The promise of Lake Chelan whites, realized
From its first modern day vinifera plantings in 1998 – 25 years ago – it’s been clear that the Lake Chelan appellation could be special as a wine region. It’s the northern-most appellation in the sprawling Columbia Valley. Elevations are higher, starting about 1,100 feet above sea level and moving up.
Lake Chelan itself, 1,486 feet deep and over 50 miles long – yes, you read that right – moderates temperatures, making for warmer winters and cooler summers relative to some other areas of the valley. The appellation’s soils, from the crystalline basement bedrock to the glacial sediments mixed with ash and pumice, are unlike any other in Columbia Valley.
Like all young growing regions though, Lake Chelan has been trying to find its way over the past 25 years. This involves trial and error, but this can also lead, at times, in the wrong direction. To wit, while Lake Chelan has always seemed to hold enormous potential for white varieties in particular, three quarters of existing acreage is currently planted to reds.
Additionally, the extreme popularity of Lake Chelan as a tourist destination – not necessarily a wine tourist destination – has held back the area as a growing region. It’s made vineyard land expensive and also lessened pressure on producers to make high quality wines that can compete with other regions around the state, let alone the country.
Still, the promise of Lake Chelan has always been clear. The 2022 Amos Rome white wines realize that promise. They are quite simply the best white wines I’ve ever had from this appellation. They are also some of the most exciting whites I’ve had from Washington period.
“I desperately did not want him to go to law school”
Our story begins in 2013. The wife and husband team of Briana and Travis Clark grew up in Shoreline, Washington. Briana’s family frequently visited the Chelan valley to vacation. Her parents, Tom and Teddi Pettigrew, loved the area so much, they intended to move there when they retired. In 2013, the Pettigrews found the perfect property in Manson and built a retirement home. The following year, they planted grape vines on the property.
“They wanted nothing to do with a winery,” Briana says. “Their goal was to sell grapes to the winemakers around the valley and help improve Lake Chelan from a growing perspective.”
In 2015, the Pettigrews had the opportunity to purchase a neighboring vineyard, which contains some of the original 1998 commercial plantings in the valley put in by Bob Christopher and Steve Kludt. The vineyard’s fate held in the balance; the land had been zoned for up to 25 houses.
At the time, Travis, was working as a paralegal with intentions of getting a law degree. Briana had other ideas.
“I desperately did not want him to go to law school,” she says.
That’s where wine comes in. Travis first became interested in wine working and living in the country of Georgia when he was in his 20s.
“Every family in Georgia makes their own wine,” Travis says. “It planted a seed for sure, and I think what it did was it kind of demystify the winemaking process.”
“We call it little Germany and Little Spain up there”
In 2015, Travis started moonlighting from his legal job, taking classes at Northwest Wine Academy in Seattle to learn about winemaking. He interned at JM Cellars in Woodinville, with JM founder John Bigelow working with Tom Pettigrew when they were both in the tech industry.
Briana’s father, meanwhile, had fallen hard for grape growing. He received a viticulture certificate from Washington State University’s program (as did Travis) and started a company called Chelan Vineyard Management. The company now manages 90 acres of vineyards across the Chelan valley.
In 2017, Travis took the leap and started making his own wine from Chelan fruit. The couple named their winery Amos Rome, after two family cats. Briana’s father had originally used the name for fruit from the family’s vineyard, and it had developed some local cachet.
“I didn’t really want a winery named after cats, even if it was my cat, but everybody in the valley was already familiar with the name,” Briana says. The Amos Rome logo is a design on the winery name when turned sideways.
Early on, the couple made their wine in a garage in Manson while living in Shoreline. In 2020, with the pandemic in full effect, they moved to Manson to get their winery off the ground. Among the changes was one to the Pettigrews’ dream retirement home.
“My parents, who wanted nothing to do with a winery, remodeled their home, and it is now our tasting room,” Briana says. “They had to move.”
