WOODINVILLE, Washington — Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington state’s founding winery and now the No. 2 premium domestic wine brand in the country by volume, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with the opening of a new visitors center.
But one could suggest that Chateau Ste. Michelle is also celebrating 50 years of the Washington state wine industry, which they pioneered into the second largest in the U.S., records show.
The brand released its first vintage in 1967, and in 1976, Chateau Ste. Michelle set down roots in Woodinville, Washington, a town that sits 30 minutes northeast of Seattle. They settled on a historic farm, Hollywood Farm, which had fallen into disrepair. For $6 million, which was quite a bit of money back then, they built their winery estate.
Looking back, this decision was questionable. Woodinville was 150 miles away from Chateau Ste. Michelle’s East Washington vineyards. Nothing about Woodinville indicated that it was an up-and-coming wine town. But the owners weren’t thinking logistics; they were thinking tourism, and for tourism, they knew they needed to be close to the population center: Seattle.
“Now, we get over 300,000 guests a year, which has to be one of the most visited wineries on the earth. So, needless to say, we felt they made a brilliant decision back then,” said Ted Baseler, CEO and president of Chateau Ste. Michelle. “I’m sure they had no idea there would be over 100 tasting rooms and wineries in Woodinville today.”
Sound familiar? It’s hard to deny that Napa Valley and Sonoma’s proximity to San Francisco is a major factor in their success as world renowned wine and tourist destinations. According to Visit Napa Valley, in 2016, Napa Valley welcomed 3.5 million visitors.
“You look at Napa and Sonoma, and it’s at best, an hour drive, maybe a little longer [from San Francisco]. It’s very accessible,” said Baseler. “Generally, they say if you are over three hours, it’s very difficult to get tourism, and that’s the difficulty in Eastern Washington. Walla Walla is more than four hours from Seattle. That’s a long drive. That really dissuades a lot of people.”
And hence, Woodinville has boomed. Dozens of Eastern Washington wineries have followed Chateau Ste. Michelle’s lead, opening tasting rooms in Woodinville as a foolproof way to sell their wine. But while Chateau Ste. Michelle can take a lot of credit for giving Woodinville life, more importantly, as Washington’s first winery, they’ve paved the way for the state’s wine industry as a whole.
“When I joined the company in 1984, there were about three dozen wineries in Washington at that time, and today there are about 1,000,” said Baseler. “Our philosophy has always been, if it’s good for Washington, it’s good for us. As a consequence, we’ve always been helpful giving people grapes when they did not have any and we’ve created the Washington State University Wine Science Center to help the entire wine industry, not just ourselves. As the category leader, you benefit if the category does well.”
More than riesling
Behind California, Washington produces the most wine in the United States, statistics show. In recent years, the state’s wines have received positive, international recognition for not just their quality, but also their value.
Yet when Chateau Ste. Michelle first claimed that great wine could be made outside of Europe, and outside of California, the main misconception they fought is that Washington is too cool for making wine not called riesling.
“We kind of own the category of riesling,” said head winemaker Bob Bertheau, who joined the Chateau Ste. Michelle team in 2003, returning to his Northwest routes after 16 years making wine in Sonoma.
But he also argues that Washington’s climate — eastern Washington specifically — is actually primed to make great cabernet, too.
“Compared to California, we are quite a bit farther north, so during the summer, we get an hour and a half to almost two hours longer of daylight, and we end pretty warm,” he said. “It can be high 90s, triple digits over there during the growing season, during July and August. So things get off to a really great start with a lot of heat units.”
It’s not until later in the season — harvest time, really — that temperatures begin to drop, which only broadens Washington’s wine potential.
“The difference between us and other regions, especially California, is that it goes the exact opposite late in the season. In October, probably 70 percent of our harvest is in October, it cools way, way down. We enter this wonderful hang time period, with a lot of sugar being made, but you’re getting a little bit more tannin development in the reds, and for the riesling, it means acid retention, because the cold nights,” said Bertheau.
“That’s how we can have our cake and eat it too. We’re able to make these rich cabernets, but also able to make these limey, more slatey-style rieslings.”
Chardonnay is popular in the state too (there’s the same amount planted in Washington as riesling), but then there’s a sleeper grape that Bertheau said the state is also great at: syrah.
“Syrah doesn’t seem to care what region it’s in. It loves the entire state. I think we have more in common with the Rhone, in terms of our soils and our climate, than Bordeaux. We’re hot, we have a mountain range block, and very rocky, sandy soils,” he said.
“I would love for syrah to become more prominent in Washington because I think it’s a star here. But wine labeled syrah doesn’t do well in the U.S. We make a boatload of it in Washington, but thank goodness for this thing called red blend category, because that’s what keeps syrah in the ground here. We would love syrah to become syrah and not be hidden as a red blend.”
Celebrating the first 50 years
For their 50th anniversary, Chateau Ste. Michelle invested $7 million — a little more than double what they spent to build the original chateau — on the new, 22,731 square feet visitor center (which is also double the size of the original tasting room).
The new digs are a far cry from the traditional and dated original building. The expansion is clean, modern and bright, fashioned like a bustling, indoor marketplace. As you walk through, you’ll find a wine shop, lengthy tasting bar, private tasting salons, a Vintage Reserve Club lounge for members, and the glass-walled Col Solare Bottega, where you can taste the wines of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s partnership with Tuscany’s famed Marchesi Antinori.
There’s also a blending room, where guests can book an educational Winemaker for a Day experience to blend their own wine, design their own label and take it home to drink later, wine and culinary offerings, and an 80-seat theatre, host to an educational curriculum of classes like How to Blind Taste Like a Sommelier.
“We’ve seen such a tremendous growth in tourism and an interest in specialist activities. It was kind of a no brainer,” said Baseler. “I’m so delighted that almost every day I go down there, it’s jam packed, even with double the previous space.”
This inventive dedication to hospitality may be common in Napa Valley, but in Washington, Chateau Ste. Michelle is once again, leading the charge. It started with their famed Summer Concert Series — this year’s featured acts like John Legend and Goo Goo Dolls—and the new visitor center is set to take the area’s tourism to the next level.
But what about the wine?
Washington’s next step
Bertheau would like to see Washington wines start to build a reputation that’s more geographically specific.
“The next stage of Washington is to get beyond Washington; to get to the regions, the AVAs and even the vineyards,” said Bertheau.
California has more than 100 American Viticulture Areas, with 16 in the Napa Valley alone. Each possesses distinct characteristics related to soil, climate and elevation, which ultimately differentiates the resulting wine from the next AVA’s.
Washington has just 14, but how many of them can the average wine consumer actually name, outside of the Walla Walla Valley?
“Literally, it’s a two-and-a-half hour drive from my easternmost vineyard to my western. So you can imagine, driving two hours anywhere in a wine region, you’re going to have a lot of differences,” said Bertheau. “You don’t just say California. Russian River, you close your eyes and you think of pinot and chardonnay, and maybe some cool climate zinfandel; Alexander Valley, you close your eyes, you think of warmer climate, tropical chardonnays and cabernet.”
Bertheau wants wine drinkers to be able to do the same when thinking about Washington AVAs like Columbia Valley, Horse Heaven Hills and Red Mountain.
“It’s a good start for us, the impression Washington state has made on the map,” he said. “But I think the next stage is to understand our regions better, and I think that’s going to be the next level of education.”