Living in Woodinville, it’s easy to take for granted the fact that our community is a major hub of Washington state wine. With over 130 wineries and tasting rooms within six square miles, Woodinville boasts the largest concentration of wineries within a major metropolitan area in the world. However, when visitors to Seattle make the short trek to Woodinville to sample some of the state’s finest wines, it’s common for them to look around and ask, “Where are all the grapes?”
Washington is unlike any other wine region because its vineyards on the eastern side of the Cascades are up to 200 miles away from where the wine is made The story behind such a curious setup begins with Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville's oldest winery that has roots running back to 1934 – right after the end of Prohibition.
Ste. Michelle Vintners was a wine label launched in 1967 by the small Seattle-based company American Wine Growers, which had been formed by a 1954 merger between the fruit wine-focused (think berry wine) companies Pomerelle Co. and National Wine Co. In 1974, on the heels of the national wine boom, the U.S. Tobacco Company bought Ste. Michelle Vintners and moved the winery to its current Woodinville location in 1976.
Why move to Woodinville? The reason is simply that businessman Wally Opdycke, who sold Ste. Michelle to U.S. Tobacco and continued to run the winery thereafter, wanted to live in the Seattle area. So, Chateau Ste. Michelle was built on a nearby former lumber estate that was, fortuitously, in Woodinville.
Despite Ste. Michelle's subsequent unprecedented success in Woodinville, it took another three decades for Woodinville to catch on as a wine hub. Two more chance factors had to come into play to start encouraging major wine traffic to the city. The first factor was a law passed by the Legislature in 2000 that allowed wineries to open satellite tasting rooms. Before, Washington wineries could only operate a tasting room if it had been produced on the premises. Now, wineries could take advantage of ideal grape-growing conditions in Eastern Washington as well as the consumer interest in Ste. Michelle and larger customer base on the west side.
The second aiding factor was that the prices of crude oil and gasoline spiked dramatically in 2008, which meant that fewer Seattle-area wine lovers were inclined to make the long drive to visit Columbia Valley wineries. As a result, these wineries started bringing their wines directly to their customers in Woodinville.
Woodinville continues to thrive as a major wine destination because, with access to the largest buying market in the state, wineries make a greater profit selling directly to consumers rather than through distributors. Also, maintaining cellars is less expensive in the temperate Puget Sound climate than it is in warmer eastern Washington.
As proud Woodinvillagers, we should thank our lucky stars for the combination of random chance and economic brilliance that has transformed Woodinville Wine Country into what it is today.