Thursday, July 26, 2012

Travels with Chili: Dipping Into Chelan

When I was offered a trip to Washington's Lake Chelan and Wenatchee regions courtesy of the area's tourism folks, I jumped at it. We'd driven by there on a previous road trip up to Canada's Okanagan last fall, and I couldn't get over how verdant this fruit-growing valley was, lying as it does at the confluence of the Wenatchee and Columbia rivers, with arid, sage-covered hills rising up from the valley floor.

Two for the road.

It's an easy five to six-hour drive, depending on whether you stop for lunch or a beverage at one of the charming small town cafés along the way. Whether it's the old-timey Liberty Cafe between, appropriately enough, Liberty and Cle Elum, or, like us, at the more pubby environs of the Snoqualmie Brewery and Taproom in Snoqualmie, it'll give you a chance to stop, unbend those road kinks and get your grub on.

Road trip advantages: our own liquor!

Our first nights' lodgings were in a sumptuously appointed condo in the brand-new Lake House in Chelan. From our fourth-floor deck overlooking the lake we had a gorgeous view of the orchards and vineyards ringing the southern end of the 55-mile-long lake. Unfortunately the view also included a front-row seat for the go-cart concession that operates from 10 am to 10 pm every day, right on the lake's bank. The good news is that the room was well soundproofed, so with the glass sliding doors closed, narry a roar was heard and the view (above) was preserved.

The patio at Wapato Point Cellars Grill.

Dave, taking advantage of the copious space afforded by our Mini Clubman, Chili, had brought the travel case with makings for our favorite cocktails. With a small market next door for any forgotten supplies (like limes for G&Ts), we were all set. So, fortified after the day's drive, we headed out for dinner at Wapato Point Cellars Grill Room in the adjacent town of Manson.

Owned by Steve and Bobbi Kludt, who planted the first commercial vineyards in the Chelan Valley in 1988, the Grill Room has the feeling of sitting on a very elegant patio with glass walls along two sides that look out onto a beautiful green lawn and rows of grapes. There is also patio seating available, but since the temperature was still hovering in the 90s outside, we opted for the view from inside.

The salmon at the Grill…delicious!

The food is fresh, well-prepared…Dave's prime rib was perfectly roasted and my salmon was tenderly grilled…and the portions were gigantic, with a single entrée plenty for two. The Wapato Point Cellars '09 Clos Chevalle Reserve Pinot our server suggested was more in the Burgundian vein than the overblown California style, and matched our mains quite well. The vegetable sides were terrific, and when I asked about them, I was told that Steve and Bobbi began growing the vegetables for the restaurant last year. Mostly greens and tomatoes, customers responded so enthusiastically that the couple is expanding the crops they grow on their farm with suggestions from chef Sean Akin, who's keen to use more garden-grown vegetables, fruits and herbs on the menu and in the bar.

The town of Chelan is small, just under 4,000 people, with the main part of town clustered around the southern end of the lake. Its still got that East-of-the-Cascades small town feel, with single-story storefronts lined along the main street and few of the resort-y stores you might otherwise expect. Campbell's, one of the waterfront resorts lining the lake downtown, has a bistro with an outdoor veranda as well as a very English-style pub indoors. We'd have taken the bistro's veranda but for the still-exceptional temperature outside, so the air-conditioned pub with its selection of local microbrews and excellent fish'n'chips was a better fit for our needs.

Liz Eggers of Grouse Mountain Farm.

The town has recently developed a park along the river, appropriately called Riverwalk Park, that features a one-mile paved walking and biking loop with a 1 3/4-mile gravel extension. The park is also home on Thursday afternoons to the thriving Chelan Evening Farmers Market. Market manager and local food activist Sherry Palmiter, in addition to promoting the market itself, is busy organizing a community kitchen where locals can develop products to bring to market, as well as educating and encouraging young farmers. (Love meeting people like this…go Sherry!)

Bobbi and Steve Kludt of Lake Chelan Winery.

The evening's activity was a drive along the lake to tour Bobbi and Steve's farm, and we ended up having dinner at the Kludt's original Lake Chelan Winery. Several years ago his farm crew volunteered to man a barbecue pit behind the tasting room during the summer evenings, and it has become a must-stop for wine tourists who are in need of some solid chow after a day out on the route. A bit of local news: we heard that Steve has received funding to start production of hard cider, so look for some Lake Chelan product to start flooding the market.

Rachel Evans of Sunshine Farm.

The last stop on the Chelan leg of the trip was at Sunshine Farm, a fourth-generation farm on the hills above town. Originally 100 acres of Red Delicious apple orchards, it's been transformed by the most recent generation into a diverse farm including orchards, llamas, grass-fed beef and lamb, a guest house on the lake and five acres of certified organic crops that supplies its own CSA, the farm store and area restaurants.

Its sloping location is also ideal for growing wine grapes, and Rachel Evans and her husband, winemaker Guy Evans, are producing wine under the Tunnel Hill Winery label. They actually live onsite in a historic stone cottage known as "Ma Rainier's place" that was built from the rock left from the excavation of the highway tunnel in 1937. It's where they're raising their daughter with hopes that she'll be the fifth generation to join the family business.

Read about the second leg of this road trip in Wenatchee's Winning Ways.


DJ Chelan said...

Thank you for visiting the Lake Chelan Valley! You so perfectly gave the readers of our heaven! See you on the lake! DJ Chelan ~ Heidi Neal

Kathleen Bauer said...

It was an honor to be invited, and a genuine pleasure, as I hope this post attests. You can bet we'll be back!