CHELAN, Wash. — Nearly from the beginning, Larry Lehmbecker had a pretty good idea he was onto something.
He had moved to one of the most beautiful places in the Pacific Northwest to make wine. Then a wine from his first vintage - a 2002 Syrah - won best in show at the 2004 Capital Food & Wine Festival.
"That was pretty cool," said Lehmbecker, owner and winemaker of our 2010 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year. "It was the first wine event we went to and won best in show, so we figured we must have a little bit of a knack for this."
The next year, his 2003 Cabernet Franc earned a Double Platinum and "best of the best" in Wine Press Northwest's annual Platinum Judging. Most remarkably of all, each successive vintage of that wine has won a Platinum since (with the 2006 earning the honor two years in a row).
Not bad for a guy with no formal training as a winemaker.
"The best winemakers don't necessarily have an academic background," Lehmbecker said. "Either you have it or you don't."
Lehmbecker grew up in Renton, Wash. His father worked for Boeing, and it was his mother who got him interested in wine, as she was a home winemaker.
"I was inspired by that, so at a young age, I tried winemaking and brewing."
After receiving a degree at the University of Washington, Lehmbecker earned a law degree at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. He moved to Seattle to practice law, which he continues to do to this day.
Visits to Napa Valley with friends while in law school fueled Lehmbecker's interest in wine. In particular, he was inspired by V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena.
"We enjoyed the ambiance of Napa," he said. "We were learning about what great wine was - and that it was also about having a great time with friends and enjoying a bottle of wine surrounded by nature. The wine lifestyle allows us to create places where friends and family can come together and have a great time."
He traveled to Europe and was further influenced by Paris and Provence. In 2001, he found a gorgeous piece of property on a bluff overlooking Lake Chelan and began to realize his dream of a commercial winery.
"After purchasing it, we had one-and-a-half years before our first crush, so I did everything I could to bring my craft up to a commercial level."
That hard work paid off quickly, as evidenced by early successes. The original name of their operation was the Chelan Wine Co., though they never used that on their label. They realized that the burgeoning wine industry around the lake in north-central Washington likely would spawn a lot of similar names, so they looked to distinguish themselves as well as evoke an image of the lifestyle they were hoping to achieve. Vin du Lac, French for "Wine of the Lake," was a perfect fit.
Launching with the 2002 harvest, Vin du Lac was the third winery to open in what now is the Lake Chelan American Viticultural Area. Today, there are no fewer than 16 wineries.
Again inspired by Napa and France, they soon began to provide deli items at the winery. This turned into cheese plates and later paninis. In 2005, they moved to a full-service bistro that now is open year-round. In the summer, the bistro provides a leisurely respite from the bustle of activity on the lake below. Diners enjoy French-inspired cuisine with a Northwest twist using as many regional ingredients as possible.
On sunny days - and there are many in Chelan - life can be close to perfect at Vin du Lac. It is exactly the bon vivant lifestyle Lehmbecker envisioned.
"Chelan has been an inspiring place for me," Lehmbecker said. "For a lot of people, Chelan is special, and I'm one of those people. I just had to be here, so I looked for property for a decade. It's possible some other place might have had that impact on me, but this was meant to be my place."
Without great wine, however, the slice of paradise he envisioned would have been an empty effort.
He originally purchased 20 acres and picked up 14 more along the way. The land had been an orchard since the 1920s, and Lehmbecker planted seven acres of vines in 2002. The winery and bistro have consumed a lot of time - and cash - which have kept him from further plantings, so far.
For his first vintage, he traveled to Snipes Mountain in the Yakima Valley, an upthrust near Sunnyside, where Todd Newhouse and his family have grown grapes since the early 1970s. That's where the grapes for his Cabernet Franc came from, and he continues to bring in Syrah, Merlot and Viognier from Snipes Mountain. Each year, he has added more fruit sources, including Stillwater Creek near Royal City, Sagemoor near Pasco and Weinbau on the Wahluke Slope. All remain important for him, especially for his red wines.
But Lehmbecker also sees a great future closer to home.
"I'm really jazzed about Chelan grapes," he said. "This is a unique growing region that has the potential to do some really different stuff."
He works with five growers in Lake Chelan for Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Pinot Noir.
"The Rieslings here are superb. We're working on a very dry style of Riesling, and Tsillan Cellars (across the lake) is making some outstanding Rieslings. That could be a flag bearer for us."
He sees Chelan Sauvignon Blanc as being mineral-driven, similar to a northern French style. And Chardonnay here is more Chablis in style than Burgundy because of the higher natural acidity.
Surprising even himself, Lehmbecker is having fun exploring Pinot Noir.
"I was one of the skeptics about Pinot Noir here," he admitted. "But now I'm really excited about it and look forward to many years of playing around with Pinot Noir. The late bud break here pushes ripening to later in the year. That seems to be pretty crucial."
He buys Pinot Noir grapes from three vineyards in Chelan and has been pleased with his early efforts.
"Pinot Noir is tough, and it takes awhile to figure out. It and Sangiovese have to have the right clone in the right ground. My first Pinots have turned out pretty good. That tells me that if we can get that close and that good on our first couple of attempts, we might be able to do something pretty special here."
He also sees something special ahead for Chelan, which has benefited greatly by a wine industry that is transforming the region from apples and vacations on the lake into something exciting.
"The wineries arrived at just the right time to inject some economic vitality," he said. "Wineries have taken the region from being a two-month season to an eight-month season with aspirations to be a year-round destination. It's something that's quickly redefining the Chelan experience."
And Vin du Lac is helping to lead the way.
Getting to Vin du Lac of Chelan
Address: 105 Highway 150, Chelan, Wash.
Web site: vindulac.com
Hours: Tasting room open noon-5 p.m. daily. Bistro is open year-round, though hours are seasonal.
DIRECTIONS: From the city of Chelan, drive northwest (right side of the lake) on Highway 150. After about a half-mile, turn left on Spader Bay Drive.
How the Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year is chosen
The Winery of the Year is selected by the editors of Wine Press Northwest and is based on a set of criteria, including longevity, quality, reputation, industry involvement, facilities and other considerations. A winery may win the award only once.
Past Pacific Northwest Wineries of the Year
2009: Wild Goose Vineyards, Okanagan Falls, B.C.
2008: Dunham Cellars, Walla Walla, Wash.
2007: Elk Cove Vineyards, Gaston, Ore.
2006: Barnard Griffin, Richland, Wash.
2005: Ken Wright Cellars, Carlton, Ore.
2004: L'Ecole No. 41, Lowden, Wash.
2003: Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, Summerland, B.C.
2002: Columbia Crest, Paterson, Wash.
How the Regional Wineries of the Year are Chosen
Regional wineries of the year are selected by the editors of Wine Press Northwest based on blind tastings, visits, accolades and other considerations. Wineries of the Year must have completed at least five vintages, while Wineries to Watch must have been in business no more than five years.
Washington Winery of the Year: Maryhill Winery, Goldendale
Washington Winery to Watch: Steppe Cellars, Sunnyside
Oregon Winery of the Year: Ponzi Vineyards, Beaverton
Oregon Winery to Watch: Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards, Roseburg
British Columbia Winery of the Year: Kettle Valley Winery, Naramata
British Columbia Winery to Watch: Church & State Wines, Brentwood Bay
Idaho Winery of the Year: Bitner Vineyards, Caldwell
Idaho Winery to Watch: Cinder Wines, Boise