Her parents relocated to another vineyard they purchased in the valley called High Blossom. It is located between 1,850 and 1,970 feet above sea level – quite high by Washington standards.
The vineyard had Riesling vines planted in 2003 by Denis Atam. Other varieties were ripped out and Grüner Veltliner (inspired by a trip to Austria), Albariño, and Tempranillo were planted.
“We call it little Germany and Little Spain up there,” Travis says.
“We’re not as cold as people think”
Amos Rome is a rarity in Washington in that the winery is 100% estate. It also uses 100% Lake Chelan fruit.
“Our mission is to show that we can grow good grapes and make premium wine from those grapes in the lake Chelan AVA,” Travis says.
The winery has advantages most Washington wineries do not. For one, it is co-located with its vineyards.
“Our rosé is pressed minutes after it’s picked,” Briana says. Travis also walks the vineyards at least once a week during the growing season and is able to make quick adjustments.
Of his winemaking style, Travis says, “I like my white wines to be acid-driven. I like the rosés to be very crisp and clean. Then the red wines, we’re very vintage-to-vintage because of how far north we are. I’m still trying to dial in where the red wines should be.”
Overall, Travis believes there is great potential for white varieties in Lake Chelan as well as early to mid-ripening reds.
“We’re not as cold as people think,” he says of the Lake Chelan appellation. “We just have a condensed season. We can’t count on October. So we do get that heat through June, July, and August, and hopefully September.”
“We hold acid quite well”
The 2022 Amos Rome white wines include not one, not two, but three Grüner Veltliners. One is aged in stainless steel, one in concrete, and one in sandstone jarre. The generous 2022 vintage caused the winery to expand the lineup, with Briana scrambling to find something to ferment fruit in.
“I was like ‘Okay, so I can’t find anybody else making Grüner in sandstone, but I think it’s going to work,” she says.
The first impression of the three Grüners, along with a Chenin Blanc from 2022, is that the wines have electric acidity – something that is unusual for white wines coming from the ever-warm Columbia Valley.
The Riesling comes in at 2.95pH – quite low by Washington’s standards. The Chenin at 3.09, picked at 21.9 Brix, and the Grüners are 3.1-3.2 pH. Reds meanwhile are pH 3.4-3.6 (3.8 and above is common in Washington).
“We hold acid quite well,” Travis says.
But the Amos Rome 2022 white wines aren’t just all acid. There’s plenty of flavor ripeness too.
The 2022 Amos Rome wines are not just statement wines for the Lake Chelan appellation. They are some of the most exciting Washington white wines I’ve had – truly wines defined by their acidity. They are both a sign of the potential and a full realization of that potential.
Of course, 2022 was a generous vintage in Washington for acidity. The real test for the winery will come trying to maintain or exceed the level of quality in subsequent vintages. However, the bar has been set.
“We have toddler damage”
Overall, Amos Rome is a quintessential Washington, family-run winery. Travis works full-time at the winery. Briana runs the tasting room, while maintaining a full-time job in the tech industry. The couple’s children – ages six, four, and three – enjoy playing in the vineyards.
“We don’t have bird damage. By our house, we have toddler damage,” Travis says with a laugh.
In addition to being quality wines, the Amos Rome offerings are also well-priced. This is particularly noticeable considering that areas like Lake Chelan that are heavy tourist destinations often see significant price inflation. This was an intentional decision on the Clarks’ part.
“I’m 37 years old,” Briana says. “I have kids. I’m just starting my family life. I want my peers, my friends to be able to afford our wine.”
Briana and Travis Clark have come a long way with Amos Rome. As young as they are and as ambitious as the winery is, they are poised to dramatically advance the prospects of the Lake Chelan appellation wines in the eyes of wine lovers. If so, it will be not just an accomplishment for this appellation but for Washington more generally.
“I’m super proud of him,” Briana says of Travis. “You tell me you want to go to wine school and that I’m going to work a full time job and support a career. I was nervous.”
“Better than me being a lawyer though, right?” Travis responds.
Images courtesy of Amos Rome.