A week of camping, wine, and open-fire dining on the Cascade Loop is a pretty amazing way to end the summer. Our trip, that started just north of Seattle, took us through the Cascades mountains, along the semi-arid Columbia River Valley, past glacier-fed Lake Chelan, through the wildlife-filled Methow Valley and North Cascades National Park, and back to the Puget Sound.
We saw some spectacular sights, sipped some tremendous wine, and experienced a remote corner of the wine world that is full of surprises, wonderful people, and everywhere we went, local wines were available whether you were at a fruit stand, corner store, or even a highway-side gas station.
Our first wine stops was Leavenworth, a faux-Bavarian village where even the Safeway was branded Bavarian and the tourists ran thick. And a hotbed of tasting rooms. Wineries like Icicle Ridge and Terra Bellazza had storefronts conveniently in town – like a Woodinville of the Alps – while the countryside to the east and southeast was sprinkled with wineries towards Wenatchee.
Leaving behind the mountains for at least a day, we arrived in Lake Chelan just ahead of ominous black clouds that rarely make their way to the high desert. First up was the Tunnel Hill Winery, a quaint, stone-building establishment with an inviting tasting room that opened in 2005 and a serene patio overlooking the lake. Their total production is about 1200 cases annually, of which the 2010 Estate Pinot Noir, classic Pinot alive with tart lingonberries and hints of summer forest berries, was a standout. Tasting through the 2010 Estate Syrah, the aforementioned Pinot Noir, and then Sacrilege – a blend of the Syrah and Pinot – is also an interesting exploration in taste and blending. If you do visit Tunnel Hill, make sure to also make a pit stop at the fruit stand next to it. Great, local fruit, veg, wines, ciders and other assorted goodies. And a bit of a spoiler here, there’s no tunnel, but there’s a hill. Sorry for that, folks, but I didn’t want to see you go all that way to be disappointed….or maybe we just didn’t find the tunnel.
The torrential downpour that was unleashed from those clouds had us literally running to the Vin Du Lac winery and bistro perched above Lake Chelan, just west of the picturesque town of the same name. Scrambling to bring guests and wines and pretty much everything else indoors from the patio that moments ago was sun-drenched, the staff graciously accommodated us for lunch and a flight or two. And if we had just earlier tasted a good Pinot, we were about to be in for a Pinot that was something very memorable, but more on that in just a moment. Let it be said first that the lunch there is something worth going for – great portions, tasty paninis, and original salads (and the oh-so-inviting charcuterie plate at the adjacent table that I should have had…). We enjoyed lunch with two flights. First up was a trio including the apple and citrus-driven Pinot Gris 2011, the soft and supple LEHM Rosé 2011, and Red Café Pinot Noir 2011, all of which were perfect sipping with the bistro lunch fare. Up next was the and Barrel Select flight of three reds all from the winery’s Barrel Select series – a 2008 Syrah, a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2007 Merlot) of which the Syrah was a favorite with a nice balance of fruit and oak, and supportive tannins that make for a classic Syrah. Also in this age where wineries don’t let stock sit too long and wines are sold before they are ready, it’s great to see the winery’s restraint in letting these reds age. Then after dinner came the piece de résistance (literally the piece that had us resist leaving the winery!), a LEHM Michaela’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 that packed such a double-threat of silkiness and power that we couldn’t believe it was still so young. It’s very limited, with only about two barrels made from grapes grown on the estate, according to assistant winemaker David Traynor (who, it should said here, was an amazing host amidst the chaos brought on by the storm). The Michaela’s Vineyard Pinot Noir gets a “two-thumbs up, get it now” recommendation.
Our reach also at times went beyond the loop to Washington wine regions on and beyond the periphery, but we sure were pleasantly surprised by some of our adventures into wines from such wine-growing regions as Yakima Valley to the south and the Okanogan, north-east of us.
As we followed the Cascade Loop north-west and back towards the mountains, we came upon the Methow Valley and the little tourist-filled, wild-west themed town of Winthrop where a rodeo was about to go down. As availability of local wines were limited, awe dipped our nose down to the Yakima Valley, specifically a Zin from Zillah. The Hyatt Vineyards 2010 Zillah Gorilla Zinfandel from Rattlesnake Hills in the Yakima Valley was one such wine, delightfully funky that was reminiscent more of a Pinotage than a traditional Zin. It wasn’t anything like the all-American fruit bombs of Lodi fame, but it packed enough of a jammy punch to hold its own, and make for a satisfying match with some grilled meat and cheese. And you gotta love snakeskin on a label, and a big ol’ ape hanging off a windmill. ‘Nuff said.
We wrapped up the last night of our trip with the Okanogan Estates & Vineyards 2010 Bench Red, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in which the Merlot was dominant at over 50% from estate vineyards in the Okanogan Valley in North Central Washington State showed off some solid tannins and power fruit that were well-balanced, and enough of a show of force to tame the finger-licking, barbecue sauce-smothered ribs we had cooking on the fire.
This was an eye-opening trip of natural splendor and a peek at wines and wine regions that are worth seeking out. The one thing that dawned on me over the course of the trip was that, for the most part, these are very limited production wines – often only a 100+ cases, and sometimes only two barrels of a wine were made. Kinda makes a guy feel special 🙂 Getting a chance to taste our way through the wines of central and northern Washington State was a privilege, and made us hungry to come back and learn more, because I think we only had a chance to scratch the surface.
And the tool that got me through both cork, fishing line and smokey pack …and which I can’t live without when wine-camping? The Leatherman Flair.