Digging into Lake Chelan Pinot Noir in Washington State.

Pinot Noir: a bit of history, how Jeana and Chad fell in love with it and why they think the Lake Chelan Valley is an amazing fit for this glorious grape!

by Chad Steiner

We believe the Lake Chelan AVA is a great place to grow fantastic Pinot Noir. We’re excited about the opportunity to bring Pinot Noir to the forefront of Washington Wine. And in fact – Pinot Noir is one of the main reasons we moved to Chelan and bought land to grow grapes. Let’s just say, Pinot Noir is our passion project. I’d like to use this week’s blog post to give a bit of history from what we’ve read on Pinot Noir, share Jeana and I’s history in getting to know & love Pinot Noir and a bit on what we planted at our site. Then, I’ll wrap it up with a couple highlights on 2022. I’ve also included some references to Pinot Noir we think are worth trying.

Caption: its all about the terroir. Check out this profile of our soil we captured while building our house foundation.

Pinot Noir is considered the greatest grape in Burgundy (a wine growing region in East-Central France – they spell it Bourgogne). Wines produced from Pinot Noir are known to be graceful, elegant, can even be fruity with gorgeous color albeit a lot of times not dark in color. In some areas of Burgundy the wines are in such demand the prices are the highest in the world. Pinot Noir has a long history going back 100’s of years. It is also a parent of or related to many other recognizable varieties like Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon blanc, Cabernet Franc and others. In other words, the Pinot Noir family tree is complex. Want to learn more – check out – Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, including their Origins and Flavours. We bought our first copy for about $200 at the Unified Grape and Wine Symposium when we lived in California and have learned so much from it. There are many areas around the world making Pinot Noir successfully. Areas such as New Zealand (worth a trip), Oregon, California, the Okanagan Valley in BC, and others. But missing from the historic list is Washington…. So, why Pinot Noir in Washington State?

Caption: maps are a great way to learn about wine growing areas. This one is on the Wine Folly website. It can be found by clicking the map or here.

“Why Pinot Noir in Washington State?” – and more specifically Lake Chelan – connects to my story of being introduced to the idea 22 years ago. In 2001 I worked for Ste. Michelle as a Viticulture Technician based out of Grandview. My boss was Ed Doherty and his boss and the department head was Kevin Corliss. Kevin would share about his trips to Chelan to visit Big Pine Winery (legendary) and look around at the potential for Pinot Noir. It left an impression on me. Connect this to the physical attributes the Lake Chelan Valley offers: like the Lake Effect, volcanic soils full of pumice, its elevation, its latitude (similar to areas of Burgundy, remind me to talk about Chablis) and pristine irrigation water – a recipe for wonderful grapes and wine. Then, in 2015 after we’d purchased our home place where the tasting room is now located – I reached out to Kevin. His thought was – any old red delicious site would be a great Pinot Noir site. Turns out, reds and other apples had been grown on our site for many years. Short side bar – for a long time, apples grown in the Chelan Valley would receive a $5/box premium because of the recognized quality. $5/box at today’s prices is around a 10-20% premium depending on the variety. Conversations continued with my friend and grad school professor Alan Busacca (also the author of the Lake Chelan AVA and known as Dr. Dirt – Wild Horse Vineyard) as well as Ryan Wells at Inland Desert Nursery and many other mentors/friends like Kyle Johnson. All these things put together along with our love for Pinot Noir & Washington State plus the potential for amazing wine and “voilà” – in 2017 our Estate Vineyard was born. As I continue with the story, I have to admit, my love for Pinot Noir as a wine came from Jeana, my first love was Cabernet Sauvignon.

Caption: the Washington Wine Commission has done an amazing job of visually explaining Washington State’s unique terroir. This image is from their site. Click the image or here to see details.

How did Jeana and I fall in love with Pinot Noir? In our early days of drinking wine and tasting different varieties Jeana and I were on different pages. I on one hand preferred big and bold wines, Jeana elegant and beautiful – not overpowering. Cabernet Sauvignon in my camp, Pinot Noir in Jeana’s. It was Jeana’s persistence and some amazing opportunities while living in California that enabled us to explore many Pinot Noir’s. And wow has it been a great journey and I too fell in love with Pinot Noir. We were influenced by so many producers and humbled by the amazing wines they’ve crafted. Californian American Viticulture Areas (AVAs): Carneros, Anderson Valley, Sonoma, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River, Alexander Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and many more. Oregon AVAs: Ribbon Ridge, Dundee Hills and more. Washington AVAs: Lake Chelan and Puget Sound. And an amazing area to keep in mind – just North of us – the Okanagan Valley.

Caption: little Owen and Jeana planting our Pinot Noir vineyard in 2017. This was clone 115.

Producers we’ve enjoyed Pinot Noir from:

