It’s easy to forget—given our state’s nearly 1,000 wineries—that the phrase “Washington wine” is pretty new and that its big corporate names were not so long ago upstarts.
Chateau Ste. Michelle—which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—is certainly hard to see that way, since its now monolithic presence casts a shadow on its own past. Chateau Ste. Michelle was, as of 2016, the largest single producer of riesling in the world, and the largest winery in the state. It also owns many of the brands that crowd local grocery store shelves, 41 labels and partnerships that span the west coast and include 14 Hands, Columbia Crest, Red Diamond, Erath, Motto, Two Vines, Spring Valley, North Star, Col Salare, Eroica. Chateau Ste. Michelle at the corporate level impels the sort of discussion that includes words like “subsidiary” and “buy-out”: they’re owned by Altria, which also owns Philip Morris.
Even the history of how Chateau St. Michelle took its name in 1967 complicates. In 1934, the year after prohibition was repealed, a pair of fruit and berry wineries opened—Pomerelle and National Wine Company. In 1954 they merged into American Wine Growers and turned their focus to European styles. Finally Ste. Michelle Vineyards sprouted from American Wine Growers in 1967 with 6,000 cases of cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, grenache rosé, and semillon. But back then the very idea of Washington wine was dislocating. “People used to ask us what side of the Potomac we grew our grapes on,” says Ste. Michelle winemaker Bob Bertheau.
Oh how things have changed. Those 6,000 cases have ballooned to nearly four million a year.
Now, on September 2nd and 3rd, Chateau Ste. Michelle is celebrating the opening of its new visitor center at its namesake Woodinville chateau. Festivities run from 10am to 9pm and include a mimosa brunch, live music on the lawns, a winemaker meet and greet, and a food truck smorgasbord: Cheese Wizards, Skillet, Off the Rez, Dante’s Inferno Dogs, and eight others.
The visitor center itself sounds like it’s half tasting room, half wino conference wonderland. An 80-seat theater will hold classes on blind tasting and food pairings. An Eroica tasting salon houses ancient Roman winemaking artifacts—including a wine merchant's tombstone—that come from Ernst Loosen, German rielsing baron and Eroica partner. And if you feel like taking a crack at your own Bordeaux-style, there’s a new interactive blending room where visitors can spin together wines like cabernet, malbec, and merlot, and then pop their own labels on their vintages.
If you find yourself on the lawn this weekend, where 300,000 visitors a year now tread, food truck grub and riesling in hand, consider that local wine is still—in the grand scheme—a very new thing. And whatever your thoughts on it, adoring or still skeptical, it’s become very hard to ignore.