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50 Years of Chateau Ste Michelle

Friday, September 1, 2017

With Washington now home to over 900 wineries, it seems almost unimaginable to think of just how small the state’s wine industry was when Ste. Michelle Vintners was founded in 1967. “At the time there were only 12 wineries in the state, and 88% of the wine was fruit wine or fortified dessert wine,” said Ted Baseler, President and CEO of Ste Michelle Wine Estates, Chateau Ste. Michelle’s parent company. “There was only a small amount of varietal wine.”

Traveling around the country in the early days, Baseler, who has worked for the company for almost 33 years, said the reception to Washington wine was skeptical at best. “People did not take Washington wine seriously at all. If you went outside the Northwest to New York or Chicago to promote Washington wines, you’d generally get a snicker.”

Bob Betz of Betz Family Winery, who spent 28 years working at Ste Michelle, tells a well-known story of giving a presentation on Ste Michelle and Washington wine in Orlando, Florida in the late 70s. After the presentation, there was a question: “Which side of the Potomac are the grapes grown on?”

“It was a revelation,” Betz said. ““It really punctuated for me that we were not even on the radar. So we had two jobs to do. We not only had to sell a brand, but we also had to sell a viticultural region.”

Riesling comes into focus

One of the watershed moments for Ste Michelle was a 1974 blind tasting of 19 White Rieslings conducted by the Los Angeles Times. To great surprise, Ste. Michelle’s 1972 Riesling came in first place.

“That catapulted us into the national spotlight,” Baseler said. “It not only put Washington on the map, but it also put Ste Michelle on the map.”

“The Riesling tasting was really a seminal moment,” agreed Betz. “Here’s this Ste Michelle wine among Rieslings from Germany, California, and Australia, and it was number one. That really created a lot of interest in the industry.”

While Riesling helped launch Ste. Michelle and it remains its number one selling variety, the association with the variety had its drawbacks. “The early success of Riesling was a double-edged sword,” Betz said. “It certainly spurred interest and energy to sales. But it did button hole Washington as a north, cold and wet wine producing state in some people’s minds. We had to overcome that perception.”

Now, as Ste Michelle celebrates its 50th birthday, the winery is the world’s largest producer of Riesling, producing over 1M cases of its Columbia Valley Riesling alone. “It’s our number one varietal and our number one story,” said Bob Berthau, head winemaker at Chateau Ste Michelle since 2004. “We carry that flag very, very high. It’s extremely rare when a winery kind of owns a category. For Riesling, we really do own the category.”

Chateau facility and early vineyards help establish the industry

In 1976 the winery opened a French-style chateau in Woodinville, Washington and rebranded itself as Chateau Ste Michelle. Woodinville immediately became the epicenter of Washington wine and has remained so ever since.

“It was an immediate success,” Betz said of the chateau facility. “Wine tourism was really non-existent in Washington at that point and was certainly in the early stages in California. Suddenly the winery itself, the physical structure, was in the news.”

“They thought that the first year they could draw 50,000 people,” Baseler said. “It turned out to be over 100,000 people.”

“Almost out of the chute we were jammed every day,” Betz recalled. “It was remarkable.” Today, the Chateau sees over 300,000 visitors per year, and Woodinville is home to over 100 wineries and tastings rooms. It is doubtful that any would be in the town were it not for Ste Michelle planting its flag there.

As Ste Michelle has grown, so too has the Washington wine industry, in no case more than the state’s viticulture. “I think we’ve been the driving force and the heartbeat of Washington viticulture,” said Kevin Corliss, Vice President of Vineyards at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “If we’re growing, the industry as a whole is growing.”

Ste Michelle’s estate plantings at Cold Creek Vineyard, first planted 1972-1973, have been pivotal to its success. When the vineyard was first planted, it doubled the state’s wine grape acreage. “Those early vintages from Cold Creek really defined the character for power, for richness and for phenolics for Washington red wines,” Betz said.

“Cold Creek is the lynchpin,” agreed Berthau. “It’s one of the oldest sites that is still growing fruit. It’s an incredibly unique site that produces a level of concentration and extraction that I don’t get anywhere else. It’s very, very special.”

Chateau Ste Michelle now owns 3,500 acres of vineyards and Ste Michelle Wine Estates contracts with more than half of the vineyard acreage in the state.

International partnerships help shape winery and industry perception

Starting in the 1990s, Ste. Michelle created several important partnerships. The first came in 1995 with Col Solare, a joint venture with Italy’s famed Marchesi Piero Antinori. The second came in 1999 with Germany’s Ernst Loosen.

