Returning to Spokane Was Always in the Cards
for Arbor Crest Wine Cellars’ Kristina Mielke
Since 1999, Kristina and her husband Jim van Loben Sels have taken the family winery to new heights.
By Sebastian Moraga
She would leave, but always come back.
Finally, after years of living in northern California and working for her family’s Spokane-based winery in the summer, a teenager named Kristina Mielke began feeling that perhaps there was something to this passion that ran through her parents’ and paternal uncle’s veins.
Growing up in the Golden State, she had more than just an inkling of how big a player the wine industry was becoming in her dad’s old home state of Washington, where her uncle ran the winery. So every summer, she would travel to Spokane to help put into bottles a little family project that had been underway for generations.
Originally started as Mielke Orchards, the Mielke brothers Harold (her dad) and David (her uncle) along with her mom, Marcia, turned it into Arbor Crest Wine Cellars, with their first vintage coming in 1982, to pay homage to all the trees in their orchards and to the fact that the home on the winery’s property sat atop a smallish hill.
“They wanted to begin that legacy of the wine and the grapes,” said Kristina. “It was in their blood.”
Kristina soon found out that it was in her blood as well. And now, 40 years since that first vintage, the former Kristina Mielke is Kristina Mielke van Loben Sels, and the former teenager working summers in her parents’ uncle’s winery is the co-owner of that winery along with her husband Jim van Loben Sels, who grew up in his own uncle’s Napa Valley vineyard.
“I organically ended up here,” Kristina said, noting that she was never told nor groomed to one day take the top spot of the family’s winery. Summer after summer she decided to return to Spokane from California to help bottle.
After graduating from high school, Kristina attended the University of California, Davis, where she enrolled in the Enology program despite it having a total of just two other women students. “Everybody I met would say, ‘Oh, you must work in the tasting room,’ and I would say ‘No. I actually make wine.’”
Kristina built her career working at wineries like Mondavi and Ferrari-Carano in California, until it was time to come home in 1999 and apply what she had learned in the California valleys to the Spokane Valley. That was the only part that wasn’t fully her decision. Harold, Marcia and David called her and asked her to come, telling her it was time. She arrived in the middle of harvest, so she got thrown into the deep end right away. The steep learning curve did not faze her. She was home.
“It’s definitely different making wine versus running a winery,” said Kristina, adding, “It’s been neat to see the evolution of Washington in the winery scene.”
It’s also been enriching to see Kristina’s own evolution. For the past five years, the winery has been almost entirely Kristina’s and Jim’s, so when the talk turns to protecting the winery’s legacy, it’s
not just her mom and dad’s and her uncle’s anymore, it’s the legacy of the newer guard as well — Kristina the winemaker and Jim the viticulturalist.
“Our goal at Arbor Crest is really quality-focused,” Jim explained. “We were never focused on yields. I look at it as finding the best location for the varietal you’re trying to grow and plant for the wine program you are trying to make wine for.”
That philosophy seeps into the way Kristina makes wine. “It’s my integrity, it’s my name on the bottle,” she said. The wine she makes has to have her full passion behind it. If people like it, that’s great, but it has to be the best wine she can make. And not necessarily the wine she would love to drink all the time.
“I do make a Riesling that is a bit sweet, but it’s not the first thing that I grab to drink,” she admits. “But sometimes at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a little bit of Riesling with that little bit of sweetness is lovely.”
When Kristina and Jim arrived on the scene, their focus was on strengthening Arbor Crest’s existing portfolio. Then, the focus broadened and allowed Jim to resurrect his family’s old California label: van Loben Sels Cellars — this time in Washington. The van Loben Sels brand focuses on higher-end wines made with mature varietals from handpicked vineyards, with fruit at least a decade old. The brand produces mostly Merlots and Cabs, using mostly fruit from Stillwater Creek Vineyards, located in Grant County. Production maxes out at around 150 cases a year, and the prices reflect the high-end nature of the wine, averaging $45-$55 a bottle.
