A thirty minute hop in a twin prop from Seattle will get you to Wenatchee, a fruit-growing centre and wine region in the heart of Washington State. You’ll want a window seat because the view is spectacular, the jagged peaks of the Cascade Mountain range so close you could almost touch them. Descending into Wenatchee on the eastern side of the range the landscape changes dramatically to dry, tussocked hills sloping to down to a slender valley patchworked in green that follows the winding course of the Columbia River.
This area was home to indigenous Americans for thousands of years, the salmon-fishing Wenatchi-P’squosa band giving the valley and town their name. European settlement is relatively recent, with the first homesteaders putting down roots, and planting apple trees, only in 1872. The valley’s High Desert climate and rich volcanic soil proved ideal for the fruit and by 1905 Wenatchee had become a major apple growing area. As early as 1907 Wenatchee apples were being shipped as far as Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. In 1925 a local newspaper dubbed Wenatchee Apple Capital of the World, a title it has retained ever since.
The same conditions – volcanic soils, abundant water from rivers and snow melt, high sunshine hours and crisp nighttime temperatures — that favour the growing of orchard fruits are also ideal for grapes. Washington State is renowned for wine and the Columbia Valley AVA is by far the most important grape growing region in the state. And these days Wenatchee winemakers are scooping awards by the barrel load.
This is also great driving country. Smooth blacktop hugs the banks of the Columbia River and winds into the foothills of the Cascades, climbing to ridges with spectacular vistas of mountain and valley, when I visited in late September, tinged with the soft golden hues of late summer. A popular one-day itinerary from Wenatchee follows the west bank of the Columbia River north to Lake Chelan, then loops back along the other side, passing through quaint villages and scenery so stunning it’s hard to keep your eyes on the road.
Lone Pine Fruit & Espresso, just outside town on Highway 97 in Orondo, is a local institution. The former apple packing shed houses a seasonal fruit stand, a gift shop, and cafe with a gleaming red espresso machine. Manager Jenny Robelia is a serious baker (flour is inked on her forearm) and her fresh fruit pies and made-to-order sandwiches are a major draw. In the 16 years she’s had the building, she’s brought back the hundred-year-old floorboards and rough plank walls and established a pretty garden where you can sit and enjoy the sunshine. The gift shop is filled with local crafts and the fruit stand offers year–round produce, from pumpkins to peaches and apples to asparagus, sourced from Lone Pine’s own orchard and local farms.
Driving this loop, about 30 miles north of Wenatchee you’ll cross the Beebe Bridge, one of several historic bridges that span the Columbia River, and continue on to Lake Chelan. I pulled over when I spotted the blue shed that houses Chelan Craft Cider. Hard cider has recently started to appear on the local scene, along with a renewed interest in growing heirloom apple varieties. Cidermaker Cynthia Flynn crafts a fine example that’s enhanced with a hint of lemon that brings out the apple flavour in the same way a little bit of zest elevates an apple pie. Flynn credits her Hungarian grandmother’s baking for the inspiration. Other ciders feature local blueberries, cherries and pears. Behind the tasting room is Kávé Roasters, where Flynn’s sister offers artisanal coffee and Hungarian baked goods.
Lake Chelan is the largest natural lake in Washington State. With crystal clear water and surrounded by vineyards, orchards and mountains, it’s a year-round tourist destination. The northernmost regions of the lake, only accessible by boat or small aircraft, are unmatched for wilderness camping, hunting and fishing, while the village of Chelan on the southeastern shore, with its historical Main Street lined with boutiques, restaurants and winery tasting rooms, is the place for shopping, dining and imbibing.
There are plenty of options for a lunch stop in Chelan. The aromas wafting from Local Myth Pizza led me to a hand-crafted Margherita and a bench in the lakeside Riverwalk Park. Another option is a crêpe from Bear Foods Natural Market, a gourmet emporium crammed with fine foods, organic produce and wellness products. Their European-inspired crêpes run the gamut from classic sugar and lemon to sautéed local apples with brie, chestnut and chocolate, and a variety of savoury creations.
Continuing along the lake shore I arrived in the picturesque village of Manson, home to the tasting room of Ancestry Cellars. Winemaker Jason Morin learned the basics of his craft watching his grandfather making wine in the family basement. Fast forward to today and Morin is making award-winning wines that channel his Croatian roots while embracing the creativity and technical advancements of New World winemaking. His wines are particularly well crafted — a degree in biology and former career in the pharmaceutical industry may have something to do with that. I loved his Reminiscence Riesling, a smooth but crisp wine with a lovely balance of peachy fruit and acid.
