Arbor Crest Winery

By Christina Kelly
Avalon Editor/Writer

Kristina Mielke was 12-years-old when her parents, Harold and Marcia Mielke along with Harold’s brother David Mielke started a winery in Spokane, WA in 1982, pulling out cherry trees from the family’s cherry farm to plant grapes.

She wasn’t interested in wine as a teenager, although she worked at the new winery—Arbor Crest—during the summers. Kristina wanted to be a veterinarian and eventually attended the University of California at Davis to study veterinary medicine.

Fortunately for Arbor Crest, Mielke discovered in her sophomore year that the sight of blood made her queasy, and she quickly changed her major to Fermentation Science with the thought of working in her parents’ winery. It didn’t hurt matters when she married Jim van Loben Sels, who was majoring in agricultural economics at UC Davis and supervising irrigation management for vineyards throughout northern California.

Kristina Mielke-van Loben Sels took on the role of winemaker at Arbor Crest in 1999 and her husband replaced her Uncle David Mielke as general manager. She immediately began making changes to the wines based on her education, the skills and training she received at Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and other wineries as well as her own personal tastes.

Prior to her arrival, Arbor Crest wines were pleasant, but few garnered national acclaim or much notice outside of the Northwest and some European markets. Her uncle who had managed the business for 17 years asked his niece to move from California to take over the family business.

“My goal was always to come here and make wine—I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon,” van Loben Sels said. “We’d just bought a house (in California) with six acres and had planned to plant Zinfandel at the time, moving to Spokane wasn’t at the top of my list.

“At the same time, the opportunity to take over the family winery and make the wines I wanted to make far outweighed the inconvenience of relocating.”

In a few short years, van Loben Sels was producing wine that made consumers and wine critics sit up and take notice. She immediately changed the way the winery fermented red wines and modified holding tanks so she could produce more red wine. At the time of her arrival, the winery produced about 70 percent white wine, 30 percent red wine. She changed it to 50/50.

Her goal was to obtain the proper temperatures and get more extraction from the grapes.

The problem, she said, was not the fruit—Arbor Crest was procuring the best grapes from the state’s most acclaimed vineyards.

“I wanted to change the process to make wines more to my taste,” van Loben Sels said. “I thought Arbor Crest made good wines, but as the new winemaker, I wanted to make my mark on the wines, which required some changes in the way we processed grapes.”

She also changed the barrel program at the winery, barrel-fermented her Chardonnay (previously made in steel tanks) and added more oak. Her white wines are fresher, more crisp and lively with the kind of acidity that works wonders with food.

In addition, van Loben Sels wanted wines to sing harmoniously with food.

A Location to Die For

Prior to her arrival, Arbor Crest brothers Harold and David purchased a run-down mansion, built in 1924, on a cliff overlooking the Spokane Valley and surrounding mountains. Known as the “Cliff House,” the brothers spent years and a hefty sum of money renovating the mansion into the winery’s tasting room. Complete with a gazebo, a small stage for outdoor concerts and beautifully landscaped lawns, the tasting room has one of the state’s best views atop a volcanic outcrop some 450 feet above the Spokane River.

By the time van Loben Sels arrived, the Cliff House was already booked for weddings and other special events. Her job, as she saw it, was to raise the level of winemaking to the heights of the breathtaking views from the tasting room.

Jim van Loben Sels continued to add great vineyards to the winery’s portfolio. As the viticulturist, Jim knew that great wine in the glass had to start in the vineyard. He would leave the rest to his wife.

“I think she is a great winemaker,” he said proudly. “She has a great palate and an intuitive sense for blending wines.”

Since her arrival at Arbor Crest, the winery is on the map, winning awards for Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The winery is also producing Riesling, Syrah, Pinot Gris, Sangiovese, and a very tasty Cabernet Franc. They also have a terrific Bordeaux blend—Dionysus—a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cab Franc. The 1999 version has alluring aromas of cedar, plum, nutmeg, cherry and maple sugar on the palate. The winery is currently bottling the 2000 version.

A recent barrel tasting of the 2000 Dionysus showed a beefier wine than her other offerings, with big round flavors, more structure and juicy fruit. This is a wine that will cellar well for years.

One of the best buys from Arbor Crest is the recent Cliff House blends—a surprisingly tasty kitchen sink blend of Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah. The white version is perfect for a summer picnic, and the blush is great for drinking on a warm spring/summer day with light food fare.

Arbor Crest is producing about 20,000 cases annually, making it one of the largest family-owned wineries in Washington, along with Hedges, Kiona, L’Ecole and Barnard Griffin.

But Jim and Kristina’s production turned personal about a year ago, when son Jack was born. While too young yet to know his destiny, the van Loben Sels think they could have a third generation winemaker on their hands.

“We’ll have to wait and see on that one,” Kristina said, laughing. “He still has a lot of discoveries to make.”


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