And about 10 years ago, the shelves got a little fuller still, with the addition of Square Wheel Brewing Beer, made by Kristina’s brother John. “In every group at the tasting room, there’s always one or two people who are more beer drinkers than wine drinkers,” Jim explained. “With Square Wheel on tap, we’ve got the beer drinkers covered. The response is always a grateful one, because now the whole group can sip on something good.”
At the tasting room, which is located in the winery’s historic Cliff House, Sauvignon Blanc remains Arbor Crest’s flagship white wine, with its fruit coming for almost 40 years from the same place, the Bacchus vineyard in Pasco, WA. Other whites include Avansino White, two Chardonnays, a multi-varietal named Cliff House White, a Riesling and a dry Riesling, a Rosé, and a Pinot Gris.
On the other side of the wine list, Cabernet Sauvignon, with its blend of five different vineyards’ fruit, is the winery’s flagship red.
In addition, the winery makes a Cab Franc, a Malbec, a five-Bordeaux-varietal red blend called Dionysus, a limited-edition Cabernet named Cadillac Red, an Avansino red blend, a Merlot, a Pinot Noir, a Sangiovese, a Sangiovese Port and a Syrah.
The Dionysus gets Kristina’s vote. “It’s the most fun for me to make,” she said. “I love drinking it and I love the process of blending the grapes to make the flavor as consistent as possible from year to year. And, of course, each year makes it different. It’s challenging, but it’s fun.
Prices for Arbor Crest wines tend to fall in the mid-tier, with the lowest going for $17 and the highest for about $55. As mentioned above, the wine list also includes the higher-end van Loben Sels Cellars wines.
In a normal year (Note: not the last one) Arbor Crest produces nearly 20,000 cases. For 2021, the goal will be about 12,000, sort of a soft restart after a complete shutdown year in 2020. “I hope that in a couple of years we will be back to normal,” said Kristina.
There are reasons to feel optimistic about the future that go beyond the bottom line. The winery has begun making its first Pinot Noirs and they are turning out great. Pinot Noir goes way back with Kristina, so choosing to start that varietal was like a college reunion.
“When I was in college, we would have all these tastings, and it was my first experience with Pinot Noir,” Kristina explained. “Everybody has these stories about how ‘I started out with Boone’s Farm.’ I went right for the good stuff and I’ve never looked back. I fell in love with it.”
Spokane may be home to her, and she and Jim do have an estate vineyard, but the Lilac City’s weather keeps the fruit from fully ripening each year, so the grapes hail from elsewhere. Wahluke Slope, Columbia Valley and Royal Slope are but a few of the AVAs where Arbor Crest gets its fruit. At the estate, they do a little show-and tell, but most of the production level grapes come from those AVAs. Cab, Sauvignon Blanc, some Chardonnay and some Merlot hail from Columbia Valley; Cab Franc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir come from Royal Slope, and Cab, Merlot and Syrah come from Wahluke Slope.
“Our main revenue source is having folks at the winery for our concerts and for our weddings,” Kristina explained. Jim said 80 percent of Arbor Crest’s business happens now at the property, with 20 percent coming from distribution.
For 19 years until 2020, Arbor Crest hosted a concert series that stopped cold (along with almost everything else) when a certain worldwide bug sent us all home. Until then, the winery served as an eclectic stage for all sorts of Northwest ensembles, from pop, jazz and country to the Spokane Symphony. According to Kristina, not having the concert series in 2020 had a “huge” impact on the winery’s bottom line.
“We were hit hard,” she said. “We are very happy that things are opening up, although it’s been hard to find seasonal workers.”
Now that things are getting back to normal, Kristina and Jim decided to restart the concert series this year. The series began on May 2nd, with concerts scheduled to be held every Thursday and Sunday through September. Attendance at the first series of shows back in 2000 averaged 75 people per night, but in 2019, attendance grew to an average of 1,800 per night in 2019. For a full schedule of Arbor Crest Concert dates, log onto: www.arborcrest.com/concerts-1.
Another anticipated return is that of the wedding receptions, another longtime favorite of couples in the region.
One thing that will not be back is Arbor Crest’s satellite tasting room at the legendary Davenport Hotel in downtown Spokane. “It was an experience that never panned out,” said Jim. “We thought we’d be able to attract out-of-town visitors,” Jim said. “But most of the out-of-town visitors staying in the hotel already had plans for the two or three days they were in town. So then we had to rely on locals, but they preferred to go the estate winery.”
