"Woodinville truly is the center of wine country."
Chateau Ste. Michelle's winemaker, Mike Januik.
by Jeff Switzer
This week marks the 20th anniversary of Chateau Ste. Michelle's arrival in Woodinville, a move that would mark the city and the Sammamish Valley as a destination point for visitors from around the world.
A great deal of growth has occurred in both the area and the wine industry since then, drawing millions to Woodinville's wine country. The winery itself has grown into a serious contender in the international wine world with its extensive line of classic varietals and single-vineyard vintages.
"Developing this area as a destination is a great thing for all of us," said Katie Sims, director of winery communications. "We've established a corner of the Puget Sound area as a central location for premium wines and beverages. We plan to continue what we've been doing, just better."
The winery's concert series is in its 13th year, drawing 250,000 each year for headline acts ranging from Tony Bennett to Ray Charles to Jackson Browne. They've maintained their investment in the concert facility to continue attracting high caliber performers and "give something to the community that's enjoyable."
Sixty years of winemaking
A wholly-owned subsidiary of Stimson Lane Associates and Vineyards, Chateau Ste. Michelle began its history in 1934 when the National Wine Company, NAWICO, was founded in Seattle and Grandview.
General Manager Vic Allison and NAWICO began with grenache grapes in the Columbia Valley in 1951, and through the '50s, other companies merged with NAWICO to create American Wine Growers, which became Ste. Michelle in 1967. The winery pioneered European vinifera grape growing in Washington State and has been producing classic European varietal wines since 1967.
The first wines launched under the new label "Ste. Michelle Vintners" were cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, semillon, and grenache rose. The winery was catapulted into the national spotlight when its 1972 riesling was ranked first of 19 rieslings in a Los Angeles Times-sponsored blind tasting.
In 1976, the winery moved from Seattle to 87 acres in Woodinville's Sammamish Valley, a site that was once part of the Hollywood Farm Estate of Seattle lumber baron Frederick Stimson. Stimson's summer home, built in 1912, was listed on the National Historic Registry in 1980 and is still used for special events. The gardens throughout the estate were designed by the Olmstead family, whose other famous works include New York's Central Park and Volunteer Park in Seattle.
Chateau Ste. Michelle was named "Best American Winery" in 1988 by both Wine Country magazine and Tasters Guild, followed by a "Best of the Best" title in 1989 by Wine and Spirits magazine.
Januik adds to prestige
In 1990, Chateau Ste. Michelle refocused some of its energies under the guidance of new winemaker, Mike Januik, who has won nearly 100 gold medals since joining the winery. Januik, born in Artesia, California, earned his masters degree in enology in 1984 from U.C. Davis.
"I was tremendously pleased to come to Washington," he has said. "The Columbia Valley offers me virtually unlimited possibilities, because every variety we grow produces great wine, as long as we do our job right and accept the challenge of paying attention to the details."
He is heavily involved in both the growing and crush process.
"Sugar, acid levels and flavor profiles in the grapes can change so quickly at the end of the growing season," he said. "It's critical for me to work with our vineyard managers so we can harvest at the optimum moment."
In 1993, Chateau Ste. Michelle moved production of its red wines to its Canoe Ridge Estate Winery in Eastern Washington, located in the center of 400 acres of vineyards overlooking the Columbia River. The winery owns 1,280 acres of vineyards in the Columbia Valley.
Chateau Ste. Michelle offers 10 Columbia Valley wines, seven single-vineyard wines, and four reserve wines. Since shifting production of its reds to eastern Washington, Woodinville produces all of Ste. Michelle's whites.
In 1995, the winery produced 590,000 cases, slightly more than half of them whites. It has also reaffirmed its commitment to quality and has retooled to make small batches of the finest quality wines from single vineyards while also producing classic varietals.
No less than 95 percent of the grapes must come from the same vineyard for a single vineyard wine, and according to Bob Betz, vice-president for enology research and education, the combination of soil, sun angle, heat, rain, and position on the globe contribute to the subtle nuances of the fruit produced by these vineyards.
"Each year, we're learning deeper and deeper lessons about each of these individual vineyards," said Betz. "We're producing wines that now reflect that individuality. Our goal is to produce individual wines of distinction."
Betz, who has been with Chateau Ste. Michelle since 1976 just before the Woodinville winery opened, said a fundamental shift occurred around 1990 when the winery set the goal of producing better wine faster than the competition.
"There's no lack of great wine in the world," he said. "We began working to promise more than the consumer expected and delivering more than we promised. The world is very thirsty for high quality wine and the hurdle is being raised every year. We must be a part of that."
Betz says the two heroes of Chateau Ste. Michelle's success are the Columbia Valley, where the circumstances and conditions produce world-class grapes on a par with the Bordeaux region of France and the Napa Valley; and the group of people involved in the winemaking, optimizing the grapes the winery uses.
Visitors pour in from around the globe
When Chateau Ste. Michelle opened its doors in 1976, there were nine guides to conduct tours. Within a week, the demand was so great that nine more were hired. Today, the winery conducts 5,000 tours each year and has 45 tour guides who walk visitors and wine enthusiasts through the process and the facilities.
Sims says the winery always enjoys collaborating with other wineries on events in the area, such as the Fourth of July fireworks display and the wine festival at Columbia.
Betz noted that wine enthusiasts living in Seattle need travel only 15 to 30 minutes to get that "wonderful rural feeling, with the old-time estate, Columbia Winery, and the Sammamish River."
"It's very much still a country thing," he said. "You feel different out here, with the view of the mountains, the trees, and the balloons going by overhead." As for the interaction between the wineries and Redhook, Betz says they "couldn't have designed better neighbors."
Seventh in a series of features on the wineries and breweries which attract so many to the Woodinville area.