Kristina Mielke-van Löben Sels was 12 when Arbor Crest Wine Cellars was born.
Her first memory of the family winery was sitting around the table of her California home with her father, uncle, the winemaker and other family members as they tried to come up with a name for the new family winery.
Arbor Crest holds the license for the 29th winery in the state and they are celebrating 30 years of winemaking this year. Mielke-van Löben Sels was not initially destined to become the winemaker for her family’s operation, but she eventually found her way back into the family business in 1999. By that time, there were 113 wineries in the state. Now, there are more than 700.
Mielke-van Löben Sels and her husband, Jim van Löben Sels, oversee the operations including the historic Cliff House, part of the former Royal Riblet estate, soaring above the Spokane River and Valley. They’ve recovered from a fire that gutted the historic Cliff House before Christmas almost three years ago and recently launched a new high-end wine label that they have been dreaming about for a decade called van Löben Sels Cellars. They’ve also decided to brew beer for guests at Arbor Crest.
They sat down outside the winery’s tasting room recently to talk about Arbor Crest’s growth and rebirth.
S-R: Your grandfather may have dreamed about a vineyard in the Spokane Valley long before your father and uncle started Arbor Crest in 1982. Is that right?
Mielke-van Löben Sels: That’s right. He was a farmer, so it was in his nature to find out what was going on with the grapes … We have viticultural reports he requested talking about grapes and they were dated from the 1940s.
Van Löben Sels: He was working with the UC extension office to try to find different clones and varieties that would be appropriate for Spokane and I think they were just trying to diversify a little and find something that was outside of their comfort zone, which at that time was the cherry business.
Mielke-van Löben Sels: They had an amazing facility that processed the cherry pie filling for Hostess and Dolly Madison.
S-R: Did your dad and your uncle go into the family business then? Why did they decide to start a winery?
Mielke-van Löben Sels: It was all Mielke Orchards and then they said: “Let’s do something different.” They had the idea of growing grapes but quickly realized that the growing season was too short. Still, they found grapes from vineyards in the middle of the state that were phenomenal and went that route.
S-R: Were either of them winemakers?
Mielke-van Löben Sels: No, they just had passion for wine.
Van Löben Sels: And growing. (They) developed those initial relationships with grape growers. There is a vineyard that we still get fruit from that is called Wahluke Slope Vineyards. They were a partner in that and they planted it … which is where our petit syrah, malbec and sangiovese still comes from.
S-R: Kristina, tell me about your first experience with the family winery?
Mielke-van Löben Sels: I remember when we were in California sitting around the table at our home with all of the players. That was my very first memory of the actual winery. As I got older I would come up in the summers and just help with bottling mostly … Then, when I ended up heading off to college I had a couple of things in mind. I wanted to be a vet or I was intrigued about going into the family business. I spent my last semester of college up here doing an internship for the harvest and that was 1992.
S-R: Kristina, when you finished college you worked at Ferrari-Carano. How long did you work there?
Mielke-van Löben Sels: I was there seven years. I was able to do a variety of different things there that actually helped me once I came here. When I started, I ran the lab and then I was the experimental winemaker so I got to learn the whole gamut from when to pick the fruit to how to make the wine to different root stocks. After that I was the associate winemaker for three years.
S-R: Your uncle eventually called to say he was ready to retire and invited you to come run Arbor Crest?
Van Löben Sels: That call came and it was about 10 years earlier than we thought it would be.
Mielke-van Löben Sels: But we haven’t looked back.
S-R: Do you have any regrets about coming to Spokane?
Mielke-van Löben Sels: Not at all, especially from a winemaking standpoint. I think this place is phenomenal – with the quality of grapes that we can produce and the variety/diversity with all of these different wine growing regions. With the cool nights, you get such a balanced grape from the start. People are really excited about Washington state wines.
S-R: What changes are you most proud of that you’ve brought to the winery?
Mielke-van Löben Sels: I’m most proud of the overall quality of the wine.
Van Löben Sels: I would add to that a consistency on a year-to-year basis.
S-R: What made you launch Van Löben Sels Cellars?
Mielke-van Löben Sels: It has been our plan to add Van Löben Sels Cellars for awhile. It took some time and I didn’t want to just put anything in the bottle and I think we really found the vineyard and the sources and the varietals that we wanted to work with and that has been exciting.
S-R: How did you feel when you found out the Cliff House was on fire in 2009?
Van Löben Sels: I thought, “A part of us is gone.”
Mielke-van Löben Sels: I was depressed for six months after. It was part of the community as well. It wasn’t just our house, everybody has a memory of it long before we were here. I don’t know, it was so sad.
S-R: When did you know it was going to be OK?
Mielke-van Löben Sels: I finally got to the point where I decided I have to look at the silver lining here. So, now we have a kitchen. I always wanted to do demonstrations and wine pairings but we didn’t have a kitchen. We’ve had our Christmas parties for the staff there, and we could never really do that with the design of the old building. I’m so dang sentimental. Everybody has a story about it from way before we were ever here. That is why I felt such a weight on my shoulders, I felt like I let everyone down.
S-R: Now what is this stuff I’ve been hearing about beer?
Mielke-van Löben Sels: It’s a standard in the industry to say it takes a lot of beer to make great wine. And we always talked about making it just for fun. Our event coordinator said that people were often asking for beer. We’re just microbrewing very small batches. We’re just receiving our license right now. We’ll probably wait until harvest is over and then we’ll start brewing.