Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville, 2016 / Courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
By Peter Blecha / 09.04.2017
Chateau Ste. Michelle is a Woodinville-based winery that is Washington’s largest fine-wine producer. The business was built upon the foundation of the state’s most successful winemaking firm, Seattle’s American Wine Growers (AWG). AWG had corporate roots dating back to the Prohibition era, and had largely produced non-grape fruit and berry wines. In 1969 AWG launched its “Ste. Michelle” brand of grape wine, and in 1972 the company was acquired by a group of Seattle investors. They renamed the company Ste. Michelle Vintners, Inc., before quickly selling it to a large East Coast-based firm. As founding president, Wally Opdycke presided over the construction of an ultra-modern winery — Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM) — in Woodinville in 1976. CSM flourished, nurturing the careers of many talented winemakers, producing countless award-winning wines, and providing leadership and support to the statewide wine industry — including establishing the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center in Richland in 2015. Along the way, CSM’s historic estate has become one of the world’s most-visited wineries, the annual host of a major charity wine auction, the home of a popular summer concert series, and the crown jewel of the Woodinville tourism industry.
Wine in Washington
Airplane over Hollywood Farm, July 3, 1914 / Photo by Ella McBride, Courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
Back during Washington Territory days — when imbibing locals preferred the alcoholic beverages of hard cider, whisky, and beer — wine consumers were also often home winemakers. Italian, German, and French immigrants maintained their family traditions of acquiring grapes each autumn and producing wine for their own use, usually from native North American vitis labrusca grapes rather than the more esteemed European vitis viniferawinegrape species.
In 1889 Seattle’s first commercial winery was founded when the Louis Jaffe family opened the Wine Creek Winery in the Pioneer Square neighborhood at 115-117 2nd Avenue S. Then, at the turn of the century, Seattle attorney Elbert F. Blaine (1857-1942) moved to the Yakima Valley and in 1905 built his Stone House Winery near Grandview. In 1902 a Canadian attorney, William B. Bridgman (1877-1968), arrived in nearby Sunnyside to manage an irrigation company, and between 1914 and 1917 he planted two pioneering vineyards.
Fred S. Stimson, Holstein-Friesian World, December 3, 1921, p. 20
As later noted by two astute observers of Washington’s wine industry, “It was a curious time to be planting wine grapes” (Irvine and Clore, 119). In 1916, alcohol-sales Prohibition took effect in Washington, well before such restrictions were imposed nationwide in 1920. But the new rules did notoutlaw home winemaking for personal use, and that practice was evidently undertaken with renewed vigor.
As the demand for winegrapes increased, Bridgman and other vineyard owners couldn’t meet it, and a new annual tradition eventually arose: the California grape train. Each fall season a few of Seattle’s Italian American businessmen — including Joe Carbonnato (1896-1973) and Dominick Cappellaro (1893-1953) — traveled to California and arranged to have grapes shipped by rail back to Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood, where customers would buy the fruit directly off the trains.
A New Era
Label, vintage Pommerelle Sherry wine / Courtesy Peter Blecha Cellars
Prohibition proved to be a disastrous national social experiment and finally, on December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, effectively ending it. Within days Washington’s state legislature passed Senator Earl Steele’s (1881-1968) Senate Bill 7 — the Washington Liquor Act, commonly called the Steele Act. The law established a comprehensive structure for state regulation of the sale of liquor and created a three-member Liquor Control Board.
In that very same month the dawn of a new era in wine production began. A Seattle real-estate man, Charles Somers, got his new Stretch Island-based St. Charles Winery licensed by the state, making it Washington’s first “bonded” winery. Near the same time a Seattle apple-juice firm, the Pommerelle Co. at 617 Dearborn Street, began marketing its apple wine. Then, in 1934, W. B. Bridgman opened his Upland Winery in Sunnyside, and in 1935 the National Wine Company (NAWICO) was organized in Seattle.
