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Business

Columbia Winery riding wave of success

Visitors drawn to new banquet facilities, tasting room

Max Zellweger

Max Zellweger, president of Columbia Winery, in the new tasting room, which can now accommodate 350 people. For tastings and tours, call 488-2776.
Photo by Jeff Switzer/Woodinville Weekly.

Columbia Winery by Jeff Switzer
With award-winning world-class wines, their recent expansion, their location as a destination for the Dinner Train, plus a tourism explosion, Columbia Winery has reached full utilization of its Woodinville location and is riding a wave of community and international support.
   "We will be using (the site) to our best advantage and focus, making this a real asset to the community, as well as an extra reason to come to Woodinville," said Columbia President Max Zellweger.
   "We look forward to a time when the loop is completed," he said, gesturing to encompass the city's tourist district overlay with the Sammamish River bike trail.
   Columbia began as Washington State's first premium winery under the Associated Vintners label in 1962. Steadfast financial monitoring kept the company going through the growth in the '70s and the stagnant '80s, and now Columbia has seen seven years of growth since coming to Woodinville in 1989.
   Columbia's winemaker, David Lake, is internationally known for his brilliance in the craft. He joined the company in 1979 and remains the only winemaker in the U.S. to hold the prestigious Master of Wine diploma from London and one of only 150 to earn it in 40 years.
   During the next few weeks, Columbia will see anywhere from 40 to 80 tons of grapes pour in each day from the harvest in Eastern Washington. This year has been difficult for all wineries, as a freeze damaged the grape crops in eastern Washington.
   Lake was unavailable for an interview because of his heavy involvement in this, the most important time of the year for the wineries.
   "As a personality, he is definitely intertwined with the Washington State industry," Zellweger said.
   "He really pushed it forward," said Ken Grant, director of communication and public relations at Columbia. "All of the wineries got better because of his talents. We're glad to be the leader everyone else is following."
   Columbia produced 110,000 cases of wine last year from its seven vineyards. The winery uses 4,500 French and American Oak barrels and 34 fermentation tanks.
   The grapes come from Eastern Washington, half of which are hand picked, and shipped over the mountains at night to delay the fermentation process. The winery will crush 40 to 80 tons each day for five to six weeks, and the final bottling is done at a rate of 100 per minute.
   "We can't sit still. It's a very dynamic business with changing marketing mechanics and preferences," said Zellweger. "We need to grow as a company. We want people to think of us as the competition."
   Zellweger says the winery doesn't do much advertising because the market is so focused, but in January 1997, they will be the featured wine for 39 episodes of "Cucina Amore," a three-year-old, nationally syndicated cooking show starring Nick Stellino, an Italian chef who is riding his own wave of success.
   "The show is out-of-control popular," said Grant. "It's the No. 3 show in the country and features hot, hot cuisine. We're ready for this kind of association. It's a perfect match."
   Grant says Columbia is Stellino's favorite winery, and it may end up with prominence in his cookbook.

Associated Vintners paved the way
   In the 1950s, 10 friends, seven of whom were U.W. professors, began to make wine together on a small scale as a hobby, believing that Washington State had the right climate, the right soil conditions, and the right location for the European vinifera vine and fine winemaking.
   With the goal of making world-class wines, Associated Vintners was incorporated in 1962. The winery purchased a 5.5-acre vineyard in Sunnyside, Washington, for $4,800, and in 1963, planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Semillon, Chardonnay, and Grenache.
   AV turned out its first vintage in September 1967 from its Kirkland winery and continued to grow through the 1970s, moving to Redmond. But its true arrival in the wine world was marked in September 1979 when AV joined forces with David Lake.
   In 1981, it moved to a 20,000-square-foot facility in Bellevue. In1984, AV became Columbia Winery, releasing its 1983 vintage.
   In 1988, Woodinville had already been established as a destination by Chateau Ste. Michelle. Haviland Vintners had built the 30,000-square-foot winery in 1987. Columbia bought the property and building from Haviland and, drawn by the country appeal, the clean-green atmosphere, the trail, and the balloons going by overhead, the winery moved in in March 1989.
   They expanded to 41,000 square feet and this summer completed 29,000 more square feet of additions, making for a 70,000-square-foot facility with 13,600 square feet of retail, banquet rooms and tasting areas.
   "In the '80s, people had a lot of hope that the wine market would expand. It didn't," said Zellweger. "For a 10-year period, we as an industry dealt with getting the word out that our wines were a positive experience, that they made meals a positive experience. Now, with all of the medical evidence to support it, drinking wine has become very popular and good for your health in moderation."

Eighteen distinct wines
   Columbia offers 18 different wines, including seven dry white wines ranging from Chardonnay to Chevrier; seven dry reds from its pride and joy Syrah, to Merlots and Cabernets; three medium dry whites--Chenin Blanc, Gewurztraminer, and Johannisberg Riesling; and one dessert sweet wine, its Cellarmaster's Reserve Riesling.
   AV oversees the marketing and sales for the three distinct and separate wineries from the Columbia location: Columbia, Paul Thomas (recently moved to Eastern Washington), and the recently-acquired Covey Run.
   "We were relatively small for a long, long time, and only began to grow rapidly in the last seven years," Zellweger said. "We had the stamina financially to get through the '80s and now we're reaping the benefits."
   Zellweger added that wines from Washington State are now recognized for their high quality, both nationally and internationally, and Columbia will continue to become more of a player worldwide and play a leading role in the future growth of Washington State wines.
   The Dinner Train brings 100,000 to Columbia each year, and visitor numbers are up significantly.
   "Everything seems to be building," Zellweger said. "We love to be here in Woodinville, it's a great community. We love to be involved and support a lot of things, like the Labor Day Wine Festival. We really see ourselves as part of this community. When you go out into the world, it's important that you are solid at home."

Sixth in a series of features on the wineries and breweries which attract so many to the Woodinville area.