Last week I wrote about two wineriesSyncline Cellars and Boudreaux Cellars – that are making a mark in two emerging wine regions, the Columbia Gorge and Leavenworth. Today I write about a third winery that is leading the way in Washington’s newest viticultural area – Lake Chelan.

Nefarious Cellars is the work of the husband and wife team Dean and Heather Neff. The Neffs grew up in Washington’s Methow Valley. Though their families had adjoining properties and they knew each other, it wasn’t until a mutual friend set them up that they began dating.

Heather Neff says that they both had an interest in the wine business when they met in 1996. Why did they decide to take the plunge and start a winery? “Probably for the same reason as everyone,” she says. “We love drinking the stuff. It is romantic. Vineyards are beautiful. What could be a better way to live?”

The Neffs started out by planting a test block in 1999 in Pateros in the Columbia Valley just north of Chelan. Their work on this site confirmed that they wanted to get into the business – and that they wanted to grow their own grapes.

First, however, they would detour south to Oregon. After taking classes at the enology and viticulture program at Chemeketa Community College, Dean went to work for Bud Beck at Advanced Vineyards. He subsequent took positions at Deponte Cellars and Soter Vineyards. Heather meanwhile worked on the retail end of the business. The couple made their first wine in 2001, a Pinot Noir under a label called Nonni and Zing. They were hooked.

To start their winery, the Neffs returned to Washington in June of 2004 and bought a property on the south shore of Lake Chelan. In deciding to settle in Chelan, Neff says, “It just felt like the right place to us. From that test block, we had a good sense of what the area would produce and we loved the excitement and challenge in a new region.”

That same year they planted two vineyards near their original test block. Rocky Mother Vineyard and Stone’s Throw Vineyard are located on Dean’s homestead property in Pateros. The Rocky Mother site is planted to Syrah. The Neffs describe it as a “struggler” given the marginal growing conditions in the area. Stone’s Throw is planted to Riesling.

The following year the Neffs planted Defiance Vineyard – which is adjacent to the winery – to Syrah and Viognier. The Neffs say of their vineyards, “We farm them with the least amount of intervention possible and crop them down with a vengeance.” The winery also sources fruit from Sagemoor, Weinbau, Riverbend, and Upland vineyards.

With the vineyards planted, the next step was to come up with a name. Anything with Chelan in it was immediately out, with the area already home to Lake Chelan Winery, Chelan Estate Winery, and Tsillan Cellars (and now Chelan Ridge Winery). They decided on Nefarious – a play on their last name – and branded themselves with a suitably nefarious looking clown (a variation of this image was also on the Nonni and Zing label).

In an interesting arrangement, Dean makes the red wines and Heather makes the white wines. Heather Neff says, “We both wanted to play a part in winemaking and dividing it up by variety just didn’t make any sense. We could have chosen to go with co-winemaking, but dividing up by ‘color’ just made sense to us.”

Though some might think this is a recipe for trouble, not so for the Neffs. “It has worked out wonderfully,” Heather says. “Aside from the physical labor aspect, we really don’t participate in what each other is doing. It leaves us removed enough that we can more honestly evaluate each others’ wines.”

The Neffs opened their tasting room almost exactly five years ago – on Valentine’s Day 2006. The winery site is beyond spectacular, with breathtaking views of Lake Chelan and an outdoor patio with chairs for sitting, sipping, and looking at the lake.

Stylistically, Heather Neff says, “We joke that we are just a chick and a guy striving to blow your mind, but really we just want to make wine that is easily enjoyed and that makes you want more.” In this, they greatly succeed. The Nefarious estate wines showcase this growing area as well as any. Given the high level of tourist traffic and that Lake Chelan is an extremely young region, wine at many of the area wineries can be hit and miss (with a lot of the latter at present). Nefarious stands squarely at the top with wines that are not only the best in the area but are in the upper tier in the state.

While Chelan has long been known for it’s innumerable outdoor activities, the area is increasingly also known as a wine touring destination. Since the couple started Nefarious Cellars, the number of wineries in the Lake Chelan area has grown to almost twenty and the area has gained American Viticultural Area (AVA) status. Neff says, “The best thing to me, is hearing that someone came to Chelan, just so they could go wine tasting. It used to just be something to do in addition to the sun and fun that Chelan has to offer.”

Though being located in a major tourist town has its benefits, the area presents some significant challenges as a viticultural region due to the cool temperatures and a short growing season. No recent year was as challenging as 2010. Neff says, “We were seriously worried, just like everyone else.” However, the Neff’s ‘vengeful’ cropping along with a late September warm spell allowed them to bring in a good crop of fruit. “I am still not even sure how, but we managed to bring in Syrah from our vineyard at 25 brix. Flavors were there, acids were spot on! Everything got ripe, some things really ripe…Thank God,” Neff says.

Nefarious Cellars produces 2,000 cases annually.

Nefarious Cellars Viognier Defiance Vineyard Lake Chelan 2009 $19
Rating: + (Good) A very pretty aroma profile with melon, floral notes, honey suckle, orange blossom, white peaches, and lemon drop. Dry with a full-bodied feel and a minerally finish. 13.5% alcohol. Recommended

Nefarious Cellars Consequence White Wine Columbia Valley 2009 $18
Rating: + (Good) An appealing aroma profile with spice, pineapple, Granny Smith apples, and green bananas. This is your porch sipper with a touch of sugar on the palate. 55% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Aligote, 5% Viognier.

Nefarious Cellars Riesling Stone’s Throw Vineyard Columbia Valley 2009 $18
Rating: +/* (Good/Excellent) Light spices mingle with peaches, mineral, and citrus. A nice touch of sweetness on the palate well balanced by acidity with a citric uptick on the mineral laden finish. 1.6% Residual Sugar.

Nefarious Cellars Syrah Defiance Vineyard Lake Chelan 2008 $27
Rating: + (Good) Dark in color. An interesting aroma profile with mint, nuts, currant, light herbal notes, and spice. A full mouthfeel with lots of black fruit flavors. Sampled at 68 degrees.

Nefarious Cellars RX-4 Red Wine Columbia Valley 2008 $27
Rating: + (Good) Abundant mint aromas along with cherry, ink, pepper, and a touch of cola. Tart on the palate with a lot of acidity and a zing of black fruit flavors.35% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 22% Counoise, 13% Cinsault. Sampled at 68 degrees.

Nefarious Cellars Syrah Rocky Mother Vineyard Columbia Valley 2008 $42
Rating: * (Excellent) Abundant dry chocolate aromas mix with blackberries, mint, and ink. A big, full, rich wine laden with blackberry and chocolate flavors.

Nefarious Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon Riverbend Vineyard Wahluke Slope 2008 $30
Rating: * (Excellent) Dark chocolate, blackberries, currant, and light spices. Rich and intensely flavorful on the palate with tart, delicious fruit. Fans of the Fielding Hills wines will find this an interesting vineyard comparison.