From Granny Smith to Grapes Wenatchee is Growing Greatness
When I say Wenatchee, what comes to mind? Apples? Brown hills? Where the Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers converge, the city of Wenatchee and East Wenatchee provide a hub of activity at the foot of the Cascade Mountains in the center of the state. With a population of over 40,000 the major industry is agriculture, but what about grapes?
I have to admit, I’ve never been too keen on a visit to Wenatchee and I’ve rarely considered it a destination for a wine journey. In fact the only Wenatchee winery that held a space in my memory bank was Fielding Hills. Mike and Karen Wade (no relation) have long been considered the makers of some of the best wine in the state and are usually mentioned in the same breath as other Washington greats.
In September, I was invited to be part of a tour of the Cascade Valley Wine Country (CVWC), a region that includes Wenatchee, Lake Chelan and Leavenworth. Readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of Lake Chelan. My wife and I make a yearly visit and enjoy the destination and experience of the area. While not all the wine is as majestic as the view, it is a beautiful and relaxing getaway none the less.
Wenatchee is a quick three hour drive from Spokane (3 hours from Seattle and 2 hours from Tri-Cities). While the Wenatchee valley is quite brown, there are striking views of the Cascade Mountains the surrounding hills and the rivers that cut like a knife through the tall cliffs. The Norman Rockwell downtown invites you to explore the quaint shops, art galleries, and historic buildings. But, let’s be honest, readers of this site don’t want a travel puff piece, you want to know if it’s worth a trip for the wine.
First, let me say that I was pleasantly surprised by the terrain of Wenatchee. I’ve driven through before, but this visit I was looking at things with different eyes. While quaint and brown, the town is actually quite pretty with the apple and pear orchards along the steep hillsides overlooking the river. The immediate Wenatchee area boasts 9 wineries. During my visit, I had the opportunity to taste Chateau Faire Le Pont, Fielding Hills, Martin Scott, Saint Laurent, and Stemilt Creek. The verdict, mostly good and some great! Below is the summary of my experience in visiting each of these wineries.
For five generations the Mathison family has been farming in the Wenatchee area. Premium fruit growers, Kyle and Jan Mathison now focus their passion into wine grapes at Stemilt Creek Winery. Kyle’s enthusiasm was contagious as he talked about how his family homesteaded in the area. I sipped the big bright Merlot as Kyle explained 2006 vintage. His energy seemed to erupt from the glass along with the cherry, fig, and coffee flavors. As I looked through the menu at the downtown tasting room, I was impressed with the under $20 price points. At about 1600 cases per year, Stemilt Creek is making a name for themselves with strong scores of 88, 89, and 90 in Wine Enthusiast. Recommend
Stand out wine: The 2006 Merlot was full of lush cherry fruit and cocoa. The wine offered well layered flavors and at a $15 price point was well worth it.
I knew what to expect from Fielding Hills based on previous tastings of their Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Considered one of Washington’s 5 Star Wineries by Paul Gregutt, tasting through a full line up of multiple vintages helped me understand the impressive consistency that this winery offers. At only 800 cases annually most will be unfamiliar with Fielding Hills, but they are certainly a name to register in your memory. Of the 8 wines we tasted, the stand outs were 08 Cabernet Franc and 08 Syrah. My notes say WOW, smooth, beautiful and 4+/5. Mike and Karen Wade grow thousands of acres of apples and other fruit through their company Columbia Fruit Packers. Mike also farms their estate vineyards, Riverbend Vineyards in the Wahluke Slope AVA. With wine prices in the $30-$40 range, this is money that is well spent for the special occasion, to stock your cellar, or for the serious connoisseur. Fielding Hills is located in East Wenatchee in the heart of some of their working apple orchards. The small barn production facility and tasting room may not be much to look at, but last time I checked, you don’t taste wine with your eyes. Highly recommend
Stand out wine: It is hard to pick just one, so I won’t. Every wine is well made. With Wine Enthusiast and Wine Spectator scores of 93, 94 and 95 points, the wines are well worth the visit.
Martin Scott Winery
Perched high above the Columbia River in East Wenatchee, Martin Scott Winery is a family business dedicated to making quality wine. Martin Scott makes 1200 cases of 18 different wines including Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Muscat Canelli, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, Merlot and more. Did I enjoy every wine? No, but I did appreciate the honesty of Mr. Scott. He was quick to point out his dislike of some of his own wines and how previous vintages were better or worse. This refreshing honesty and sensible approach to winemaking and business is not something seen too often. The view across the valley was spectacular and the estate vineyards and fountains just add to the ambiance.
Stand out wine: The 2009 Pinot Gris presented nice ripe melon and citrus fruit with hints of peach. A well balanced acidity made this a fantastic crisp wine at $14.
Saint Laurent Winery overlooks the Wenatchee Valley with stunning views to the west. The impeccable grounds include estate vineyards, fountains, ponds, a large covered area and well maintained gardens. The location is perfect for a private party or wedding. Michael and Laura Laurent Mrachek began with 4 acres of cherries in 1978. With a vision toward the future Michael planted 60 acres of wine grapes on the Wahluke slope in 1999. That number now totals over 260 acres. With winemaker Craig Mitrakul, the estate winery produces 10 wines including their popular Lucky Red and Lucky White. The Mrachek family farming goes back 100 years with Michael’s mother’s family, the Mathisons. The connection to Stemilt creek and the early days of Wenatchee farming go hand in hand. The wines we tasted at St. Laurent were paired with a fantastic five course meal provided by Ravenous Catering. I was impressed with the quality of each wine and the price points, for the most part were in check with $12-$15 whites and $15-$42 reds. Recommend
Stand out wine: The beautiful tropical aroma and flavor of the demi-sec Riesling were well balanced with amazing acidity. While the wine specs indicate 2.4% residual sugar it does not taste overly sweet. At $12, this was a beautiful pairing with the shrimp and mango spring roll. Another fantastic wine was the 06 Wahluke Slope Cabernet. The moderately priced $28 wine was full of flavors that included blackberry, black cherry, dark cocoa, and floral fragrance. Medium thick tannin makes this wine a great pairing with a hearty meat dish.
Chateau Fair Le Pont
The most pleasant surprise of the Wenatchee Valley trip was the stop at Chateau Fair Le Pont. Owners Doug and Debe Brazil rescued an old 1920 fruit staging warehouse on the edge of the Columbia River only weeks before it was scheduled for demolition. A painstaking restoration that included hand painting every brick in the building has created a fantastic multi-use space that includes tasting room, restaurant, event space and unique basement barrel room. Current production is between 5,000-6,000 cases and includes Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet, Syrah and various Rhone style blends. Highly Recommend
Stand out wine: While I didn’t get a chance to take detailed notes during the tasting at Chateau Fair le Pont, I did note that the wine was consistently good across the entire line up. Pricing runs a little higher here than I expected with reds ranging from $23-$43. Wine club membership can bring these prices down by 25%. Chateau Fair le Pont is worth a visit for the facility, experience and also for the wine.
Look for future write-ups that include notes on the visit to Lake Chelan and Leavenworth.