It’s an exchange that the cheerful Rob Mellison often hears while pouring for guests at Mellisoni Vineyards, and it goes something like this:
“This is amazing! I’ve never gone to a winery where every one of your wines is really good. At your place, we like every single wine!”
Throughout the course of 2020, judges at Northwest wine competitions and Lake Chelan wine lovers were saying the same thing, and that translated to eight Platinum awards last fall at Wine Press Northwest’s 21st annual judging of gold-medal winners. That showing prompted the selection of Mellisoni Vineyards as the 2021 Washington Winery of the Year.
“I love that people love our wines, and I love that we don’t have a dog in the bunch,” says Mellison, a Seattle native who owns and operates the winery and vineyards with his wife, Donna.
Indeed, the delicious diversity among their Platinum winners was particularly impressive. They earned unanimous Double Platinums for their 2016 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and 2017 Forte Rosso Red Wine Blend. Mellisoni’s 2017 Merlot and 2019 180 Degrees Rosé achieved Platinum, as did four white wines from the 2019 vintage — Chardonnay, Riesling, the Mellarci White Table Wine and 3 Bastards White Table Wine.
Now, whether everyone can afford to buy more than a few of those bottles at Mellisoni Vineyards is another story. The Riesling was $35, the Rosé $45 and two Double Platinum reds sold for $125. And each reference of past tense is accurate, although there are a few bottles of that Cab-Malbec blend now at $150.
“We sold out of some wines before we opened in June,” he says. “People were so supportive of us during the pandemic.”
Those who have not spent time at Mellisoni Vineyards may not understand the price structure, but so many well-heeled wine tourists visit Lake Chelan that if the bottles were not prohibitively priced, the wines would be sold out by the end of summer.
“We’re not stuffy or pretentious,” says Donna. “If anything, we’re the opposite of pretentious.”
Much of their 2,500-case production is in small-lot bottlings for club members. They produce more than 20 wines, and varieties include Barbera, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir and two examples of Muscat.
The Italian varieties are grown at their 60 Degree Vineyard. Their Lakeside Estate 45 Degree site is loaded with aromatic whites. Larc Hill Vineyard Ranch, owned by Seattle attorney Jennifer Dunn Cobb and planted in 2016 with the Mellisons, includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Malbec, Syrah and the Muscat Blanc for their Moscato program.
“We need to figure out how to grow slowly, because I’m literally out of space,” Rob said. “I’m having to suck in my belly when I walk between the barrels!”
While the Mellisons haven’t received any formal training, they are quick to credit consulting winemakers Katy Perry across the lake in Manson and Erica Orr in Woodinville for guidance starting in 2006 with their first commercial vintage for their breathtakingly steep vineyard overlooking Lake Chelan. And longtime viticulturist Ed Kelly, who manages their contracts for Stillwater Creek Vineyard on the Royal Slope, continues to consult on the Mellisons’ vineyard projects along the south shore of Lake Chelan.
“Ed has taken us to the next level,” Donna says. “He’s been in the industry for 40 years, and since coming up here from Napa, he’s been a major asset to the state of Washington.”
However, Rob also credits Donna, who grew up in California’s Orange County and graduated from Oregon State University’s pharmacy college, for helping to turn those 2019 whites into Platinum. She was able to devote more time to the winery and vineyards after retiring as a pharmacist for 20 years.
“We were able to do some really cool things in 2019, and she’s very, very analytical about testing this and trying that during the bench trials,” Rob said. “She wouldn’t stop until it was absolutely perfect.”
While they now share the winemaking responsibilities, Rob’s background as the consummate salesman remains on display in the tasting room and on the grounds that overlook the lake. He spent two successful decades as a rep for Arturo Salice, an innovative manufacturer in Italy of concealed, self-closing furniture hinges. When he resigned, his boss chided him not for his new wine project, but for how it would be spelled.
“He said, ‘In true Italian, Mellisoni would have an ‘e’ at the end rather the ‘i,’ ” Rob says. “But I told him that Americans wouldn’t know how to pronounce it!”
Mellison’s business travel introduced him to many of Europe’s finest wines and ultimately provided him and Donna with the inspiration to build their second careers around the concept of agri-tourism. He would be honored if someone would compare his Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer to those of Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace or his Riesling with Mosel producer J.J. Prüm.
“I met Rob on a dance floor in Sunriver, and that’s where this all started,” Donna says. “In 2002, we took a trip to Italy and visited wineries where they created this very social, very personal and very genuine experience. We love people and we love entertaining. Wouldn’t it be cool to offer this agriturismo experience? That’s all we talked about flying home.”
There’s obviously something in the water at Lake Chelan as acclaim continues to pour in for wines grown within the 10-year-old American Viticultural Area and the producers around the region.
The 2020 Washington Winery of Year was Tsillan Cellars. The year before, Rocky Pond Winery was named Wine Press Northwest’s Washington Winery to Watch. In 2018, Succession Wines in Manson received the award given to wineries with five or fewer commercial vintages. And in 2010, the year that the federal government established the AVA, Vin du Lac in Chelan made the cover of Wine Press Northwest as the Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.
“We’ve gotten a lot of support from my neighbors and heeded everyone’s advice,” Rob says.
They’ve managed it without the stress of debt, although Donna more than paid her dues by managing the Shopko pharmacy in Chelan, living in a fifth-wheel for seven years and navigating that nail-biting driveway leading up to Rob’s bulldozing and excavating it to develop the steep vineyard site.
“I didn’t mind it for the first three years,” Donna said with a chuckle.
Rob adds, “Fortunately, I didn’t roll any boulders out onto the highway.”
That RV pad and the lawn surrounding it became the setting for their fire pits, spacious patio, ground-floor tasting room, winery cellar and home upstairs.
“I roll out of bed at 5 a.m., and by 7:30 a.m. I’m working for Mellisoni,” Donna said. “I feel really blessed to be able to live here and be here all day long and be here with Rob to help and hang with my two cats. We envision ourselves doing this into our 70s and 80s — standing on the deck, greeting the customers below and waving them upstairs to tell them some of our stories.”
Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
3155 US-97 ALT, Chelan, Wash. 98816