Young winemaker returns to family farm to make his mark
Family wine business expands into related value-added services
By DAN WHEAT
MANSON, Wash. -- Jonathon Kludt grew up working in his parents' cherry and apple orchards and went off to college thinking he wouldn't spend his life on the family farm.
But during his years at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., apple prices tanked and his parents switched from apples to wine grapes at their Manson orchard. They obtained the first commercial state winery license in Chelan County on Sept. 12, 2000.
They were pioneers of the now robust Lake Chelan wine industry that in April 2009 became Washington's 11th federally recognized American Viticultural Area.
"I was sitting down there (in California), hearing of families around my folks losing their farms," Kludt said. "Dad started planting grapes and it spurred my interest in winemaking."
With a degree in economics and business and a minor in art from Westmont, Kludt became a year-long intern at Fess Parker Winery in Los Olivos, northwest of Santa Barbara. The winery, inn and general store was started by actor Fess Parker, known for portraying Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone on television, and who died at 85 this past March.
Parker was at the winery on weekends. His son, Eli, was running it. Coonskin caps were a theme and customers would occasionally break out in Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone songs.
It was fun, but Kludt wanted to know if the wine business was for him "because moving back home was the last thing I wanted to do."
Meanwhile, his father needed all the help he could get. He harvested grapes from old pioneer vines in 2000 and had his first crush that year from grapes from outside the area. He was planning for the first harvest of his own grapes in the fall of 2002.
Kludt loved his experience at Fess Parker Winery. He returned home to help his parents in time for the first harvest.
"It was an exciting time," Kludt recalled. "We didn't have any pumps. We bought tanks, forklifts and hoses. With no pumps, everything was gravity. It's a trend now, but not then."
Kludt and his father, Steve, ended up planting a lot of winegrapes for other wineries on Lake Chelan, including Kludt's own Wapato Point Cellars. At first, it was important to Kludt to be independent from his folks, who started Lake Chelan Winery. Now the family operates the two wineries and their two restaurants. Kludt's sister, April, and brother-in-law, Ben Williams, are involved.
The barbecue at Lake Chelan Winery is informal, but Winemaker's Grill at Wapato Point Winery is an elegant, white-table-cloth setting with a wine-centric menu.
Kludt loves to travel and gains ideas from visiting wineries in Europe, Australia and South America. His interest in art has helped with the aesthetics of the restaurants and food.
Now 30, Kludt has been making wine since he was 22. He employed winemaker Ray Sandidge to teach him the craft.
"He studied cool-climate grape growing and taught me all the important aspects of how to stylistically take a wine from the grapes and let the wine speak for itself," Kludt said.
As with apples, the cool fall climate gives the grapes a crispness with more natural acids, less need for adjustments and a wine of "slightly lower alcohol content and more elegance" that's "food-friendly," he said.
Kludt feels a sense of accomplishment seeing a vibrant wine industry at Lake Chelan with its own AVA, producing "world-class, award-winning" wines.
"I get a perspective on the wine world, the rich history of it from traveling," he said. "The culture of wine is embedded in places like Italy. Everyone has a vineyard in their backyard. It's fun to see that starting here."