Forty years ago, Washington state was a fledgling wine region with only a handful of wineries. Today, the state’s founding winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, has helped Washington grow into the second largest wine producing region in America. This year Chateau Ste. Michelle will celebrate its 40th year of Washington winemaking. Originally founded in 1934, Chateau Ste. Michelle pioneered vinifera grape growing in Washington state and has been producing classic European varietal wines under the Ste. Michelle label since 1967.
“It’s exciting to be a part of that heritage and it’s what initially attracted me to Chateau Ste. Michelle,” says Bob Bertheau, head winemaker. “I try to honor that legacy by taking advantage of our vineyard research and using innovative winemaking techniques to help Chateau Ste. Michelle maintain that pioneering spirit into the future. Overall, the winery’s mission has not changed in over forty years…to bring consumers world-class wines from Washington state.”
The winery’s roots date back to after the repeal of Prohibition, when the Pommerelle Wine Company and the National Wine Company were formed in 1934 and began producing fruit wines in Washington. The two companies merged in 1954 to form American Wine Growers and continued to produce mostly fortified sweet wines. But America’s interest in table wines was growing, as was the belief that Washington state was well suited to produce more sophisticated wines. In the mid-60s, research projects conducted by Washington State University offered promising information about growing European (vinifera) grapes varieties in eastern Washington. American Wine Growers experimented first with Grenache, then planted White Riesling in 1965 in the Yakima Valley, followed later by Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Semillon.
These early efforts were met with praise from the greater wine community and in 1967 American Wine Growers began a new line of premium vinifera wines called “Ste. Michelle Vintners” under the direction of legendary California winemaker and consultant Andre Tchelistcheff.
As part of its exclusive new focus on vinifera varietals, Ste. Michelle Vintners planted its Cold Creek Vineyard in eastern Washington in 1972. Cold Creek Vineyard remains one of the oldest and most renowned vineyards in the state.
Ste. Michelle was catapulted into the national spotlight when its 1972 Johannisberg Riesling won the now-famous blind tasting of nineteen White Rieslings sponsored by the Los Angeles Times.
With its new found fame and rapid growth came the need for a new home. In 1976 Ste. Michelle Vintners built a French style Chateau in Woodinville, outside of Seattle, and changed its name to Chateau Ste. Michelle to reflect its new facility. With a beautiful tasting room and guided winery tours, nothing like it existed in the Northwest at the time. The winery was built on the 1912 estate owned by Seattle lumber baron Frederick Stimson. The Stimson family residence still stands on the winery grounds today and is on the National Register of Historical Places. (Today, some 300,000 guests visit Chateau Ste. Michelle each year.)
As the winery grew, so did recognition for the increasingly top quality wines being produced in Washington state. In 1984, Chateau Ste. Michelle led the way in obtaining federal recognition of the Columbia Valley in eastern Washington as a unique wine growing region or American Viticulture Area (AVA).
In the early 1990s, Chateau Ste. Michelle planted its premier vineyard at Canoe Ridge Estate in eastern Washington and later built its red wine facility at the site in 1994. The 1990s also saw Chateau Ste. Michelle form the state’s first international winemaking partnerships with two of the world’s most distinguished vintners: Col Solare, an alliance with Tuscany’s Piero Antinori was announced in 1998 and Eroica Riesling, a partnership with the Mosel’s Ernst Loosen in 1999.
Today, Chateau Ste. Michelle is not only recognized for pioneering vinifera grape growing in the Columbia Valley, but is also a leader in modern day viticultural research. The winery combines an ongoing dedication to research with a commitment to classic winemaking traditions. The winery is known for its highly acclaimed Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot and Cabernet.
“While we are proud of our role in helping to establish Washington winemaking,” says Ted Baseler, president of Chateau Ste. Michelle, “we are even more excited about the future of Ste. Michelle and the Washington wine industry. When you consider how much we continue to learn about our growing region and what grape varieties excel in which areas, we are in the early stages in terms of our growth and full potential. We like to think we are just hitting our stride.”
Key Chateau Ste. Michelle Milestones: 1875-1919 Experimental plantings of vinifera (European) and labrusca (native) varieties appear throughout the Yakima Valley.
Hollywood Farm established northeast of Seattle by lumber baron Frederick Stimson. Chateau Ste. Michelle is now located on the estate.
1933 Repeal of Prohibition
NAWICO (National Wine Company) founded in Seattle and Grandview. Pommerelle founded in Seattle. Companies later merge to eventually become Chateau Ste. Michelle.
1951 NAWICO begins planting vinifera grapes in the Columbia Valley. Grenache is first variety planted.
1954 NAWICO and Pommerelle merge to form American Wine Growers, the largest winery in the state.
American Wine Growers plants first White Riesling in the Yakima Valley.
1967 American Wine Growers launches “Ste. Michelle Vintners” wines, under direction of legendary California winemaker and consultant Andre Tchelistcheff. Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Grenache Rose and Semillon are produced.
1972-1973 Cold Creek Vineyard planted. Riesling and Cabernet are first varieties planted.
1974 The winery’s 1972 Johannisberg Riesling wins the now-famous blind tasting of nineteen White Rieslings sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. Winery catapulted into national spotlight.
1976 Chateau Ste. Michelle’s “chateau” opens in Woodinville. Label changes from Ste. Michelle Vintners to Chateau Ste. Michelle to reflect new facility.
1984 Columbia Valley Appellation is approved by the federal government.
1991 First vines planted at the winery’s vineyard at Canoe Ridge Estate.
1993 Artist Series is launched, a Bordeaux style wine featuring labels depicting artwork by renowned artists. Northwest glass artist Dale Chihuly is first artist featured.
1994 Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate red winery near Paterson, Wash. opens for harvest.
1998 Chateau Ste. Michelle announces partnership with famed Tuscan winemaker Piero Antinori on an internationally-style red wine, Col Solare.
1999 Chateau Ste. Michelle partners with renowned German winemaker Ernst Loosen for a new ultra premium Riesling, Eroica, and prized dessert wine called Single Berry Select.
2004 Chateau Ste. Michelle is named “American Winery of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine
2005 Restaurant Wine magazine names Chateau Ste. Michelle “Winery of the Year 2005.”
2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle was awarded its 12th “Winery of the Year” honor by Wine & Spirits magazine for 2007, tying it with Shafer of California for the most-honored American winery.
Washington state is the second largest wine region in the United States and home to more than 460 wineries and 30,000 acres of wine grapes.
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