The politics of the wine biz also emerged in 1935 when a trade organization, the Washington Wine Producers Association, was formed. Its charter members, interestingly, were all Western Washington-based firms: St. Charles, Pommerelle, Davis Winery, Werberger Winery, and Wright Winery. Soon after, the legislature passed an amendment to the Steele Act, one that gave near-monopoly rights for importing wines to the new state-owned string of liquor stores. The upside was that hundreds of small grocery stores across the state would stock Washington wines rather than imports, and the years ahead would be a boom-time for local wineries.
The Wine Biz
By 1937 there were 28 active wineries in Washington — the two most successful being Seattle’s NAWICO and Pommerelle. In 1938 that figure expanded to 42, with most producing the then-popular heavy, sweet fruit-based wine — blackberry, cherry, concord grape, currant, and loganberry — many fortified with brandy to give them a higher alcohol content than the fine dry grape table wines of Europe. Little wonder one historian later described such plonk as having a “ghastly quality” that would eventually be “dismissed by most wine drinkers as simply garbage for the ‘wino trade'” (Clark, The Dry Years, 259).
This same era also saw the Washington Wine Producers Association recast itself as the Washington Wine Council, and the arrival of horticulturist Dr. Walter J. Clore (1911-2003) at the Irrigation Branch Experiment Station near Prosser. Encouraged by W. B. Bridgman to experiment with winegrapes, Clore began decades of pioneering work planting various varieties and studying the soils of Eastern Washington, work that would prove key to the successful rise of the state’s winegrape industry.
National Wine Company
Hollywood Farm, 1914 / Courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
The National Wine Company (NAWICO) traced its roots back to 1932, when Seattle grape importers Joe Carbonnato (1896-1973), Dominick Cappellaro (1892-1953), and Philip Sugia (1889-1957) rented William T. Burke’s Canal Motor Co.’s old Ford dealership building at 319 Nickerson Street, where some small-scale illicit winemaking reputedly occurred. Then, post-Prohibition, the now-bonded National Wine Co. added a few sketchy partners, like Dominic Depaolis (1885-1939), a reputed bootlegger, and Frank M. Alvau (1887-1981), a convicted builder of stills, along with brewery veteran James “J.C.” Sams (1885-1977) to serve as general manager.
NAWICO adopted the marketing slogan “Washington’s Finest” to push its wines, which included blackberry, “Cream Pink” concord, currant, loganberry, Madeira, Mt. Gold Chablis, Muscatel, Port, Sherry, Sauterne, Tokay, Vin Rose, and White Port. Notwithstanding that dubious lineup, Sams — who was serving one of his several terms as president of the Washington Wine Council — was praised for enabling “this state’s winemakers to achieve in a relatively few years a quality of product considered comparable to the finest anywhere. And it is to a concentration on quality that the National Wine Co … attributes its rapid rise to a position of eminence among Washington winemakers” (“Scientific Quality Control …”).
NAWICO’s success led to the company opening a grape processing plant and fermenting cellar at 205 W 5th Street in Grandview in 1937. That same year it hired a local, Les Fleming (1913-2007), as manager, and he soon hired a pal, Victor “Vic” Allison, away from the nearby Wright Winery. Fleming would manage the vineyards and Allison the plant, and both would have long careers in the industry.
The Pommerelle Company
Seattle’s other significant winery, the Pommerelle Company, was founded in 1933 in a vacant hotel building at 617 Dearborn Street by a half-dozen investors, mostly German Americans, who hired an immigrant named Joe Molz as manager, and then winemaker. After producing apple wines, the company followed with other such questionable products as Muscatel, Port, Sherry, Tokay, Washington Bordeaux Rouge, and White Port.
