Retirement reveals talent for winemakingYou might call it beginner’s luck, but an unexpected thing happened to John and Jan Little when they opened Rio Vista Winery back in 2005 and shipped some sample product off to a major wine competition in Dallas, Texas:
They took third place in the category of red blends – an amazing accomplishment for an upstart winery and still-novice winemaker.
“We thought we’d just try it,” remembers John about entering that first competition. “But as you can see, we’ve gotten lots of awards since then.” He was referring to the formal awards on display in the Rio Vista tasting room a few miles north of Chelan just footsteps from an inviting beach on the Columbia River. It seems they keep winning awards just about every year for the various blends and variations that John has an uncanny ability to create.
It’s not that John went to France or Napa to study with the world’s greatest winemakers because the reality is he picked up most of his knowledge from wine experts right here in North Central Washington. He took a few wine classes and he was a “cellar rat” at Lake Chelan Winery for a while. But he thinks his most important training came from a guy in Mattawa named Miguel Martinez, who knows everything there is to know about growing grapes – the most important part of the process, in John’s opinion.
John recalls a favorite saying: “Good wine is made in the vineyard – all the winemaker has to do is keep from spilling it on the floor.”
So John’s knack for winemaking is at least in part a knack for growing grapes, and he comes by that naturally having grown up on a farm and spending 10 years as an apple orchardist. Later he worked as a maintenance carpenter at Wenatchee Valley College while Jan taught elementary school in the Wenatchee School District. They bought the Columbia River property in 1995 with an eye toward retirement.
“Retirement was going to be a vacation,” remembers Jan. “We were going to be sitting on a beach and reading a good book.”
But they now had the land and they wanted to do something with it. They planted grapes in 2000, more in 2004, and by 2005 they were selling their first wine. It grew from there with still more grapes planted this year, making a total of six acres of grapes that will enable them to soon produce wine entirely from their own grapes. They also opened a second tasting room, a move that has been wildly successful.
Today, Rio Vista is a family operation with the Littles’ son, John Jr. helping out as assistant winemaker among other duties, and daughter Kerry Siderius designing the impressive wine labels as well as displaying her art in the Rio Vista at the River tasting room. Granddaughter Kelsey Chavez is in charge of the new tasting room, Rio Vista at the Cabin, an authentic log cabin in downtown Manson.
Rio Vista is the only waterfront winery in North Central Washington and, in summer, a regular clientele arrive by boat, beaching their craft on the sandy waterfront just down from the tasting room. Located about half way between Chelan and Pateros, the winery also can be reached by seaplane from Chelan – a special $69 package that includes a scenic flight to and from the winery, and an hour of tasting at the winery.
The Littles take some pride in the fact that Rio Vista is a family-friendly winery with safe play areas for the kids. Dogs are welcome, too. And because the winery has beautiful landscaping, rows of vineyards and sweeping views of the Columbia River, it also is a popular spot for weddings.
The winery has an elaborately decorated water-view room available for the bride and groom – if they want to spend their wedding night at the winery. The room also is available to anyone else who would enjoy a special overnight getaway at the winery.
Rio Vista has a live-music stage and hosts several musical events each year, the biggest being their Fourth of July picnic. The winery will host a concert to benefit the recent Chelan fire victims on October 10 with music by the Lake Boys. Last year, a similar event raised $11,000 for victims of the Carlton Complex Fire.
If you stop by the river location to taste Rio Vista wine, the first three tastes are free, and you can get three more for $5. There presently are eight red wines and three whites available for tasting although that can change as new wines are added and others sell out. Prices run generally from $20 to $32 per bottle.
The Littles never did end up on that beach with that good book – unless you count the riverfront just a few steps from their tasting room – but John says “retirement” at the winery means their social circle just continues to grow as more people sign up for the Rio Vista Wine Club.
“I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I have,” he said. “I’m really happy to say we have 300 new friends now.”
(Rio Vista’s riverfront location at 24415 SR 97, Chelan, is a half-mile or so off Highway 97. The turn-off is about 3.5 miles north of the junction of Highway 97 and Highway 97A. More information is at www.riovistawines.com or please phone 509-682-9713. For information on seaplane flights to the winery, phone 509-682-5555.)
RECOMMENDED LODGING: Lake Chelan lodging
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