A Perilous Incident in a Vineyard above Lake Chelan

by guest contributor John Fahey who also shared the picture above of his “group of decidedly unsympathetic friends taken moments before the runaway car incident

This weekend, the Chelan Valley celebrated the ten year anniversary of receiving its AVA designation. A while ago, I wrote a funny article about a true story that took place at a winery in Manson. Sadly, the winery closed right when I finished writing, and the magazine decided not to publish it.

I thought this would be a good time to share the article for those who might like to reminisce about some of the fantastic wineries that have come and gone in the valley in the last twenty years. So, I present to you (slightly edited):


The serene pastoral setting of Atam Winery was thrown into chaos by the screaming of a woman. Her name was Amy. She is my wife. She rarely screams.

“There’s no one in that car. There’s no one in that car.”

In an instant, every wine drinking patron turned to watch a small, tan, driverless car roll out of the parking lot, down a grassy plateau, and toward the sloping mountainside. There was an electric fence surrounding a horse pasture which briefly stalled the car’s progress, but then, that section of the fence collapsed, and the car began rolling again.

The hill below the pasture was steep, and covered with grapevines. Beyond that, there were homes, some roads, even another winery much lower in the valley. Also, Denis Atam, the owner of the winery, was down below somewhere, working on irrigation lines. As the car began to accelerate through the horse pasture, it was clear that a very dangerous situation was developing.

I sprang into action, leaping from my chair, and sprinting across the grass, angling toward the car. As a testament to the gravity of the situation, I flung a half-full glass of wine onto the lawn. I am not a person who wastes wine.

I executed a perfect superman dive between the two hot wires of the electric fence, landed on my hands, summersaulted, and sprang back to my feet, barely even breaking stride. I didn’t get to see this action from a third party perspective, but I know it looked cool. My intercept angle on the car seemed correct. By now, it was moving too fast for me to grab the bumper and pull it to a stop, which had been my intention, but I figured that, if the door was unlocked, I might still have a chance of stopping it.

In my mind, I would throw open the door, lunge behind the steering wheel, jam down on the brake pedal, and bring the car to a screeching stop, just inches from a mother cat and her trailing litter of kittens. A scant fifty feet beyond, a group of nuns picnicking in the vineyard would look up to see what the commotion was, never knowing how perilously close they had come to catastrophe. They would write magazine articles, and film news segments, and maybe even write songs about what transpired on that fateful day at the winery. I would do interviews and say things like “I’m uncomfortable with the word ‘hero.’”

Alas, things did not go exactly as I envisioned, which, if I’m being honest, is not a novel experience for me.

First of all, there were no kittens anywhere to be found. Nor were there any nuns, which, in the end, was quite fortunate because, as I hurtled down the side of the hill, it became apparent that I simply was not gaining any ground on the rolling car. The biggest problem was that the horse pasture was getting steeper, and the car was accelerating more than I anticipated. I tried adjusting my angle to compensate, and I leaned forward, giving it everything I had. I stretched my arm out, and my fingertips just narrowly missed the door handle by about thirty feet.

I went to college on a track scholarship, so there was a time when I was a fairly fast runner. Unfortunately, that time was a couple decades ago. When running downhill, my upper body was still capable of rather impressive speed. My lower body, sadly, just could not keep up.

It quickly became clear to me that I had no chance of catching the car. In fact, as the velocity of my upper body continued to outpace the velocity of my lower body, it was apparent that the only thing I was going to catch was the horse pasture itself, and I was most likely going to catch it with my face.
I don’t want to date myself, but if you can remember the ski accident in the introduction of ABCs Wide World of Sports, where the announcer says, “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat,” then you will have a good visual of what was in store for me, only without the luxury of snow.

Those of you who have been in this situation know that, the instant you realize you are going to take a nasty fall, time dramatically slows down. Your awareness becomes extremely acute. Thoughts race through your mind, the most notable one being, “I wonder how bad this is going to hurt.”

Seemingly disjointed questions rattle around in your head as the ground races up to meet you. “Why can’t I see stormy Mountain from here? Who is the Prime minister of New Zealand? Why would there be nuns in the vineyard? The nearest convent is in Wenatchee. I suppose they might catch a bus up this way. I wonder how much the bus ride would cost.”

This portion of the fall seems to last a very long time.

The next phase of the fall occurs when you are still running madly, legs and arms pumping, but your head is only about a foot and a half from the ground. At this point, you instinctively do a move that resembles jumping head first onto a Slip and Slide on a hot summer day, the main difference being that there is no actual Slip and Slide, just dirt, grass and rocks. This is a subtle, yet important detail, the implications of which are almost immediately made evident.

