The winery, located in Woodinville, is the oldest in the state, founded in 1934. Bob Bertheau was recently named the head winemaker for Ste. Michelle, and I thought it was time to look at their wines again. They are one of the most popular wines in the region, apparently revered enough to sell 1.2 million cases around the world. In the case of Riesling, Chateau Ste. Michelle owns the category, selling more Riesling by itself than any nation in the world, including the Germans who originated the varietal.
Once a winery begins mass production of its products, for me, there's a loss of intimate details and finesse that smaller wineries can still do. The larger production has to find the balance to appeal to the consumer -- a middle of the road, so to speak. The wines become soft and predictable, and, for a time, I thought Chateau Ste. Michelle was falling into that category.
But a recent visit to the winery and an interview with its new head winemaker has changed that view. Despite its size, Chateau Ste. Michelle is fairly nimble. The winery is part of a winery group that includes Columbia Crest (the best wine values in the state), Snoqualmie, Domaine Ste. Michelle (sparkling wines), Red Diamond, Northstar, Stimson Estates Cellars and a couple of wineries in the Napa Valley -- Conn Creek and Villa Mt. Eden.
Bertheau, who had been with the winery about a year, making white wines before his promotion, says he and the other winemakers have a wide berth, including experimenting with different grape varieties and blends.
"This is like enocological Disneyland -- we really get to do anything," says Bertheau. "Of course, we are dedicated to the varietals that we currently market around the world. But for a winery of this size, we are very fast on our feet."
The Columbia Valley wine series include Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. These are the winery's value wines, with a softer mouth feel and rounder tannins. The wines are perfect for everyday consumption and priced appropriately in the $9 to $15 range.
The Single Vineyard Wines showcase the vineyards where the grapes are grown and will include only grapes from that site. They include Sauvignon Blanc (Horse Heaven Vineyard) Chardonnay (Canoe Ridge Estate Vineyard) Chardonnay (Cold Creek Vineyard), Chardonnay (Indian Wells Vineyard), Merlot from all three vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon from Cold Creek and Canoe Ridge Vineyards, and a Riesling from Cold Creek. All are priced in the $15 to $25 range.
One of the best ways to learn about the micro-climates of a vineyard is to blind taste the same varietal produced in different vineyards. For example, take the three Chardonnays produced in this series and blind taste them with a group of people. It's the same winemaker, the same grape, the same region, but they all taste very different due to differences of soil, weather and leaf canopy.
The higher-end wines reflect the winery's nimbleness to hand-craft beautiful wines. The reserve wines will ultimately be phased into a new line called Ethos -- showcasing the best of the best. Those wines include a reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, late-harvest white Riesling Reserve, the Artist Series Meritage and currently the Ethos Chardonnay. Eventually all the wines will carry the Ethos label. Bertheau says the Ethos series represents an "Old World" style with "New World" fruit. These wines price out between $30-$50 and truly reflect the best vineyards in the state.
Chateau Ste. Michelle also has two joint ventures -- Col Solare, a partnership with famed winemaker Piero Antinori, and Eroica, a joint partnership with Ernst Loosen, who produces Rieslings in Germany.
The Ethos label will be Bertheau's personal statement. But his dedication to large production of wines has not waned.
"If we can't make 50,000 cases of a tasty wine, we shouldn't be here," says Bertheau, who spent 16 years in Sonoma before coming to Washington in 2004. "I want to bring out the natural varietal character and the region of expression in these wines."
Bertheau is reducing the amount of oak many of these wines see, so the consumer has a better idea of what the true wine character. Many California Chardonnays, for example, are so heavily soaked in oak that only a termite would love them -- liquid wood, hiding flaws in the wines.
Some of the more interesting wines are not on the shelves. When winemakers decide to try different grapes -- such as Sangiovese -- the wines produced are sent to members of the winery's wine club. It's worth considering a membership to taste some of the grand experiments -- nothing is sent that is unpalatable.
In a world where bigger is sometimes viewed with suspicion, Chateau Ste. Michelle is defying those thoughts with great everyday and premium wines. If you haven't tried these wines recently, taste the new releases. You're in for a pleasant surprise.