A sense of Tuscany paired with natural beauty that hints at Lake Como is what Dr. Bob Jankelson sought to provide wine lovers at Tsillan Cellars, which overlooks Lake Chelan.
“I think if you were taking Las Vegas odds, the townfolks thought that I had about a 3 percent chance of pulling it off,” Jankelson said with a chuckle.
It’s been a remarkable two decades and second career for Jankelson, who has proved to be a visionary on viticulture, wine quality, the marriage of wine and food at his on-premise Sorrento’s Ristorante.
“In my previous career, people were sick and when they came to you they had problems, so I’m loving every minute of this,” he said.
And in terms of his wine, Tsillan Cellars never has been better. Last fall, Jankelson and his team received six Platinum awards in the year-end judging of Pacific Northwest gold-medal winning wines. That showing boosted the winery’s total to 23 career Platinums, and it prompted Wine Press Northwest magazine to name Tsillan Cellars the 2020 Washington Winery of the Year.
Each of those six Platinums — for Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Syrah and a Syrah-based blend — were produced with estate fruit and carry the Lake Chelan American Viticultural Area designation sparked in part by Jankelson.
“I had moved here and retired in 1994,” said Jankelson, who received a degree in dental surgery from the University of Washington in 1963 and became a pioneer in his field. “I’ve been very fortunate in life and have traveled, and during those travels, I gained the perspective of wine as a complement to some of the other finer things in life, so I just started thinking in terms of helping to create a culture and an industry here.”
At the time, Lake Chelan was a summer playground for Seattle and ringed by orchards.
“It was all apples and probably the most famous Red Delicious apple-growing area in the world, but in ’98, ’99 and 2000 that came crashing down for a number of reasons,” Jankelson said. “In the spring of ’99, it seemed there was news of a bankruptcy almost every day.”
A year later, Jankelson purchased orchards and set his sights on planting vines along the south shore.
“I was preceded by about 12 months by Bob Christopher and Steve Kludt, who eventually had Lake Chelan Winery,” Jankelson said.
And at this point, Dr. Jankelson can chuckle when sharing an exchange that he had in 1999 with a respected member of the Washington wine industry.
“You may be able to grow some white grapes, but I don’t think you can grow reds,” Jankelson was told. “I suggest you plant Riesling and Gewürztraminer and see what happens.”
So Jankelson started off cautiously as he planted vines across his 120-acre estate, leaning toward white varieties. Recently, he’s confidently moved two-thirds of his 40 acres to red grapes.
“There are lots of misconceptions surrounding Lake Chelan,” he said. “It’s taken about 20 years for us to overcome that, and it’s been like that line by the comedian Rodney Dangerfield, ‘I get no respect.’”
An impressive list of winemakers also has helped Tsillan Cellars along the way. They include Marcus Miller, Peter Devison, Shane Collins for a decade and now Ray Sandidge.
“I’ve been making wine for 36 years, and I’ve worked for some real (jerks), but Bob is really invested in his people and taking really good care of them,” Sandidge said. “He’s a gentleman and absolutely genuine.”
Collins, who grew up in the valley and moved into a management position at Rocky Pond Winery in 2017, looks back fondly on his time at Tsillan Cellars. Bal Flores, Jankelson’s vineyard manager since 2003, made his job rather easy, he said.
“Bal deserves a lot of the credit,” Collins said. “He prefers to be in the shadows, but he’s very respected in our area and does a great job. A lot of people who were starting their vineyards would come to him for advice because he’s very knowledgeable. Bob is really good to him.”
Jankelson’s first Platinum came with a 2005 Pinot Grigio — a tip of the cap to Italy — but the variety that has earned Tsillan Cellars the most critical acclaim in the past two decades, including five Platinums, has been Syrah, which Jankelson first planted in 2001. During its history, Tsillan Cellars has received more than 40 gold medals for its Syrah program, and the 2017 Estate Reserve Syrah by Sandidge earned the equivalent of a double gold medal during Wine Press Northwest’s recent judging of 169 Northwest Syrahs.
“I’ve always been impressed with Bob’s effort and dedication to achieving the very best that he can, whether it’s grape growing, food, the restaurant, the tasting experience for his guests and the wine,” Sandidge said. “He’s been fully supportive of anything that I’ve asked for when it comes to upgrading the wine program.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of success is how the 7,000 cases of wine are sold — all direct to consumer.
“The grape and the wine never leaves the property until it is in the hands of the consumer,” Jankelson said. “We don’t do any distribution. When we opened the tasting room in Woodinville, it was primarily to serve our wine club members who don’t have a chance to visit us in the wintertime.”
The missteps have been few, but Nebbiolo was among the trials that did not yield the results Jankelson hoped for. That’s been transitioned to more Barbera.
And there’s another transition down the line as Sandidge soon will be focusing more of his attention on his own C.R. Sandidge program across the lake in Manson. Both Jankelson and Sandidge identified the heir apparent — Maria Starceski, a 28-year-old graduate of Michigan State University’s ag science program.
“She came on in the middle of harvest last year and is learning so quickly,” Sandidge said. “Maria has a great palate and a great work ethic, so I should be able to hand things over to her. And as I’ve told Bob, I’m just 15-20 minutes away.”
For Jankelson, who described his age as “on the other side of 80,” there is no succession plan when it comes to ownership of Tsillan Cellars.
“I have no intention of slowing down,” he said. “In fact, I’m planting Dolcetto — one of Ray’s favorites — more Cabernet Franc and probably more Malbec, so that’s six to seven years down the road and I have every intention of tasting those wines!”
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
3875 Highway 97A
Chelan, WA 98816