Summer at the Chateau

Posted in Blog, Wine on Tuesday, April 09, 2024

After nearly six decades, Washington state’s oldest winery is still leading the way.

Summer at the Chateau

When talking about Washington wines, the standard line is to take note of how young the wine industry is here. “Look at how much the industry has grown here in just a few decades,” people will say, which no doubt is true. To the casual observer, it seems like everywhere you look throughout the Columbia Basin, there’s a new boutique winery opening or a new vineyard being planted. “Exponential growth,” the accountants would call it.

But the seeds of Washington’s wine industry were planted long before the current period of international renown. Among all those vibrant new upstarts, Chateau Ste. Michelle stands as the oldest winery in the state and continues to dominate after more than 50 years of winemaking in the Evergreen State.

Built on the 1912 estate owned by Seattle lumber baron Frederick Stimson, the winery’s roots date back to the Repeal of Prohibition. But things really got started in 1967, when a new line of premium vinifera wines was introduced under the name Ste. Michelle Vintners, in a project that was overseen by legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff.

In the years since, Chateau Ste. Michelle has grown into an industry giant, producing approximately 7.3 million cases of wine annually, which makes it the eighth largest wine marketer in the United States. The company was purchased in the first half of 2023 for $1.3 billion in cash by Sycamore Partners, a New York–based private equity firm. Somehow, despite all that growth and its massive volume of sales, the company keeps producing excellent wines, and it has been listed 18 times among the top 100 wines in the world by Wine Spectator.

“We’re in 50 states and 60 countries,” said Katie Nelson, vice president of winemaking at Chateau Ste. Michelle, when the Washington Grown TV crew visited in Season 11. “My favorite part of what I do is knowing that someone will be drinking it in another country on vacation.”
A large part of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s success, and indeed any grower’s success, comes down to the climate and conditions where they grow their products. For instance, Eastern Washington’s very hot and dry summers make grapes ripen easily, resulting in a higher sugar level, which in turn converts to alcohol. In Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Horse Heaven Hills vineyard, the prevailing wind also contributes to the flavor of the wines.

“It’s usually very windy in this area, which causes the vine to sort of shut down to prevent water loss, so it makes for very concentrated, bold wines,” said Nelson as she toured the vineyard with Washington Grown host Kristi Gorenson. “I’ve been making wine for almost 30 years, and no two vintages are ever the same. Mother Nature always throws curveballs, so it’s always a challenge.”

Many mistakenly think that wines from large wineries like Chateau Ste. Michelle must all taste identical. But the taste of the wine is affected not only by the climate, soil conditions, and sun exposure where the grapes are grown, but also by the oak barrel the wine is stored in after fermenting. In most cases, wine is stored in oak barrels for months or even years while the oak adds oxygen, tannins, and a depth of flavor to the wine.

“We typically taste from each barrel, because each barrel imparts different flavors, depending on the wood staves,” said Nelson. “I love how [wine] brings everyone together — it brings science and art and farming together. No two days are ever the same in the wine business.”

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