Owners Rob and Donna Mellison have taken the average tasting room experience of this Lake Chelan winery to a new level.
By Dan Radil
Some might argue that creating a successful winery in the Lake Chelan area is a simple enterprise.
For years, this North Central Washington geographic gem has been a recreational playground, set against a backdrop of natural beauty and abundant sunshine that acts as a magnet for tourists.
But winery location is only part of the equation, and few know that better than Rob and Donna Mellison of Chelan’s Mellisoni Vineyards. The Mellisons have added equal measures of hard work, top-tier wines, and good old-fashioned customer service to package something they refer to as the “Mellisoni experience.” It’s taken the average tasting room visit to a new level, and has left many of their customers feeling as if they just walked out of a two-hour massage…with wine.
INSPIRATION FROM ITALY
Rob is a Seattle native, while Donna is originally from the Orange County, California area. After meeting at Oregon State University in 1998, where Donna attended Pharmacy College, the couple purchased property in Chelan in 2002 at their present location…with absolutely no intention of opening a winery.
We were just going to have our fifth wheel here,” Donna laughs, “(but) a trip to Italy that same year, 2002, is when it all started. When we came back we decided to put in a boutique vineyard and winery.
The life-changing experience began after a week-long stay at a villa at Livernano Winery in Tuscany, where they met then-proprietor Marco Montanari and about 10 other guests from around the world.
“We got to know them all over this period of time, drinking wine and having fun,” recalls Rob. “And the cool thing about Montanari was his style of running the winery,” adds Donna. “He was there for the entertaining as well as for the wine. That’s what matched up with us, because entertaining was one of our fortés.”
On the plane trip back, the Mellisons wasted no time in making future plans for their newly purchased Chelan property. “We said, let’s do this,” says Rob, “let’s start a winery and bring this feeling, this experience, back to the States and do the same thing. Let’s give people the chance to come and meet each other and make new friends.”
MORE WINERIES, MORE VISITORS
While the Mellisons were getting underway with their winery, there were only about five or six others in the Chelan area (today there are well over 30). They decided to add an ‘i’ to their last name to give it more of an Italian feel, then planted their first vineyard of Riesling and Gewurztraminer grapes on their property in 2006, with Pinot Grigio following in 2007.
Their fifth wheel camper served as the original tasting room when the winery opened in 2010; they replaced it four years later with a beautiful facility that showcases a stunning, 180-degree hillside view of the lake.
“The town (of Chelan) has also changed in a great way since we opened, says Rob. “The wineries have really driven the economy, and it’s become a year-round resort area now. We’re busy during the wintertime, which really translates well for all the other businesses. Now they’re getting people when the town would pretty much close down.”
Although the area’s wineries are certainly a draw for visitors, the Mellisons know that quality wines are also essential for bringing people in, and back, to their tasting room.
Rob notes that Seattle-area residents are frequent return visitors to the area, some with second homes, some just looking for a weekend getaway. And while it might be said that their spending has led, in part, to higher Chelan wine prices (including for example, the Mellison’s much-talked-about, $45-a-bottle, five-red-wine-blend Rosé), Donna doesn’t entirely agree.
“It’s not just what the market can bear,” she says. “You have to think about the quality of the wine. No matter how pretty it looks, if it doesn’t have the taste, the structure and the complexity, we couldn’t sell it at that price.”
NEW VINEYARDS & WINES ON THE HORIZON
In addition to their four acres of estate vineyards, the Mellisons currently obtain about half of their grapes from outside sources; primarily Stillwater Creek Vineyard in the Royal Slope area, a soon-to-be recognized Washington appellation.
In 2018, the Mellisons will draw on an additional estate vineyard, plus a six-acre vineyard adjacent to nearby Tsillan Cellars, where they’ve partnered with the owner to plant and produce Cabernet Sauvignon.
Two of Mellisoni’s standard wine offerings are the “3 Bastards,” an equal-parts blend of Chardonnay, Roussanne and Viognier, and “45 Degrees”, a 70/30 Riesling/Gewurztraminer blend named for the estate’s steeply sloped vineyards. Upcoming releases include a stainless-steel fermented Chardonnay, a re-release of their stunning “60 Degrees” Sangiovese/Barbera/Nebbiolo blend, and nine barrels of Port-style wine, which Rob plans to phase in on a yearly basis.
Back at the tasting room, the Mellisons are always focused on their successful formula for excellent customer service, which they feel has garnered plenty of word-of-mouth referrals and earned the winery near-cult status. They’re constantly putting on a few “finishing touches” to the facility that also houses their living quarters on the second level, and tirelessly working on new and better ways to keep visitors entertained and happy.
That includes gently encouraging guests to move away from the sometimes crowded indoor tasting bar and step outside to the patio and terrace with a beautifully manicured lawn and gardens.
As guests relax in Adirondack chairs overlooking the lake, the Mellisoni staff brings wines to them for tasting, along with made-to-order charcuterie plates and even big, cushy blankets to cuddle up in when the weather turns cooler.
“We don’t care for the ‘mosh pit-style’ tasting room,” Donna says. “Everything is sensory, so if you have a lot of noise and people bumping into you, those things distract from the tasting of the wine. We’re generally heavily staffed because we want to take care of the customer.”
“Look out on the lawn,” adds Rob, “and you’ll see everyone sitting out there with their groups and with their friends, enjoying themselves. We want people to walk out of our winery saying, ‘wow’ that was a really great place.”
It’s all part of the “Mellisoni experience” that, quite literally, includes opening their home, pouring excellent wines, and relaxing in a picture-perfect location. If it all seems a bit like a visit to an Italian villa in Tuscany, then the Mellisons have succeeded in making you feel like one of the family.
Mellisoni Vineyards is located at 3155 Hwy US-97 Alt, Chelan, WA. 98816. Hours: Noon to 6 pm, Friday through Sunday. By appointment only, Monday through Thursday. Phone: (509) 293-1891. Wines can also be ordered online at: www.mellisonivineyards.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dan Radil is a freelance wine writer and educator based in Bellingham, WA., and has been an avid follower and supporter of the Washington wine industry since the mid-1980s. He currently contributes to Wine Press Northwest and Bellingham Alive Magazine, is President of the Whatcom Beer & Wine Foundation, and produces a wine blog called: danthewineguy.com.