Business was great; Pommerelle purchased a used Kenworth delivery truck formerly owned by the Frederick & Nelson department store, and in 1938 moved up to a larger facility, at 9417 East Marginal Way. In addition, it bought a small berry farm at Deer Lake on Whidbey Island, and Molz soon acquired Greenbank Farm, a 500-acre dairy on the island, where he planted 125 acres to loganberries and began Pommerelle’s long practice of marketing that wine
American Wine Growers
American Wine Growers winery, Seattle, n.d. / Courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
The friendly rivalry between NAWICO and Pommerelle ended in 1940 when the companies merged. Both had long-established distribution channels, and to maintain these the new company carried on producing wines under its components’ respective names and continued deliveries to their respective customers. When America entered World War II in 1941 and many American wineries closed down, the company struggled on, even after Molz was drafted and new managers placed in charge. Upon Molz’s return, his old position was denied him and he drifted away. In 1951 Vic Allison oversaw the first commercial planting of vinifera grapes in Washington, on NAWICO’s Columbia Valley acreage.
By 1954 J. C. Sams was in charge, and NAWICO acquired a vintage 1936 Seattle firm, the Italian Winery, and formally merged the three wineries into a new entity, American Wine Growers (AWG), based in the old Pommerelle facility. AWG retained its predecessors’ names — NAWICO and Pommerelle — as ongoing brands, and also brought Molz back into the fold. AWG continued producing fruit wines, but also began selling a Grenache-based vinifera wine.
Times and tastes were rapidly changing, and in 1957 AWG responded by planting vinifera grapes — Pinot Noir and Semillon — in the Yakima Valley, but it would take years before those vines were wine-worthy. In the meantime, the market had tightened, and by 1960 only four Washington wineries still survived. But AWG thrived: Vic Allison was named GM in 1961 and the company planted Cabernet vines. By now the it could boast of owning 500 vineyard acres, as well as the Greenbank loganberry farm on Whidbey.
AWG’s Seattle and Grandview wineries now each had an annual production capacity of 750,000 gallons, and a reporter from The Seattle Times marveled after being invited to witness the October 1961 debut of the former’s recent upgrade: “bottles are being filled, capped and labeled at a rate of 200 bottles a minute, 2,000 cases a day” (“Spirited New Machines …”). In 1965 AWG hired Howard Somers (1919-2005) — a chemical engineer and son and grandson of the St. Charles Winery’s founders — who would serve as the enologist for AWG’s first premium wines. Even more significant, in 1965 AWG also planted the first White Riesling ever grown in the Yakima Valley — the grape that would go on to define Washington wine for decades.
Debut wine label, Ste. Michelle Vineyards, 1967 / Courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
Washington winemakers were steadily upping their game, but there were still areas needing improvement, and advice offered by a few California-based experts would impact the future of the state’s wine reputation. In 1966 the Sausalito-based wine writer and founder of the Wine Institute, Leon D. Adams (1905-1995), visited AWG’s Grandview winery, tasted some wines, and told Vic Allison that AWG should begin producing vinifera wines on a commercial scale. He suggested that they contact André Tchelistcheff (1901-1994), the legendary Russian-born winemaker from Napa Valley’s esteemed Beaulieu Vineyards, who had recently retired.
Intrigued, Tchelistcheff came north in 1967, tasted wines, and accepted Allison’s invitation to serve as a consultant. He “first directed that the Vinifera vines in the American Wine Growers’ vineyards be immediately pruned to reduce the crop and achieve proper sugar-acid balance in the grapes” (Adams, 335). He also met with Dr. Clore at the Irrigation Experiment Station to discuss soil types and grape varietals, and as a result AWG planted new vineyards with classic European white and red varieties.
Ste. Michelle’s Debut
Debut wine label, Ste. Michelle Vineyards, 1967 / Courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
On August 1, 1969, AWG launched the commercial debut of its new viniferawines — Cabernet, Grenache Rose, Pinot Noir, and Semillon-Blanc — under the new brand “Ste. Michelle.” The French-sounding name was suggested, corporate legend holds, by Joe Molz’s daughter, who had been impressed by a recent visit to Le Mont-Saint-Michel Island off the coast of France. It was an attempt to bring a bit more nobility to Washington wines, and author Leon Adams would report that after receiving an enthusiastic reaction by the snooty San Francisco Sampling Club, AWG was suddenly “challenging the quality supremacy of California varietal wines” (Adams, 336).
