by Noreen Kompanik
I have long been a fan of Chateau Ste. Michelle and their award-winning wines. My wine refrigerator contains at least one bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Chardonnay at all times. And on a recent visit with a friend to a Seattle area’s writer’s conference, I had a window of opportunity and made the winery visit a top priority. So high in fact, it was our very first stop after picking up the rental car.
Knowing Chateau Ste. Michelle is Washington State’s oldest winery’s located in the lush, verdant green Sammamish River Valley, just 30 miles from downtown Seattle, did not adequately prepare me for the authentic, majestic beauty of this classic vineyard. The winery’s famous French-style Chateau is an unmistakable, unforgettable landmark as we entered the tree-lined, perfectly manicured historic grounds surrounded by 105 wooded acres. The setting so serenely peaceful, the only sounds as we approached the Chateau, were birds chirping merrily around us.
Our host and tour guide, Susie, escorted us to a beautiful conference room where three red and three white wines were poured and ready for our tasting. As we enjoyed the different varietals, Susie briefly explained the winery’s history. Chateau Ste. Michelle winery was founded 81 years ago as the National Wine Company in Seattle, just two years after prohibition. At that time, its wines were made not from grapes, but from berries. In 1954, the company merged with another small wine company, Pommerelle, to become American Wine Growers (AWG), the largest winery in the state.
By the mid 60’s, American interest in table wine was growing and a research project conducted by Washington State University identified the eastern Washington region as having perfect conditions for growing European grapes from Vinifera (Mediterranean grapevines). Winemakers including AWG began experimenting with different varietals such as Grenache, then expanded trials to include other varietals – Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Riesling, with outstanding success. As a result, AWG shifted its entire production from fruit wines to Vinifera grapes.
In 1967, American Wine Grower’s name changed to Ste. Michelle Vintners reflecting its determination to join the pantheon of world-class wineries. Competing against vineyards in California and Germany, their 1974 Johannesburg Riesling was a resounding success, winning a gold medal. And the accomplishment put Washington State on the winemaking map! With its new-found fame, the winery relocated to a once thriving dairy farm. Along with construction of its now-famous landmark château came a new name – Chateau Ste. Michelle
Excited and proud Northeasterners came in droves to visit the beautiful château with its elegant tasting room and learn about how wine is made and produced on its guided tours. The rest is beautiful history – the warm, sunny days, cool evenings and low rainfall created ideal conditions to grow grapes in the Columbia River Valley with continual successful harvests. Today, Washington State is the second largest wine region in the United States, home to 850 wineries, and 50,000 acres of wine grapes. And it was Chateau Ste. Michelle who proudly led the movement.
Riesling was the varietal making Chateau Ste. Michelle famous world-wide, and they are now the single largest producer of Riesling wines on the planet. When I tasted the 2014 Eroica Riesling, a collaboration between Chateau Ste. Michelle’s head winemaker, Bob Bertheau and famed German Mosel winemaker Ernst Loosen, I understood why. The grapes are picked at night, giving the wine a smooth texture, pleasing to the palate with sweet lime and mandarin orange aromas accented with subtle notes of mineral. There wasn’t one wine that didn’t impress us with its rich aromas and lush flavors. The Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot, named for the 559 acres of land carved out by a powerful river of lava 12 million years ago, was another one of our favorites. Elegant and refined, with a distinct dark cherry flavor and dusty tannins, this estate Merlot is a perfect match with Italian food.
As we proceeded with our guided tour known as the “Chateau Experience”, we learned more about the winemaking process and the premier valleys which grow their world-class grapes. We passed wall after wall listing Chateau Ste. Michelle’s numerous wine and winery awards, so many that our tour guide laughingly proclaimed “we’re running out of room to frame the awards”.
The winery has been named Winery of the Year 20 times and a Top 100 Winery an amazing 21 years. Its Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot have each received Wine Spectator’s Top 100 honors, and the list of awards goes on.
One incredible benefit of being a Wine Club Member is the privilege of purchasing wines from Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Artist Series. These are exceptional wines with special labels designed by renowned, world-class artists. The winery’s tasting room has one of the largest wine shops in the state of Washington. Practically anything wine-related can be found here.
Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Summer Concerts feature such talented musicians as Paul Simon, James Taylor, John Legend, Don Henley, and Chicago. Guests can bring their own picnics or purchase fresh food items from Northwest producers at the amphitheater. Wine Pairing dinners are also held throughout the year featuring such themes as Aloha – pairing the Chateau’s wines with tropical Hawaiian-inspired dishes.
At the end of our very detailed and personal tour of the winery, my friend and I enjoyed a bountiful, beautifully prepared charcuterie tray filled with various meats and cheeses along with more of award-winning Chateau Ste. Michelle wine. What a perfect ending to a magnificent visit.
Earnest Hemingway once wrote “Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world… and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.” This describes the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery experience to a tee.
Chateau Ste. Michelle is located at 14111 NE 145th St, Woodinville, Washington, about 20 minutes northeast of Seattle.