Once the weather gets nice and the estate winery starts welcoming its regular stream of visitors, “I know we will feel normal,” Kristina said, while noting that Jim went for a new kind of normal last year.
A man with deep roots in the wine industry of his home state of California, he came up north with Kristina when Arbor Crest came calling and worked faithfully with her for years. But his passion always lay a few hundred feet above the vines, according to Kristina.
“He’s now the general manager of Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park,” Kristina explained. “He took on that job last year after 20-plus years working with me at the winery.”
“It’s OK to make that shift, and it’s OK to try new things,’’ Jim said. “Once I feel like I have done all I can do at Mt. Spokane, I’ll probably go work with Kristina again, but it’s been a nice change of pace.”
The thought of writing such a plot twist in the story of her life has crossed Kristina’s mind a time or two. The difference is, winemaking is her passion.
“I love carrying on the legacy of making wine that my parents and uncle started at Arbor Crest and building something that my kids might want to be a part of,” said Kristina. “If it changes, I don’t see myself doing anything different. Maybe a different version of it, but I’m embedded in the Washington wine industry.”
Arbor Crest Wine Cellars is located at 4705 N. Fruit Hill Rd, Spokane, WA 99217. If you can’t get to the winery in person, you can purchase all current releases by calling (509) 927-9463 or by visiting the winery’s online store at: www.arborcrest.com.
The History of the Cliff House
By Sebastian Moraga
Built in 1924, the Cliff House has become a big part of the identity of Arbor Crest Wine Cellars. Overlooking the Spokane Valley, the house offers spectacular vistas as well as an unparalleled bit of history of the region.
Ninety-seven years ago, the Cliff House was one of the very few homes in a Spokane Valley that was predominantly agriculture-based, said Jim van Loben Sels, co-owner of Arbor Crest Wine Cellars with wife Kristina Mielke van Loben Sels.
Back in the early days, the Cliff House was built and designed by an eccentric inventor named Royal Riblet, who lived there with six different wives over the years. His last wife lived there until the late 1970s, and after she died, the house that had once been an icon fell into a state of disrepair, with Riblet’s family unable to either part with the house and split the money, or split the house itself.
Enter David Mielke, Kristina’s uncle. The man who started Arbor Crest with his brother Harold made the Riblet family an offer to purchase the house in the early 1980s. That’s when the labor began.
“When David and Harold took it over, the house had windows broken out, water damage…you name it.,” said Jim. “The brothers spent 10 years remodeling the Cliff House and then started working on what I would call the historic inner courtyard.” Today, the courtyard contains a caretaker building, a pool, an office, a gazebo, and many other amenities.
Slowly, the Cliff House started becoming part of the identity of Arbor Crest. By the time Jim and Kristina took the reins of Arbor Crest in 1999, they really took the Cliff House into overdrive, with more weddings, more concerts, an expanded tasting room, a bigger parking lot, improved water system, all while preserving a lot of the quirky charm brought about by the fertile mind of Riblet almost 100 years earlier.
“It’s iconic for Spokane,” Jim said of the house. “When you drive into town on Interstate 90, you can see it.” The family decided to take it over as a point of community pride, Jim added, but also with the vision of creating the same kind of phenomena that was occurring in California’s wine industry at the time.
“At that time, in the early 1980s, Napa was kind of the epicenter of California’s wine industry,” Jim explained. “The success of the California wine industry came down to wineries being located in beautiful buildings on beautiful estate grounds that could tell your winery’s story. So, I think David and Harold were trying to be forward-thinking regarding what was going to make Arbor Crest stand out as the wine industry grew here. They felt the Cliff House would do that.”
It was intimidating at first, because fixing it would take (and took) a lot of effort, but it resulted in a game-changer for the winery, really changing the trajectory of Arbor Crest, from what Jim called a mom-and-pop winery to what it is today.
All thanks to a house built 97 years ago 450 feet above the valley floor with views that go as far as Idaho and Cheney, WA.
“It sets us apart as a winery,” Jim said proudly.