  • Chappellet (single vineyard wines, amazing Cabernet and Pinot Noir. Located on Pritchard Hill – incredible family legacy story and total inspiration to us. Molly’s love of flowers and wine is a highlight for Jeana).
  • Kosta Browne (their viticulturist helped me sound out our vineyard planting and was what tipped the balance on going with unilateral cordon).
  • Twomey (Owned by the Duncan Family who also own Silver Oak. Very generous folks we’ve had the opportunity to spend time with at their newest LEED Platinum site in the Alexander Valley).
  • Goldeneye (Owned by the Duckhorn group (part family, part private). The Goldeneye winery is in the Anderson Valley. Single vineyard amazingness).
  • Toulouse (small producer in the Anderson Valley we love their wine).
  • Drew (Jason and Molly continue to do great things, including making amazing Pinot Noir).
  • Papapietro Perry (small producer in the Dry Creek Valley and one of the first single clone Pinot’s we had (I think we have a bottle in the cellar of 777).
  • Bouchaine (located in Carnero’s making great Pinot Noir).
  • Cakebread (the family’s last name. They make rockstar Pinot Noir as well as amazing Cabernet and a super fun place to have a Chardonnay adventure).
  • Etude (Carnero’s & other AVA’s. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet – all the above. And, they are part of the Treasury Wine Family which means they are related to one the most significant wines of Australia – Penfolds).
  • Beau Frères (great story and amazing wine. I think the first one we had was a 1998, it looks like they started in 1988 – so one of the older Oregon wineries).
  • Stoller (Jeana found them. LEED certified with great wines, knowledgeable staff and beautiful location).
  • Cedar Creek (an Okanagan winery near Kelowna with great wines and an amazing restaurant).
  • Hard Row to Hoe (our friends Don, Judy and Julian have been great to work with as we’ve gotten our wines up and going. Plus, it was their 2014 vintage of Pinot Noir we tasted with all our 34th Street Sacramento Neighbors, along with other amazing Pinot’s to determine if the Lake Chelan AVA Pinot Noir could stack up. It was unanimous – Hard Row to Hoe’s Pinot Noir won everyone’s vote to plant Pinot Noir on our site. Hard Row’s 2021 Pinot Noir is no exception – get your hands on it as it is released soon).
  • Amos Rome (amazing family and incredible commitment to Lake Chelan AVA grown and produced wines. They just released their 2019 Reserve Pinot Noir this past week – and we think it is most excellent. Keep an eye on what they’ve got in store for Pinot Noir).
  • Lagriōth Winery (on our 3rd vintage of Pinot Noir. The 2021 was from the Clos Chevalle Vineyard and is sold out, the 2022 was just launched and the 2023 is in barrel).
  • Stay tuned as more come onto the scene producing wines grown from Pinot Noir grapes grown in the Lake Chelan AVA.

Caption: our 2022 Estate Pinot Noir.

What do all these producers have in common? They’ve been able to source or grow amazing grapes from amazing locations and some of them for over 50 years. Which means, grape growing and wine making in the Lake Chelan Valley is still young. However, its well established that tree fruit grown in our Valley is amazing and has been for over 100 years. And, as I mentioned before – the Chelan Valley offers the Lake Effect, volcanic soils full of pumice, its elevation, its latitude (similar to areas of Burgundy, can’t wait to talk about Chablis) and pristine irrigation water. Take this down to the site-specific location and we start to have something very special. Our site above Roses Lake on the North Shore of Lake Chelan is North facing. It sits around 1,350’ in elevation. The dominant soil series is Chelan Gravelly Sandy Loam with 8-25% slopes with a bit of Antilon Gravelly Sandy Loam 0-3% slope. When we dug test pits to explore any potential variation in the soils – it verified – we have 45-60 inches of soil before hitting any rock. I’ve talked about this before, but the pumice is totally mixed into the profile, which helps our soil drain almost like sand. Quite fascinating. We planted our vineyard 3’ between the vines and 8.5” between the rows. Its all on drip irrigation with pressure compensating emitters. For our Pinot Noir we decided to plant unilateral cordon. We felt this would give each vine more horsepower since our goal is to produce low tonnage high-quality yields. Our vines were all purchased from Inland Desert and certified virus free. Deciding on what clones to plant (a clone is hard to explain, but its basically a ”variation” in the plant itself that’s carried into other vineyards via cuttings) was its own project. There are more clones of Pinot Noir than any other clone. Pretty nerve wracking considering this will directly impact the finished product – our wine. Well, we landed on two what are now called Dijon Clones: 777 & 115 and the Pommard Clone. We’d learned that a multi clone Pinot Noir can create some synergy and magic. So we were glad to borrow a page out of an existing book. And we’re glad we did. The 2022 Estate Pinot Noir color and bouquet are everything we had hoped for. A bright and vibrant wine producing a magnificent red ruby clear color followed by lively and aromatic aroma’s of berry’s and fruit. This is our first red wine grown on the farm. The 2023 vintage is in barrel and showing great promise. Our wine making style with these wines is minimalistic. We keep the new French Oak to around 30% and use a cooper (barrel maker) that for the ’21 and ’22 has proven to not overpower the wine. We can’t wait for you to try the 2022. If you have already tried it – spread the word about Washington State and Lake Chelan Grown Pinot Noir. A Pinot Noir that is sure to delight and awaken taste buds to a new geography that because of a giant lake is well suited for this amazing grape. Lively, vibrant, bright, but still delicate and elegant. That’s Washington State Pinot Noir.

Caption: one of the test pits we dug showing the depth of soil.

Caption: a picture from early days of establishing our Pinot Noir. It shows how close together the vines are and the single cordon on the cordon wire.

Caption: a long day in 2022 harvesting our Estate Pinot Noir. And our largest crop yet, but still low high quality yield. I was tired after that day…

Thanks for following along as I’ve shared our journey of Pinot Noir. I hope this has provided some insights into Pinot Noir’s origins, how Lake Chelan and Washington State (think latitude) are a fit for this wonderful variety, how we came to love Pinot Noir, how our site has promise for great Pinot Noir, a bit of our history and links to some producers we admire!!

Caption: complimentary beautiful colors to match the 2022 Estate Pinot Noir.

Here’s to Washington State Pinot Noir,

1 comment

  1. Great article – so much to know about wine – it’s so much more than juice in a bottle:)

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