Seattle media also took note of the favorable marketplace reaction to these wines, raving about the winery’s progress. The politics of wine was also newsworthy in 1969, as the legislature revisited wine rules at the behest of California interests still chafed by the existing law, which restricted their ability to ship wine directly to retail shops. Soon, with the 1969 passage of the Sale of Wine Act (popularly called the California Wine Bill), high-quality California wines were suddenly widely available; the number of area wineries fell from eight to two between 1969 and 1971. AWG, however, held tight — Howard Somers’s vinifera wines were exactly what the public was becoming interested in.
The Opdycke Era
Dr. Walter Clore (left), unidentified, Wallace “Wally” Opdycke (right), 1970s / Courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
One Seattle fellow paying attention to all this activity was a young Safeco Insurance account manager named Wallace “Wally” Opdycke. While working in San Francisco he had discovered the Napa Valley and liked the idea of owning a winery. Now, looking at Eastern Washington vineyards, he began formulating a plan. He later recalled, “Three things hit me: The quality of the grapes, the yield per acre, which was higher than, say, Napa, and the cost of land, which was lower” (Kinssies).
Opdycke contacted Dr. Clore to discuss some technical aspects of the grape-growing business, and he began scouting potential vineyard sites in Eastern Washington, including William Bridgman’s old, disused Upland Winery facility. But rather than trying to restart a failed winery or build one from scratch, Opdycke figured it would be prudent to buy out an active one. He met with Joe Molz, who told him that AWG was ready to sell.
By 1972 Opdycke had assembled a team of Seattle investors — including attorney Mike Garvey, Kirby Kramer, and Don Neilson. With a loan from Seafirst Bank, they acquired AWG’s wine-production license, brands, enology equipment, winery, and vineyard properties. On May 1, 1973, the company was officially recast as Ste. Michelle Vintners, Inc. (SMV). Now president, Opdycke crowed to The Seattle Times that “within 10 to 15 years, Washington could be second only to California in grape and wine production” (“State’s Largest …”).
But that would require much more land dedicated to grapes, and SMV quickly invested in planting the 500-acre Cold Creek Vineyard, instantly doubling the total vine acreage in the state. André Tchelistcheff continued to advise the company. Wine quality kept improving, and in 1974 SMV’s 1972 White Riesling became the first Washington wine to win a major blind-tasting competition. Pitted against top German and California wines, the (less-expensive!) Ste. Michelle wine conquered all. Its reputation now established, Ste. Michelle was soon being served at the White House.
The year 1974 would be a momentous one for SMV. Opdycke had begun scouting out possible corporate sources for additional capital to finance expansion plans. Ontario’s Labatt Brewing Company considered his entreaty, but he instead struck a deal with the Greenwich, Connecticut-based U.S. Tobacco Co. (UST), makers of the Skoal and Copenhagen brands of chewing tobacco. Opdycke had merely wanted a few millions in investment funds, but UST countered that they wished to buy SMV, and have him stay on to run things. Done deal.
Chateau Ste. Michelle
Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville, n.d. / Courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
Opdycke envisioned erecting an entirely new winery for SMV, initially thinking it should be located in either Yakima or Sunnyside — the heart of the vineyard country. But he realized that the state’s population center was in the Puget Sound region, and in order to make a winery a true tourist attraction it needed to be closer to Seattle. He discovered a rural 87-acre plot that was available just outside the tiny town of Woodinville, in east King County.