Morin sourced the grapes for this wine exclusively from Clos CheValle Vineyard on the shores of Lake Chelan. The Lake Chelan Valley is a designated AVA and there are some 30 wineries dotting the shores of the lake. Lake-effect temperatures and mineral rich glacial soils produce grapes with characteristics that distinguish them from grapes grown in other regions of the Columbia Valley. With a total of 21 tasting rooms for wine, craft beer and cider, Manson is the ideal spot for sampling the region’s premium libations.
Doubling back to Wenatchee on the opposite side of the Columbia River, a popular stop is Trader John’s fruit stand in the village of Entiat. Sharon and John Lundberg took over the apple orchards first planted by John’s grandfather and in 1996 replanted several of them with stone fruits. I arrived in time for the last of the summer harvest – the plumpest, sweetest peaches and nectarines, and the juiciest purple plums. The stand is open “from apple blossom to Halloween,” says Sharon.
The Lundbergs are not the only ones breathing new life into a generations-old agricultural operation. When Kevin VanReenan inherited his grandfathers’ pear orchard, he revived the ancient craft of making perry – cider based on pears. His sparkling, organic Pear Up has found a niche in the hard seltzer market, offering a similar drinking experience but with all natural ingredients and no refined sugar.
With some fifteen wineries in the immediate area and numerous downtown tasting rooms, Wenatchee is a great place to imbibe. Hard Hat Winery Tasting Room, beside the Columbia River, is a go-to neighbourhood spot for locals, with live music, outdoor seating, and a short menu of tasty eats to satisfy a wine-whetted appetite. Greg Lone, a US Army veteran, operates the tasting room along with his wife Shannon. Hard Hat’s wines are made by Lone in partnership with two veteran US Navy Divers. I was in time to taste one of the last bottles of their award-winning and now sold out Riva Ridge Cabernet Franc 2016 and spent an evening on the tasting room patio enjoying a lively bluegrass band and an easy-drinking sauvignon blanc.
A few doors down from Hard Hat is the tasting room of Horan Estates Winery. The Horan family were among the earliest settlers in Wenatchee and their multi-generational winery is known for its Bordeaux varieties and concentration on crafting red wines. Current owner and Certified Sommelier Dennis Dobbs is expanding the winery’s focus, evidenced by my tasting flight of rosé, chardonnay and viognier wines.
At Bianchi Vineyards, fine wines are matched with superb views across the Columbia River to the crumpled folds of Jump Off Ridge beyond. On weekends, couples and families spread blankets on the grassy terrace beside the tasting room to watch the sunset and and enjoy wine, charcuterie boards and live music as children and dogs play among vine rows and stands of lavender.
Douglas and Kimberly Bianchi’s vineyard is still young – they acquired and replanted a former orchard in 2017 – but their wines are already earning acclaim. Their NV Miscela Rossa red blend won gold in North Central Washington Wine Awards in 2021 and a standout for me was their silver-medal Columbia Valley Pinot Gris.
All wine and no food makes for a tipsy tourist and the Pybus Public Market is a great place to pick up fixings for a picnic in one of the many waterfront parks along the 22-mile Apple Capital Loop Trail biking and walking path that hugs the Columbia River. The market is open daily and is a hub of local eateries, tasting rooms and specialty food vendors. On Saturdays in season from May to October, it is also home to the outdoor Wenatchee Valley Farmers’ Market.
For sit-down dining, you won’t go wrong at McGlinn’s Public House. Located in the historic Garland Apartments building, it’s a buzzing, casual place with a dedicated farm-to-table focus and a bar list that celebrates local craft beers and Washington State wines. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to pizza but in the Apple Capital of the World, felt obliged to try McGlinn’s Organic Apple & Bacon Wood Fired Pizza. With sweet slices of apple, globs of gorgonzola, pops of roasted garlic and a blistery crust, it was magnificent.
The large number of farm workers from south of the border who support Wenatchee’s agricultural economy brings added diversity to the cultural and culinary life of the valley. There are so many cantinas, taquerias, Latin markets and specialist grocery stores that Wenatchee publishes its own Latin-American Food Guide. You can pick up a free copy, and other local area information, at the Wenatchee Valley Visitor Center, which also happens to be the only visitor centre in the state that has its own wine tasting room. That’s how they roll in Wenatchee!