After a short-lived skidding belly flop, there follows a long series of violent acrobatic flips, rolls, cartwheels, front handsprings, back handsprings, and spinning round-offs, the caliber of which would garner very low marks for artistic interpretation from any competent panel of international gymnastics judges. I didn’t get to see my own fall from a third person perspective, but I’m pretty sure it looked the exact opposite of cool.

It ended with a sort of wobbly breakdance move, where I spun to a stop on my back, and laid there staring straight up at the sky. Time was not moving slowly anymore, and I now had a very disagreeable answer to the question “how bad is this going to hurt?”

The car sliced through the lower horse pasture fence, jumped a road, tore up row after row of grapes, and then slammed into two large cherry trees that mercifully brought it to a crashing halt just a few yards shy of a small house. As luck would have it, Denis Atam was a fair distance away from the destruction, and so, it was a great fortune that no one was hurt by the runaway car. Of course, someone was still lying in the horse pasture on his back in agony, cursing like a sailor, and mumbling incoherently about kittens, but that wasn’t really the car’s fault.

There would be no magazine articles. There would be no news stories. There would be no songs written about the heroics of the day. There was only a bruised, battered, and slightly scraped up middle-aged man, covered in grass stains and horse poop. His right knee and right shoulder throbbed, as he arose and hobbled up the hill toward his group of eight slack-jawed friends and one wife. On her face, there was an expression that was 22 percent shock, 40 percent concern, and 38 percent smirk.

“Are you okay?” someone asked.

“I’m fine,” I said, at which point my extremely concerned friends and my frightfully concerned wife broke into a hysterical fit of laughter that lasted for a consistent nine minutes before faltering, and then continuing intermittently for about seven or eight more months. I’m not sure why they thought a car crashing into two cherry trees was so amusing, but perhaps it was, and I was simply distracted by the pain.

Although no one was seriously injured, there was a tragedy that day. The tragedy was the half glass of wine splashed across the lawn of Atam winery. If you ever had the chance to sample a glass of their gewürztraminer, you’ll know why. Denis and Irmi Atam moved here from Germany and they used an old-world wine making technique that avoided adding any additional sugars during the fermenting process. Admittedly, I’m no oenophile, but I know what I like, and I loved that wine.

This brings me to the second tragedy, which is that Denis and Irmi opted to retire, and with that decision, one of my favorite wineries closed its doors. It’s been a while since the runaway car incident. Despite the fact that my shoulder still hurts, even as I type this article, I can still say that I never visited Atam without having an experience that I can only describe as magical.

If there is a silver lining to this story, it is that there are over a dozen wineries in and around Manson, with more set to open their doors this summer. These wineries are all as unique as the people who own them, ranging from large scale operations, to quaint little boutique holes in the wall.

The Chelan Valley wine country has been gaining renown on a world stage over the past several years because of its distinct terroir which produces amazing grapes. The hills of Manson have a unique soil, much of it pushed here by glaciers. On top if that are traces of volcanic ash, particulates blown on the wind, and nutrient-rich remnants of fires that have swept across the hills time and time again over the ten thousand years since the glaciers receded. Combine this with hot sunny days, and evening breezes cooled by the lake, and it all amounts to growing conditions like nowhere in the world. As the vines have matured in the valley, the wines have become extraordinary.

In the hills around Manson, you get some of the best examples of this, and what better local could there be to enjoy great wines? Behind you is the nearly unblemished wilderness of the Chelan Mountains. Perhaps you’re perched on a hill above the Manson Plateau, with sweeping views of its small lakes, rolling hummocks, and peaceful orchards and vineyards. Maybe you’re in one of the many tasting rooms right in town, set sporadically on either side of the quaint Main Street that appears to be ripped from a storybook.

No matter where you are, the entire vista is framed by the high mountains of the North Central Cascades, and punctuated, of course, by the star of the show, the shimmering blue ribbon of Lake Chelan. This is not just the Chelan Valley at its best, this is the American West at its best.

I suppose, if you ever find yourself having to endure an extremely painful and humiliating tumble down the side of a hill in pursuit of a runaway car, it might as well be at one of the amazing wineries near Washington’s village on the bay. If you have to use a bit of local wine to medicate for pain, more’s the better.

John Fahey is a Freelance writer and author of several books including Lake Chelan the Greatest Lake in the world.

LakeChelanNow.com would like to thank John for giving us permission to publish his story and the photo of his unsympathetic friends.

LCN welcomes original stories and photos from guest contributors for our Lifestyle section. If you have a story to share, please contact loni@lakechelannow.com for submission criteria.