That acreage was formerly known as Hollywood Farm, the historic home of Seattle timber baron Frederick Stimson (1868-1921), who had developed it into a dairy and poultry farm that gained an international reputation between 1912 and 1939. Though in disrepair, Opdycke thought the grounds’ extensive gardens, mature exotic trees, and trout ponds were magic. After the Port of Seattle informed SMV in 1975 that it would be acquiring AWG’s old Pommerelle winery building in order to expand port operations, SMV bought the Woodinville property for $230,000.
Planning for developing the site and building a grand new winery began. “We wanted to build it to look like this old French chateau,” Opdycke recalled (Kinssies). And along with that image upgrade, “We decided to change the name from Ste. Michelle Vintners to Chateau Ste. Michelle” (Kinssies). The new 15,000-square-foot Chateau Ste. Michelle (CSM) winery was designed by architect Paul Brenna and built by the Howard S. Wright Construction Co. As The Seattle Times noted: “The 600-foot-long new building will have space for fermenting, aging, bottling, warehousing, crushing and pressing. Administrative offices and a visitor center and wine-tasting room will be near the main entrance to the two-story chateau,” and added that Opdycke “predicts the winery will be the most modern in America” (Lane).
A formal groundbreaking ceremony was held on September 24, 1975, with Governor Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925) gamely wielding a shovel to plant a symbolic grapevine on the grounds. A gala grand opening event was held on September 21, 1976, and on that same day the winery released its 1975 White Riesling, with the label heralding the new moniker — Ste. Michelle Vintners was now Chateau Ste. Michelle.
The Shoup Era
Grounds, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville, n.d. / Courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
In 1980 Opdycke hired Allen Shoup — a fellow with serious branding experience as marketing manager with Ernest and Julio Gallo’s California wine empire — for the position as CSM’s head of marketing and corporate development. Shoup’s initial challenges were the lack of a sales force and the difficulty of getting UST to budget for sales and marketing efforts. After angry tussles during meetings at headquarters back east, Shoup was finally allotted $1 million, and he began building a professional team.
In 1982 CSM submitted six wines to a major wine competition in Italy. Pitted against 450 other wines, the world was shocked when CSM won five first-prize gold medals. “The awards not only honored Ste. Michelle’s accomplishments; they also helped confirm Washington’s international status as a producer of premium vinifera wines” (Holden and Holden, 9-10).
In 1983 CSM produced an astounding 1.8 million gallons, decisively moving it into position as America’s second-largest premium wine producer. After Opdycke retired and Shoup ascended to president and CEO, he hired Ted Baseler, a young account rep with Seattle’s leading ad agency, Cole & Weber Advertising, to lead marketing. Baseler was charged with promoting CSM’s new winery and 2,000-acre vineyard at Patterson, Washington, which had opened in June 1983. Alas, the gigantic $26-million winery and visitor center — at 9.5 acres of floor-space it was the largest single building in all of Eastern Washington — had one obvious flaw. A clunky name: Chateau Ste. Michelle River Ridge.
Even though the company’s wines — including a white blend called Columbia Crest — were tasty, the public seemed confused by the name. So Baseler conducted some consumer research and successfully proposed that CSM change the Patterson winery’s name to Columbia Crest. It was a masterstroke — Columbia Crest became an instant success, shipping 175,000 cases in 1985 alone, and before long the winery was established as the largest producer of Merlot wine in America.
Meanwhile, CSM’s parent company established a new holding company named Stimson Lane Wine & Spirits, Ltd. after the original street that edged Hollywood Farm. Chateau Ste. Michelle launched an incredibly successful annual Summer Concert Series at its grass-covered, 4,300-capacity amphitheater. Meanwhile, CSM had also begun planting its soon-to-be-esteemed Canoe Ridge Vineyard in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area), which together with Indian Wells and Cold Creek in the Columbia Valley AVA would give it an unmatched vineyard portfolio.
