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Arbor Crest Winery

By Eric Degerman, Wine Press Northwest From the Spring 1999 issue

On the Edge of Greatness - Historical Cliff House Helps Spokane's Arbor Crest Wine Cellars Rise to New Heights

Volcanic view: The Cliff House, one of the Spokane Valley's most famous buildings, also is home to some terrific Washington wines. The house, built in 1924, sits on volcanic rock 450 feet above the Spokane River and offers one of the most spectacular views in the region.

It's difficult to decide which is most memorable about a trip to Arbor Crest Wine Cellars in Spokane: Is it the view from Cliff House, built on a precipice of volcanic rock rising 450 feet above the Spokane River's edge? Or is it the wonderfully crafted wine you can enjoy as you gaze upon the Spokane Valley and the city skyline to the west?

Thankfully, you can have the best of both worlds: Photographs can transport you back in time. And you can always uncork another bottle of Arbor Crest wine.

Many of those with first-hand experience arrived at Arbor Crest after noticing Cliff House to the north while driving through the Spokane Valley on Interstate 90 or by hearing about it through the proverbial grapevine.

The wine itself enjoys a growing following in the Northwest. Much of Arbor Crest's product ends up in Eastern Europe, thanks in part to the connections of winemaker Mikhail Brunstein.

"We haven't done a lot of advertising," said Candace Frasher, who handles international communications and sales for Arbor Crest and also conducts tours of the grounds with the aplomb of a Hearst Castle guide.

Behind this unique winery and its wines lies a rich history.

The idea of combining the two belongs to brothers David and Harold Mielke, who co-own the property and the wine business. Their family dug its roots in the fruit-growing industry beginning in 1910, and David, who once described himself as "a dirt farmer," even contemplated changing over his 150-acre cherry orchard to a vineyard.

Each visitor to Arbor Crest should be thankful his dream didn't end in that orchard.

"This is David's vision," Frasher said. "In 1984, this place would have made the best ghost house. The grounds were overgrown and dried up, dusty and dirty. It would have been perfect for Halloween."

Now, it's a showplace.

"Our business has never been better, that's for sure," David said, referring to record sales in 1998.

The 70-acre estate once belonged to Royal Newton Riblet, an eccentric inventor with more than 90 registered patents and who helped his brother Byron build up a tram business in Spokane. Riblet Aerial Tramway Co. once was the largest chairlift manufacturer in the world. Byron's company also erected the gondola over the Spokane River for Expo '74.

Cliff House, a three-story Florentine-style home constructed in 1924, was billed as the most electrical home in the United States because of its built-in refrigerator and an electric log fireplace that was unprecedented and remains in operation to this day.

Although the brothers grew estranged after a 1933 financial dispute, Royal lived on the estate he called "Eagle's Nest" up to his death in 1960 at age 88. His seventh - and final - marriage lasted 32 years, and Mildred - 30 years younger - remained at Cliff House until she died in 1978. The estate fell into disrepair in her final years and virtually was in ruin when the Mielkes purchased the property in 1985. That was six years after the Cliff House's designation as a National Historic Landmark.

Through years of renovation, the Mielkes transformed Cliff House from a veritable money pit into the headquarters for Arbor Crest's six-member staff. And a homey work environment it is, with classical music flowing across the grounds from speakers hidden amid the majestic pine trees.

Cliff House, which contains the tasting room on the ground floor, is connected by bridge to a gazebo that overlooks the Spokane Valley. Only a few strides away are an archery range, putting green, croquet court, a pool built into the natural basalt rock, waterfalls, a rose garden and lawn. The croquet court, made of cement, was covered not by grass but by a layer of sand in the summer. That made for easy removal and the transformation in winter to an ice rink.

There's more.

Royal built a five-passenger tram in 1927 that carried visitors across the Spokane River and what is now Plantes Ferry Park. The self-operated contraption ran on cables from near a water tower on a current gravel pit up to the tram house, adjacent to the croquet court. The 1H-mile trip often included a stop for fishing from the tram car.

Royal's hideaway to construct his inventions now is the business office. Frasher and national sales manager Joe Algeo work on opposite ends of the arch built as a caretaker's home. When the Riblets entertained, they often used it as a guest house.

While Cliff House lures fans of Arbor Crest wine, it also draws the curious sightseer. However, families with children under age 21 are not allowed on the estate because of the nature of the business and the dangers associated with the topography.

"Kids see the life-sized checkerboard, then go off climbing on the rocks," Frasher said. "That's why we can't have weddings here."

In addition to the buildings, there are the Cliff House Estate Vineyards, started in 1988. They are believed to be the only working vineyards in Spokane, and the elevation of 2,539 feet and the climate are well suited for the chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier and pinot gris grown for sparkling wines.

Arbor Crest procures its other grapes in Washington from Columbia Valley growers or a 140-acre Wahluke Slope vineyard in which the Mielkes are partners.

Arbor Crest produces 13 styles of wine and an annual average of about 30,000 cases. About 50 percent stays in the region, 40 percent is shipped to other areas of the United States, and 10 percent goes abroad.

Arbor Crest's sauvignon blanc, which costs $7 at the winery, especially is worth looking for in Northwest grocery and liquor stores.

"That's kind of our flagship wine," Frasher said.

Arbor Crest's 1995 release received a silver medal at the 1996 World Wine Championships in Chicago and the Pacific Northwest Enological Society's wine festival in Seattle. The 1996 sauvignon blanc earned a gold medal in Seattle and silver in Chicago.

Two keys to the smoothness of his sauvignon blanc include the low amount of sulfur dioxide added - which retards spoiling - and the amount of oak barreling.

In 1997, Arbor Crest produced 25,000 cases, about 7,000 of those sauvignon blanc. Sales manager Algeo said Arbor Crest and other Washington-produced sauvignon blancs enjoy an advantage over their California counterparts.

"Most of the Washington sauvignon blancs are fruitier and fresher than those in California, which have a more grassy quality," Algeo said.

Arbor Crest is moving toward more reds - an industry trend - and fewer cases because of the time-consuming process of barrel aging.

In the spring/summer 1998 issue of Wine Press Northwest, the 1995 merlot received a "very good" and the comment "lots of aging potential" from the tasting panel. That judging was for the regular release ($11). The '95 reserve merlot, priced at less than $14, likely would grade out even higher.

Unlike many wineries, at Arbor Crest, the visitor finds more than just a tasting room counter. And David Mielke is more than co-owner. He's also the caretaker, living in a secluded log cabin several hundred yards from Cliff House.

"I'm the first one here and the last one to leave," said David, who prefers to stay behind the scenes, tool the grounds on his off-road vehicle and perform maintenance work. "If you are the boss, you do it all."

That's for sure. Remarkably, the main house and/or grounds may be rented for special events. Other times, Arbor Crest invites its distributors and cherished guests to lodge at Cliff House.

"One time, one of our guests said she had to call the caretaker to come up and change a light bulb," Frasher said. "She didn't know who he was. And I said, 'Oh, that was the owner.' And she said, 'Wow!' "

You don't have to be a house guest at Arbor Crest to come away saying that.

Reprinted with permission from Wine Press NW.

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