CHELAN — When international and interstate travel declined dramatically over a two-year period amid a raging pandemic, a hidden region of north-central Washington once known for its apples thrived: the Chelan Valley.
“Rumor spread that there was this mecca of wine and food just three hours away, and it was a beautiful place,” said Tsillian Cellars founder Bob Jankelson. “I would go so far as to say that Chelan was discovered during the pandemic by many, many people.”
According to the Washington Wine Commission, the Lake Chelan U.S. winegrowing area, founded in 2009, spans 269 acres of vineyards, which is relatively small compared to the 59,234 acres of vineyards in the Columbia Valley or the 18,924 acres of vineyards in the Yakima Valley.
The Chelan Valley is home to approximately 40 wineries, 34 of which are members of the Lake Chelan Chamber of Commerce. Despite its small size and relative youth, the industry has taken notice. Among other accolades, Jankelson’s winery won the 2020 Washington Winery of Year and Chelan’s Rocky Pond Winery was the 2019 Winery to Watch, both awarded by Wine Press Northwest.
Along with breathtaking scenery and a growing wine industry, Chelan’s central location provides 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 saw growth in wine sales in 2020 and 2021 – significant growth.”
Easy access to Washington’s population centers is part of the reason for growth during the pandemic. Alysha Ottrix, Rocky Pond’s tasting room manager, said the wine has shaken its reputation as a drink for rare occasions.
“I think wine is 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, kind of a relaxing drink,” she said. Ottrix has been with Rocky Pond for about a year. “I think a lot more age groups are interested in wine, it’s a huge range. From freshly 21 to retired, I see everyone go by.
Ottrix said interest in wine can start at the grocery store and continue through wine tasting and exploring. With so many varieties, the world of wine can seem overwhelming. Part of the appeal of wine tasting, Ottrix said, is that people can branch out.
“When I have people coming in and saying, ‘I don’t know anything about wine,’ that’s totally fine,” she said. “I think that’s why wine tasting is so fun, because you learn what you like and don’t like. And I always remind people that there are no rules.
But wine tasting is more than wine tasting, according to Holly Brown, who co-founded Siren Song Vineyard Estate and Winery with her husband, Kevin.
“That’s about where do they drink it?” How is it served? What are we served with? What other activities take place around the wine drinking experience? ” she says.
A surprising level of growth
Despite the state’s potential and strong reputation as a tourist attraction, Chelan’s rapid rise as a wine industry destination has surprised some.
“I think we thought Chelan was kind of in the early stages of his growth, but I don’t think we expected him to grow that much, that fast,” Brown said. “And I can tell you, for sure, we didn’t expect our business to grow so fast.”
Jankelson was surprised by the growth, although he added that the region had moved on. When Tsillian opened in 2004, Jankelson wanted his establishment to lead the way.
“I thought it would probably exceed 18 to 20 wineries,” he said. “It exceeds the number of wineries I thought I could handle.”
A year-round attraction
“From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the lake. You’ve heard that term, the lake, it was all about the lake and the sun and the heat,” Jankelson said. “Now we’ve really pushed back the shoulder seasons.”
Fueled by wine, the Chelan Valley has grown from a summer tourist attraction to a year-round destination. Siren Song has seen year-over-year increases in visits and revenue that have “amazed” owners, Brown said. In 2021, nearly 40,000 people passed through the door of the wine estate.
Growing popularity and expected growth led Siren Song to enter into a management and partnership agreement with Seattle-based Columbia Hospitality in December.
“What it allows us to do as owners is to take a step back and really think about the future and be part of the growth of this fabulous community,” she said. Still in transition, a commitment to ‘growth news’, potential and a focus on hospitality led to the deal.
“There are all kinds of things happening around Lake Chelan that turn the wine drinking experience into a multi-faceted hospitality experience,” she said.
Brown compared the region’s growth to Napa, California’s world-famous wine destination.
“It started with the vines. Then it expanded with tasting rooms. Then it grew with experiences around the wine valley tour and tastings and things like that. Then restaurants exploded around it. Then hotels, overnight stays and the hospitality industry exploded around that,” Brown said. “What makes Chelan unique from Napa Valley or Walla Walla or any other wine country is this lake.”
Brown pointed to several of the Valley’s events. The first, the Lake Chelan Wine and Jazz Festival, May 19-22, features nearly 50 performances at 14 wineries and venues.
“People come for experiences, for fun, a place to hang out with their friends,” Brown said. “There’s so much going on here, both from a wine quality and a quality of experience perspective, that it 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 grabs their attention.
“The problem with wine is that it’s always new,” Brown said. “Each year is a new vintage. The fruits are different. Each 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 offered by Siren Song.
“There are so many reasons to love the product,” she said. “It appeals to different people for different reasons.”
Jankelson said every winery “dreams” of having a strong wine club.
“I can’t say enough for the members of our wine club,” he said. “The wine club is very, very central to our business model and to many small wineries here. Wine clubs are really the engine of our business model.
Tsillian faced some doubts at the opener and Jankelson referenced Rodney Dangerfield’s line, “I get no respect,” when discussing Chelan’s early wine business. The assumption was that Chelan could only grow a few white wines due to the cold temperatures. Tsillian currently cultivates nine varieties of red grapes and five white grapes.
“20 years later, I guess I have the last laugh,” he said.
Jankelson said “for years” he limited 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 per year, although he “doesn’t want to get any bigger than that.”
“It wouldn’t be comfortable from our production facility,” he said as he pushed his output to 12,000 cases a year, “and it wouldn’t be, I think, I’m going to start sacrificing the experience for our clients.”
The boom is recent, but wineries don’t see it dying anytime soon. Chelan’s growth “has just begun” according to Brown.
“We just saw the beginning of the potential,” according to Jankelson.
The future is not without concern.
“The land has become so precious in this valley. The best wine 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, ‘It’s too valuable to develop, we’re putting vineyards in it.
According to Jankelson, the high cost of ownership “is going to limit the estate’s wine production in this valley.”
And after? Jankelson’s Hope is a five star wine resort.
“My dream is that eventually we can do it 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 approximately half of the plot.
Jankelson said he was keeping the land as a “contingency” rather than seeing it develop into high-density housing. Without hesitation, Jankelson said he was considering a possible resort in the valley.
“I don’t want to say too much, there have already been steps in this direction. But I would say that in five years the macroeconomic things will not get in the way,” he said.