Now that Washington is home to nearly 1,000 wineries, it can be tempting to overlook the “big guy” in favor of the hundreds of individual stories, personalities, methods, and variations going on out there. But Chateau Ste. Michelle’s positive influence on the Washington wine industry cannot be overstated. Chateau Ste. Michelle has been dedicated to promoting the state’s wine-producing potential as a whole, with a quest to “break the code” of how to grow the highest-quality vitis vinifera grapes utilizing best growing practices.
In 2017, it celebrated its 50th anniversary (the first Ste. Michelle vintage was produced in 1967 under American Wine Growers), but its roots go all the way back to the 1930s when the Prohibition era ended. At the beginning, there was wild guessing as to what would grow, where to plant, and how to farm the grapes. Concords, and other labrusca vinifera, were in the mix just as much as European vines. Eventually, through the painstaking research of Dr. Walter Clore, input of enologist, then head winemaker, André Tchelistcheff, and much trial and error, Ste. Michelle began producing premium Washington state wines. Scientific discovery has been paramount to the success and growth of the industry. Ste. Michelle has invested millions of dollars into wine science research — in fact, the Washington State University Wine Science Center bears the Ste. Michelle name.
This year, the Woodinville facility received its LIVE sustainability certification, joining the company’s Canoe Ridge Estate red wine facility and both the Canoe Ridge and Cold Creek vineyards in attaining that status. “We believe that environmental stewardship and responsible practices in our vineyards and winemaking facilities not only help us craft the best quality wines possible, but it’s also the right thing to do for our company and our community,” said Jessica Myer, environmental specialist.
The company has been doing the right thing for the state’s wine industry in other arenas, as well. For the first few decades of the burgeoning industry, no other winery had the staff or resources to send sales staff to other parts of the country. But it wanted Washington state to be recognized as a world-class wine-growing region, so sales staff routinely took samples from other wineries along on sales trips outside the state. They were instructed to talk about the state first, then the brand, according to the book about Chateau Ste. Michelle by the winery’s CEO, Ted Baseler.
Over the years, it has launched the careers of numerous winemakers like Mike Januik and Bob Betz, who started his tenure at Chateau Ste. Michelle as the director of public relations and went on to become head winemaker and also started Betz Family Winery. When freezing weather destroyed many of the state’s crops in 2004, Chateau offered grapes to some of the state’s smaller wineries, like L’Ecole No. 41 and Basel Cellars, preventing what might have been a complete catastrophe, according to L’Ecole’s Marty Clubb.
The actual Chateau, built in 1976, receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Its popular summer concert series draws thousands of attendees, and net proceeds benefit numerous nonprofit organizations. In 2017, it unveiled its newly renovated tasting room at the Chateau, doubling its size to 22,000 square feet (including an 80-seat theater), making it one of the largest in the country.
“The guest experience really starts when they drive through the front gate,” said Linda Chauncey, director of education, referencing the vineyard-lined driveway and a greeting by Claude the resident peacock.
Several experiences are offered, like “Blend,” where guests get to create their own wine blend that gets bottled at the end. They can even make their own labels. Other experiences include “A Sensory Sojourn,” where guests learn to identify the “significant seven” varietals through their aromatic markers; “Artfully Paired,” a seasonal wine and food tasting; and much more.
Auction of Washington Wines
Each year, Chateau Ste. Michelle donates use of its estate and labor to host the Auction of Washington Wines (AWW) Picnic and Gala events. Proceeds are split between Seattle Children’s Hospital and the WSU Viticulture and Enology program. Last year, AWW raised $4.19 million. It is one of the biggest wine fundraisers in the country. The Private Barrel Auction is an industry and private invitation-only event on Aug. 16. Later that same day is the Winemaker Picnic & Barrel Auction, hosted on the lawn at Chateau Ste. Michelle. This event is open to the public, and guests are encouraged to taste barrel samples and bid on specially produced cases of wine. On Aug. 17, winemakers and chefs will collaborate and host multiple dinners throughout Puget Sound. And on Aug. 18, there will be the Columbia Winery Walk & Run in the morning and a gala at Chateau Ste. Michelle in the afternoon. More at auctionofwawines.org/events.