By 1987 CSM was shipping 550,000 cases a year and had established itself as the big dog of the Northwest wine biz. But with that profile, it also became an attractive target for a United Farm Workers (UFW) union-organizing drive among CSM’s Yakima Valley workforce of largely Hispanic field hands. Shoup has insisted that CSM wasn’t opposed to dealing with a union, but he believed the entire agricultural-labor system needed reforms and preferred that a statewide legislative solution be crafted to solve the problems. The state legislature didn’t act, and the result was a multiyear boycott against CSM. The publicity was annoying to CSM, but after the workers voted to join the UFW, a contract was signed, history was made, and “the UFW would finally achieve what farm workers had sought for nearly a century: a binding contract with an agricultural employer” (Castañeda).
In 1990 CSM was named “Wine Producer of the Year” by American wine critic Robert Parker, and his publication The Wine Advocate named Columbia Crest as one of the 24 “Best Value Wineries” in the world. In short, during a brief two-decade period the company had grown from small-time to a $2-million, and then to a giant $200-million per year, business.
The Baseler Era
Barrel room, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville / Courtesy of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
In April 2001 Shoup stepped aside, and six months later Ted Baseler was promoted from marketing VP to president and CEO. He developed a vision of CSM’s future that included acquiring additional wineries and vineyard properties. In 2004 U.S. Tobacco decided to update the name of its holding company from Stimson Lane to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE) to better reflect the expanding portfolio. Among the new additions were Spring Valley Vineyard in Walla Walla, Conn Creek Winery, Stag’s Leap Winery in Napa Valley, and Patz & Hall Winery in Sonoma. Baseler also forged strategic alliances and/or partnerships with esteemed overseas entities, including Italy’s Antinori family, Germany’s Ernst Loosen, France’s Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte, Spain’s Bodegas Torres winery, Chile’s Miguel Torres winery, and New Zealand’s Villa Maria Estate.
Meanwhile the awards were piling up. In 2002 Wine Spectator magazine bestowed on CSM’s 2000 Single Berry Select wine a 98-point rating, at the time the highest rating yet for any Washington wine. In 2004 Wine Enthusiastmagazine saluted CSM as the “American Winery of the Year.”
In January 2009 tobacco giant Altria Group acquired UST and became the new owners of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Meanwhile, Baseler focused his team’s efforts on improving CSM’s wines, reinvesting in the chateau’s facilities, and always promoting the concept of “Washington wines,” rather than just the company’s own products. SMWE serves as an incubator for technological advances in viticulture and enology, while also discovering and nurturing winemaking talent (including Joel Klein, Kay Simon, Bob Betz, Mike Januik, Ron Bunnell, Charlie Hoppes, Cheryl Barber, and Bob Bertheau, among others) and contributing millions of dollars to community organizations. It has been a prime sponsor of the Auction of Washington Wines annual charity events, raising millions for Washington State University and Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, as well as supporting the Washington Wine Commission, the Washington Wine Quality Alliance, and WSU’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center in Richland.
Vintage Ste. Michelle bottlings. / Courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates
In 2017 Chateau Ste. Michelle, with an annual production of more than two million cases a year, is firmly established as the dominant leader in the Washington wine biz, as America’s second-largest producer of premium wines, and as the world’s leading producer of Riesling. Overall, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates produces 8.2 million cases per year, a number that comprises two-thirds of the total amount of commercial wine made in the state. In just 50 years the company has grown to once-unimaginable levels: It currently owns more than 3,800 vineyard acres in Washington, Oregon, and California, utilizes a dozen winemaking facilities, employs nearly 1,000 workers, and brings in around $700 million in annual revenues.
Chateau Ste. Michelle also is the prime attraction within the Woodinville wine-country scene that has grown up since 1976. Although there are more than 900 wineries in Washington today — and at least 130 wineries (and/or tasting rooms) in the Woodinville Valley alone — no visit there is complete without a tasting at the chateau’s visitor center, which was upgraded and doubled in size (to 22,731 sq. ft.) in a $7-million renovation to help celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017.