Pity the balsamroot. As a native flower, the sunny yellow daisylike wildflower thrives in open meadows of the Northwest. But given a shot as the name of a winery, it withers.
Judy Phelps initially thought Balsamroot was a fitting name for the winery and vineyard she and her husband, Don, started in 2004 along the north shore of Washington's Lake Chelan. Phelps, retired from a research and development career with Pfizer, went back to school and got her winemaking certification from the University of California at Davis. Don, the vineyard manager, planted Cabernet Franc along with Riesling, Malbec, Gewuerztraminer and Pinot Gris in the gravelly soil in Manson, northwest of Chelan. The couple opened their tasting room in July 2006 under the Balsamroot name, a nod to the native plant that grew among their organically grown vines.
The name was fitting but forgettable.
Phelps recalls one visitor who wanted to make a return trip, but couldn't remember the winery's name and had to quiz a limo driver about just where it was that she had been.
"People loved the wine, but they couldn't remember the name," Phelps said.
So the Phelpses sought the help of a local historian who researched three or four colorful stories about the region's past, in hopes that a good story would suggest a more memorable name.
History accommodated the quest with a story from the 1930s about a Manson resident who ran a rowboat and taxi service for copper miners to an uplake lodge called Eaglemont that doubled as a brothel.
After kicking around some names, Phelps said, a joint effort produced a name that spoke to the rocky soils the Phelpses found as they planted vines, but also one that evoked the task ahead of that Depression-era oarsman: Hard Row to Hoe.
Double entendre intended?
"Absolutely," Phelps said.
It's also given them a fun theme for their wines and the winery. The tasting room is as richly appointed as any bordello. There's even a red light above the door of the restroom to indicate it's occupied. And the winery's organically grown Cabernet Franc is bottled as Burning Desire. There's an Iron Bed Red, while a Barbera, a Sangiovese rose and a Viognier each are named Shameless Hussy.
Art for the wine labels, depicting a treacherous journey for the little rowboat over stormy waters with a tentacled beast writhing in wait, was designed by Los Angeles-based illustrator Jon Klassen, whose watery and translucent artwork was featured by the BBC for its opening coverage of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. The winery's website, hardrow.com, features an animated version of the label art.
The balsamroot can keep its place alongside the grapes in the vineyard, but it's long gone from the label, in favor of something that sticks easier in the mind.
"It really does break the ice," Phelps said.
This story was originally published June 15, 2011 12:00 AM.