Nefarious Cellars: Defiance on the Lake

Nefarious Cellars is wrapped in a tale that is equal parts love story, passion for wine, and unabashed defiance

Pictured: Nefarious Cellars is a family winery on Lake Chelan run by winemakers Dean and Heather Neff. Patrick Bennett photo.
Pictured: Nefarious Cellars is a family winery on Lake Chelan run by winemakers Dean and Heather Neff. Patrick Bennett photo.

Click here to view the article as it appeared in the Summer 2012 issue.

AS YOU drive over the ridges of Bear Mountain on Highway 97, Lake Chelan appears before you, sparkling a surreal turquoise color, caused by runoff from glaciers of the nearby North Cascades.  As the highway bends to the right on its gentle descent toward town, tucked away on the left-hand side of the road and perched overlooking the lake is Nefarious Cellars.

The tale of this winery mirrors that of this young and growing wine region and is equal parts love story, passion for wine, and defiance.

The wife and husband team of Heather and Dean Neff began their foray into the world of winemaking in 1998 by planting a one-acre test block on a piece of family land 20 miles north of Chelan.  Planting a vineyard in the area was, at the time, an audacious thing to do.  While the area had a hundred year history of growing tree fruit and people had intermittently grown wine grapes, no one was yet producing grapes commercially in the area at the time.  In fact, many believed it was too cold.

Heather Neff says of their decision to plant a vineyard and start a winery, “It was the whole thought that winemaking was romantic, that sort of life that you imagine in your head.”  It was this life that the Neffs set out to find.

The couple’s experimental vineyard confirmed two things.  The first was that growing grapes in the area was possible; the second was that learning to make wine would require more training.  “We decided if we were going to put our life savings on the line, we had to get a lot of hands-on experience,” Dean says.

So they packed up their belongings and traveled to Oregon’s famous Willamette Valley where they spent the next two and a half years learning the tools of the trade.  By the time they were lured back to Chelan, eager to start their winery, a fledgling wine industry had already begun to take root in the area.

The Neffs planted two vineyards near their original test block north of Chelan in 2004.  Rocky Mother (“It is!” Heather declares of the name) is planted to Syrah while nearby Stone’s Throw is planted to Riesling.  They also purchased land on the outskirts of Chelan for another estate vineyard and as a home for their winery.  They planted this site to Syrah, Malbec and Viognier, naming it Defiance Vineyard because, after all, it was still questionable how wine grapes, or a winery for that matter, would fare at Lake Chelan.

On a romantic overture, the couple opened their tasting room on Valentine’s Day in 2006.

At Nefarious, the Neffs take a unique approach to making their wines.  Heather makes the white wines; Dean makes the reds.

“It seemed like a logical thing,” Heather explains. “We could either divide up the varieties or we could make it really simple.”  While for some this division of labor might prove difficult, the Neffs have thrived.

“I think it’s helped keep the peace really,” Dean says with a laugh.  “Otherwise it would have been too many chefs in the kitchen if we’d both been trying to call the shots on all the wines.”  Heather adds, “And it turns out, I love making white wines, I really do.”

Now with eight vintages under their belts at the winery, the Neffs have not only demonstrated that grapes can be grown here, but they have proven that grapes can be grown well.  Nefarious has firmly established itself as one of Lake Chelan’s flagship wineries, and a visit to the winery is nothing short of a requirement when traveling to the area.

The location, which also has a small, attached production facility, is beyond stunning.  Defiance Vineyard spreads out around you with rows of vines filled with plump fruit gently sloping down toward the lake.  An outdoor patio overlooking Lake Chelan makes for a perfect spot to fritter away the afternoon sipping on a glass of wine while getting lost in the area’s myriad colors.

As Nefarious Cellars has blossomed over the years, so too has the Lake Chelan wine scene.  The area is currently home to nearly twenty wineries and over 250 acres of vineyards, with significant plantings of Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Riesling.  Though people still come in droves to take in Lake Chelan’s many natural splendors, they now come for another reason.

“The best thing to me, is hearing that someone came to Chelan just so they could go wine tasting,” Heather Neff says.  With the love, passion, and defiance the Neffs have put into their winery and vineyards, there can be no doubt that people will be coming to Lake Chelan wine country for years to follow.

Written by Sean P. Sullivan