Located in the heart of Washington lies one of the state’s newest, and most beautiful, American viticulture areas: Lake Chelan. The area, named Washington’s largest natural lake, is a stunning centerpiece for the county and for about thirty of the region’s wineries that are sprinkled around its glittering edges. With 30 more located countywide, the area has become a popular wine destination.
But it wasn’t always the burgeoning wine destination it is today. It wasn’t until the late nineties that vineyards were planted where apple and cherry orchards once stood.
“We can’t talk about our winery without talking about apples,” states Steve Kludt, owner of Lake Chelan Winery, one of the first in the county to grow commercial wine grapes. The area was once one of the preeminent apple growing regions in Washington. Apples were the main industry, and the foundation of the community. Many came to the area to live off the land, start families, and lead a simpler way of life.
That is what brought Steve and his wife, Bobbi to the area. In 1974 they started Kludt Waldron Orchards with Bobbi’s parents, Jim and Betty Waldron. They settled, raising their family and running a successful orchard for many years.
But all that changed in 1998 when the once robust apple market unexpectedly collapsed.
Almost overnight, many farmers lost everything and the county was declared a disaster area. Steve and his family quickly realized they had to diversify if they wanted to survive. They bravely pulled their productive — and once lucrative — Red Delicious apple trees and replanted with what became the first commercial vineyards of the Chelan Valley. At the suggestion of his business partner and winemaker James Stephens, a Willamette Valley native, they chose to plant Pinot Noir grapes, which remain one of their showcase wines today.
“You don’t think about being brave in moments like those,” states Steve, “when you are about to lose everything you do what it takes to keep going.”
That fearless ambition was not only for their family, but for their community as well. They, along with several others in the valley, came together to preserve their community and way of life through the creation of the Lake Chelan Wine Industry.
Their vision is now a reality and their old apple packing shed is now a winery and cider house. Lake Chelan Winery, which opened in 2000, was the first winery in Chelan County and in 2003 they opened the Valley’s second winery, Wapato Point Cellars. The area boasts a variety of grape varieties that flourish in this unique wine region with its many microclimates. Much of the area’s apple and cherry orchards have been transformed into over 400 acres of rolling vineyards.
Now that Chelan Valley is known as a wine destination, Steve asserts that the next step is for it to become known as a food destination. He is already pioneering that movement by operating restaurants out of both his Chelan Valley Winery and Wapato Point Cellars. Chelan Valley Winery hosts a seasonal BBQ restaurant open May through October. The other, Winemaker’s Grill at Wapato Point Cellars is a white tablecloth affair open year-round.
“The secret to making great wine is the same with making great food, you need a great winemaker and a great chef,” Steve states. That’s why he hired chef Jenny Davidson to run Winemaker’s Grill, which has become known for its outstanding menu, complete with inspired pairing suggestions and a warm, friendly atmosphere suited for any gathering.
Both the food and the wine reflect the terroir of this breathtakingly beautiful area. Steve
puts his horticultural prowess to good use not only in his vineyards and orchards but also in his huge organic garden, which supplies both of his restaurants with seasonal produce, and fresh eggs from his many chickens. Steve fertilizes his garden with compost enriched by stems and skins left over from the winemaking process.
That kind of passion for using what you have to bravely reconstruct a livelihood is the foundation of Lake Chelan Winery’s success and is the pioneering spirit that continues to transform this rich and diverse wine, and food, destination.