MANSON — It was only by coincidence that I got a call from Bob Christopher this week the day before I was heading up to Manson to interview for a Foothills magazine story on Benson Vineyards Estate Winery.
Christopher has been very involved in development of the Lake Chelan area wine industry and played a leading role in establishing the Lake Chelan American Viticultural Area. The AVA has really put Lake Chelan wineries on the map as one of the state’s important and distinct wine grape growing regions.
Christopher was pitching a story about how grapes came to be grown in a valley long known for its apples. Wine grape growers have since found that what worked for apples also works for grapes.
The unique micro-climate and volcanic and glacial soils seem to have a magical effect on crops grown on the steep hills that surround the lake.
A newcomer to the apple industry when he moved to Manson from Alaska in 1995, Christopher was considered a bit of a heretic when he started talking about planting grapes.
“I wondered why no one was planting them,” he said. The bottom had dropped out of the apple market and it was time to try something new. A winery, he reasoned, could capitalize on the many tourists who were already coming to the lake.
He researched the idea and found that grapes had been grown in the area successfully since the late 1800s. The climate was similar to some of the great wine growing areas of France.
He pulled some apple trees out and planted the first modern commercial Lake Chelan vineyard near Manson in 1998.
Christopher partnered up with Steve Kludt and Jim Stephens to start Lake Chelan Winery in September of 2000. It was the first winery permitted in Chelan County. The following month Warren Moyles was granted a permit to start La Toscana Winery, the first winery in the Wenatchee River Valley.
Kludt bought out his two partners a few years later. Kludt now owns the winery with other partners. The Kludt family also own another Manson winery, Wapato Point Cellars.
When Paul and Kathy Benson and their two sons, Jeff and Scott, wanted to start a winery in the area, Christopher showed them land located on the hills above Lake Chelan Winery. They bought 30 acres in 2000 and planted 28 ares to grapes in 2002. It’s still one of the largest vineyards in the valley.
“Bob was a huge resource for us and an advocate for the area’s wine industry,” said Scott Benson, winemaker for Benson Vineyards. The winery started making wine on a large scale in 2004. It now produces more than 5,000 cases a year, 16 different wines from 11 varietals last year. It’s one of only a few Lake Chelan wineries that make all their wine from locally grown grapes.
“We thought it was perfect,” Benson said of the property. “It’s turned out to be just that.”
Christopher helped organize the Lake Chelan Wine Growers Association and led the move to establish the Lake Chelan area as its own AVA. The complicated process took several years and was granted in September 2009. It’s the newest and smallest of the state’s 11 viticultural areas.
Some 17 wineries now operate around the lake with producing vineyards totaling about 300 acres.
“It’s been an interesting evolution over a very short period of time,” Christopher said.
This story originally ran as a blog on Winemaker’s Journal