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Lake Chelan for grown-ups

Sunset wine editor Sara Schneider discovers the sophisticated side of Washington’s summer playground, where sandcastles and jet skis are making way for (really good) wine

Lake Chelan view from Vin du Lac winery in Washington

A peaceful view of Lake Chelan from the sunny terrace at Vin du Lac winery. This Northwest hot spot is home to 15 local wineries harvesting grapes from the Columbia Valley.

José Mandojana

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Pork sliders from Cafe Manson in Lake Chelan, WA
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Take a boat tour of Lake Chelan, WA
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Hang gliding over Lake Chalen, WA
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Getting to Lake Chelan

  • Map to Lake Chelan from Seattle, WA

    The lake is about 31/2 hours from Seattle: Take I-90 east to Cle Elum, then State 970 to U.S. 97 to the city of Chelan.

Shrieking tots hold their own against humming motorboats on the south end of Washington’s Lake Chelan, a summery hot spot with waterfront resorts, backcountry hiking trails, and families who return year after year.

But this time, the tots aren’t mine—and the distant din bouncing off the Chelan Butte and across the water to the sunny patio at Vin du Lac winery pairs rather well with my glass of cold, crisp Pinot Gris.

The first winery opened its doors here only 10 years ago, but the swaths of vineyards that have since infiltrated the orchards around the lakeshore are almost shocking. Serious winemakers have discovered Chelan’s “lake effect”—its ability to retain heat and lengthen the growing season in this otherwise chilly region. And, well, they’re excited.

As am I. Now home to about 15 wineries— most with outdoor tasting decks and a mix of locally grown varieties and wines made from Columbia Valley grapes (vintners are planting as fast as they can here, but demand still out-strips supply)—Lake Chelan offers a new, more sophisticated way to visit.

In between hilltop strolls and afternoon dips, I try glass after glass of aromatic Alsatian whites: Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris. That chilly-region bit applies only three seasons a year; in August, temps push 90º—which makes these icy, well-crafted whites as refreshing as the lemonade the kids are drinking.

Wine tasting at Lake Chelan

  • Stake out a lake-overlook table at Vin du Lac (105 State 150, Chelan) for glasses of “Grisant!” Pinot Gris—and smoked salmon and mascarpone crêpes, paired with live music every Saturday from 5 to 7 p.m.
  • For a break from white (the Zinfandel is yummy here) and for local bordello history, hit Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards ($5 tasting; 300 Ivan Morse Rd., Manson), where the grapes were a bear to plant and the name is a wink to the miners up-lake who used to row across to the ladies at Point Lovely.
  • The artfully redone tasting bar at Tildio Winery ($5 tasting; 70 E. Wapato Lake Rd., Manson) pours a 2007 Tempranillo.
  • The patio at Nefarious Cellars ($5 tasting; 495 S. Lakeshore Rd., Chelan) has lake views as impressive as its Defiance Vineyard Syrah.

Where to eat

  • Good food follows wine, of course—and Lake Chelan’s local-seasonal restaurant scene is also on the rise, as some chefs swap Seattle for a more low-key lifestyle. Erik Cannella (of Seattle’s Matt’s in the Market fame) and Adrianne Young turn out fresh, scratch-cooked comfort food at tiny new Café Manson ($$$; 33 Green Ave., Manson; 509/888-4197); try the slow-braised pork sliders.
  • Mizuumi ($; 127 E. Johnson Ave., Chelan; 509/682-1611) is a recent reincarnation of local favorite Nanban Sushi Bar—presided over by Mexico-born, Japan-trained Jaime Echavarria; his delicious dragon roll and vegetable tempura make a meal.
  • For old-time southern Italian cooking, head to Tanti Baci Ristorante ($$$; 120 Wapato Way, Manson; 509/888-4868)—short on decor, long on local goodwill. Order the pistachio-crusted halibut.

Things to do

  • Catch a WAVE (Winery Assault Vehicle Excursion): Mike Stowe of Chelan Valley Tours will pick you up in one of his vintage Swiss Pinzgauer troop transport rigs and taxi you to the wineries of your choice. Pack a picnic, pull into a couple of tasting rooms, then ask him to haul you up the butte to the legendary hang-gliding launch site, where 360° views reveal the vastness of this corner of Washington. $185 for four hours; reservations required; 509/682-2386.
  • Head up the north shore to grassy Willow Point Park for a quick dip and après-tasting nap (Lakeshore Dr., Manson).
  • Goats greet visitors outside Sunshine Farm Market (37 State 97A, Chelan; 509/682-1350), where you can grab cheese and hors d’oeuvres. Cart your spread (along with some of the day’s wine finds—say, a bottle of Nefarious Cellars Stone’s Throw Vineyard Riesling) to the dock: The Tour Boat (from $80 an hour; reservations recommended; 509/682-8287) whisks a small group away on a ride around the lake.

Spa

  • No fancy robes or elaborate locker rooms at the River Room Spa at Campbell’s Resort—just a skillful, rejuvenating massage in a simple spa, across the street from the family resort (800/553-8225).

Places to stay at Lake Chelan

  • The recently remodeled 12-room Lakeview Hotel (from $259; ages 12 and older; 509/682-1334) in Chelan might be at the busy south tip of the lake, but its stylish design and quiet comfort feel worlds away.
  • If you do want an old-time family scene—but need more peace than the big resorts offer—book a cabin near Manson at Pickens Landing (from $800 per week). You’ll have a private beach, canoes, and kayaks at your command.

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