inc. back in the town of Chelan, where brusque, effervescent owner Jo Cowell walked us through the one white, one rosé and one red that the vintner releases yearly (hence the name). I bought one of everything, a decision made easier since Hill drives a cargo bike to haul any wine you buy.
We could have tasted for hours more if the tour had been longer, we thought, stopping at the Rocky Pond Winery’s tasting room on Chelan’s main drag, and maybe eaten at The Fox & Quail Cafe in town, which was clearly the locals’ favorite. But hopping back into the car for the easy three-hour drive back to Seattle, I thought it was perhaps more exciting to chew on the idea of coming back again.
Driving to and from Chelan in a day is possible, but most people plan to stay overnight. The town is still short on glamorous inns, but renting a house at The Lookout or a room at the quaint but functional Riverwalk Inn (where Chelan Electric Bikes’ tours start) are both convenient options. And while you don’t really need to fuel up before riding an electric bike, it’s still wise to eat well before drinking all day, so start at Bear Foods Market’s crêperie, where a crisp-edged ham-and-Gruyère-stuffed crêpe paired with one of the daily fresh juices (try the fennel) will make you feel both full and virtuous.
Photo by Merick Hill. A Chelan Electric Bike tour group bonds over their common experience.
Chelan is in north-central Washington, about a three-and-one-quarter-hour drive from Seattle.
Bear Foods Natural Market and Café-Crêperie, 125 E Woodin Ave.; 509.682.5535
Chelan Electric Bikes, 509.683.2125; $80/four-hour tour
FOR YOUR CELLAR
Karma Vineyards: 2011 Brut, $49.99
Nefarious Cellars: 2014 Defiance Syrah, $35
Mellisoni Vineyards: 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, $25
One Wines: 2015 One White, $27