Washington State’s Chateau Ste Michelle is celebrating its birthday this year and there is a lot to celebrate, as I will explain below, even if the exact number of candles on the cake is open to debate.
Happy Birthday to The Chateau
The Chateau, as we call Chateau Ste Michelle in these parts, goes for 50 candles — and I think that’s fine. It was 50 years ago, in 1967, that the first varietal wines were released by a little-bitty operation called Ste Michelle Vineyards. The Chateau has released special edition wines that pay tribute to that first label.
The wines, sourced from Yakima vineyards according to the original label, were apparently very good. Howard Simon made them with help from California wine legend André Tchelistcheff, an early proponent of Washington’s wine potential.
Fifty is a good round number, but there are other birthdays we might also celebrate, as I learned by consulting The Wine Project: Washington State’s Winemaking History by Ronald Irvine with Walter J. Clore (Sketch Publications, 1977).
A Lot of Candles!
Eighty-three candles are hard to blow out in one breath, but that’s the number you would need if you go all the way back to 1934. The end of Prohibition in the United States encouraged the National Wine Company (Nawico) and Pommerelle winery to start up in Washington State. They made mainly sweet wines, as was common in the United States on up into the 1960s.
The two companies merged in 1954 to form the American Wine Company, which eventually created the Ste Michelle Vineyards label for varietal wines as a supplement to the main sweet wine business.
Woodinville Wine Cluster
A Seattle financial executive named Wally Opdycke became very interested in the opportunities that dry wines presented in Washington State and eventually Opdycke and his partners purchased American Wine Company in 1972 and set out to take wine in a new path (even, according to Irvine, as they worked to sell off the sweet wine inventory that they had inherited from the previous owners).
Opdycke and company needed capital for the vineyards and winery facilities they envisioned and in due course two interested parties appeared. The first was Labatt’s Brewery from Toronto, who recognized the potential that the region’s wines presented. The second was a U.S. company — U.S. Tobacco of Connecticut.
The offers were much the same financially, according to Irvine, but Opdycke and partners opted for the UST deal (Altria subsequently acquired UST and is now The Chateau’s owner).
U.S. Tobacco provided the investment capital that was needed and in the process attracted talented viticulturalists and noteworthy winemakers who eventually left The Chateau to work on their own projects. Local farmers planted vineyards to help fill the tanks of The Chateau and then the many other wineries that followed. Thus was the Washington wine industry that we know today born and The Chateau played a leading role.
One of the biggest investments came online 41 years ago — the imposing winery in Woodinville, Washington just a short drive from Seattle. The winery, styled after a French chateau, sits on the beautiful grounds of the Stimson estate and draws so many visitors to the neighborhood that dozens of other wineries and tasting rooms have joined it in Woodinville, creating a dynamic wine cluster.
Where Are the Grapes?
This is a bit of a puzzle to some visitors because the only grape vines they see are mainly for atmosphere, not production. The gapes come from the east side of the Cascades several hours away. The Chateau’s strategy was to locate the show winery near to the market, not the vines (white wines are made in Woodinville, but red wines are made in Eastern Washington).
The separation works and you can see tanker trucks full of freshly pressed juice arrive at The Chateau during crush along with refrigerated trucks hauling bins of fresh-picked fruit to some of the dozens of other wineries in the neighborhood.
Whichever birthday you choose, The Chateau is worth celebrating. Under the leadership of Allen Shoup and now Ted Baseler it grew from modest origins to become by far the largest winery in Washington State and an important force in national and even international markets.
But Wait … There’s More
Chateau Michelle Wine Estates is the umbrella organization that brings together The Chateau and the wineries and partnerships that have grown from it. So here’s a final number to celebrate: 44 (and counting). That’s what you get when you add together 18 brands that Chateau Michelle Wine Estates currently operates in the Pacific Northwest, seven more in California, and 19 international partnerships (CMSE is the exclusive importer of Antinori wines, Torres wines from both Spain and Chile, Nicholas Feuillatte Champagne and Villa Maria among others).
The Chateau and the Antinori family are partners in two notable ventures: Col Solare on Red Mountain in Washington and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in Napa Valley. And I cannot forget Eroica, the partnership between The Chateau and Ernest Loosen of the famous Mosel Valley wine family.
The Chateau as it has evolved has somehow managed to be both big and small. Taken together these wineries form the eight largest wine company in the U.S. according to Wine Business Monthly’s annual survey. Yet the individual producers retain a good deal of autonomy, part of the company’s “string of pearls” philosophy.
There is another dichotomy that The Chateau has somehow managed to navigate. Although it has corporate ownership and necessarily is influenced by that, it seems to behave in many ways more like a family winery. This accounts in part for its ability to partner with famous wine families like Antinori, Torres, and family-owned Villa Maria.
The Chateau deserves a lot of credit and respect for what it has done to build its own business, to build a Washington wine industry, and to promote American wine at home and abroad.
Happy Birthday to The Chateau and everyone who contributed to its remarkable rise!