Betz said that the effect of the partnerships on the Chateau’s reputation has been notable. “The partnerships took distributor and retailer interest, response, and perception to Chateau Ste Michelle and to Washington state beyond anything it had had before,” he said. “All of the sudden it was like the state had the seal of approval from two very respected international names. It gave way to the whole modern day sales and marketing effort of Ste Michelle.”

“I think it’s given a lot of credibility,” agreed Baseler. The winery’s most recent partnership was formed in 2015, with Rhone Valley stars, Michel Gassier and Philippe Cambie. The project, called Tenet Wines, focuses on Rhone varieties.

Ste Michelle’s partnerships have not only impacted perception, marketing, and sales, they have also changed the way that Washington wine is grown and produced.

“Ernie had a completely different perspective on how to grow Riesling,” said Corliss. “The result is that we’ve pushed Riesling to cooler sites and used different techniques to protect the fruit from the intense sunlight. It’s really shifted where and how we grow Riesling.”

The effect extends to the winemaking team. “It really reinvigorates the team to get fresh perspectives and do things you hadn’t thought of,” Berthau said. “It keeps the team fresh and motivated.”

Shaping the Washington wine industry

When one looks at the success of the Washington wine industry, there is no question it is inextricably linked to Chateau Ste Michelle.

“Very simply, the industry in its current form would not exist without Ste. Michelle,” said Betz. “It would not have taken on the dimension in terms of wineries, quality, and success without Ste Michelle’s influence.”

“30 years ago, there was no awareness of what Washington state was from anybody,” said Marty Clubb, co-owner and managing winemaker at L’Ecole No. 41 in Lowden, Washington. “Now there is real enthusiasm for Washington wine out there. We’re really at the tipping point and we wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for Ste. Michelle. They cracked the door open for all of us.”

Ste. Michelle promotes Washington wine nationally and internationally, producing quality, affordable wines at scale. Meanwhile the accolades that the state’s numerous small wineries receive help burnish Washington’s image as a premium wine-producing state.

“There is this symbiosis that goes on,” Betz said. “Ste Michelle carries the flag globally for us. Then smaller wineries have validated the success of the state’s growing conditions by the wines they make.”

One of the hallmarks of Chateau Ste Michelle has been supporting the Washington wine industry as a whole. “Our philosophy has really been what’s good for the state is good for us,” said Baseler. “We’ve always been encouraging other people and supporting the industry. There’s plenty of room in the tent for people to have success.”

This support was never more clear than in 2004 when a freeze struck the Walla Walla Valley and its numerous fledgling wineries. That year, Ste Michelle provided many wineries with fruit from its vineyards so that they were able to make wine. “It really helped cement the notion that we’re all in this together,” said Clubb.

Looking to the future

To mark its 50th anniversary, the Chateau’s tasting facilities have undergone an extensive remodel that will be revealed on Labor Day weekend at its 50th anniversary celebration (see details here). “We have remodeled a couple of times here but nothing as significant as what we have done this year,” Baseler said.

The remodel includes an advanced commercial kitchen. It also includes an 80-person movie theatre that will have tasting tables. “It will really be a resource for wine education in Washington,” Baseler said.

There are blending rooms, an enoteca for the Chateau’s imported products, and individual tasting rooms for the Chateau’s partnerships that people can book for private tastings. “I’m really excited about it,” Baseler said of the changes.

As it celebrates its 50th birthday, people at the winery reflect back on what the past five decades have meant for the Chateau and for Washington wine. “Growing up I remember people talking about the crazy idea of growing wine grapes here,” Corliss said. “To go from that to where we are now is pretty cool. It’s been a fun ride.”

Chateau Ste. Michelle is currently the number two premium domestic wine brand sold in the U.S. in Nielsen Dollars, with wines available in all 50 states and more than 100 countries. “It went from a very sleepy little company to a global success,” Betz said of the last 50 years.

Baseler said he doesn’t take the Chateau’s success for granted. “We consider ourselves to be the guardians of something that is remarkable, not only for our home state but for people that come here from around the world.”

* * *

To mark the occasion, Chateau Ste. Michelle has released a book about the first 50 years, with the cover picture by our own Richard Duval. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Washington wine and its history. It's available at the Chateau Ste. Michelle tasting room and will be available from the winery's on-line store shortly here.

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