WOODINVILLE, Wash. – Washington’s oldest winery is once again the state’s biggest.
Thanks to Riesling and an abundance of great grapes, Chateau Ste. Michelle has surpassed Columbia Crest as the state’s largest winery. Last year, Chateau Ste. Michelle shipped 2.7 million cases, compared with 1.7 for Columbia Crest.
Both wineries are owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. And the state’s third-largest winery, 14 Hands in Prosser, also is a Ste. Michelle property.
“We’re very happy and very proud of 14 Hands,” said Doug Gore, Ste. Michelle executive vice president for winemaking and viticulture. “It is the third leg on the stool for production for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.”
Columbia Crest had been largest for many years
For more than 15 years, Columbia Crest has been Washington’s largest winery. In fact, Gore was its first winemaker when it opened in the early 1980s in the Horse Heaven Hills overlooking the Columbia River. While Gore’s office still is at Columbia Crest, his vision goes beyond the winery.
Chateau Ste. Michelle’s roots go back to 1934, when National Wine Co. and Pommerelle – two competing Seattle wineries – opened. They merged in the 1950s into American Wine Growers, which later became Ste. Michelle Vintners and finally Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1976.
Today, nearly half of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s production – more than 1.2 million cases – is Riesling, making it the world’s largest producer of the noble white wine. Its Columbia Valley Riesling alone accounts for nearly 900,000 cases per year.
“It’s grown on the strength of Riesling,” Gore told Great Northwest Wine. “Crest doesn’t do a lot of Riesling.”
14 Hands grows to 1 million cases in a decade
One of the unexpected stars has been 14 Hands, which started as a restaurant-only brand just a decade ago. Today, it has its own facility in the Yakima Valley town of Prosser, taking the place of Snoqualmie Vineyards, which has relocated to the Columbia Crest facility in Paterson. Today, 14 Hands is a million-case brand for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. This fall, the company invested heavily in new self-emptying tanks that were designed and invented by Spokane Industries.
Not satisfied with this success, the company has introduced three new brands in the past year:
- Seven Falls is one of Gore’s pet projects that focuses on Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon using grapes from the Wahluke Slope. It launched a year ago with more than 50,000 total cases and is sold through restaurants and online. It is not sold at this time at retail shops.
- O Wines was purchased last year by Ste. Michelle and taken national this spring, as the company increased production from 11,600 cases to nearly 100,000 cases. Proceeds from the wines contribute to college scholarships for low-income, high-potential women.
- Anew is a 70,000-case label that makes one wine: Riesling. It’s priced at $11 and targeted at women. It was one of the first large-scale wines in the company’s Washington portfolio to use a screwcap domestically. (Some retailers in the United Kingdom require screwcaps, so Ste. Michelle has bottled some of its wines under threads to satisfy that market. Additionally, some Erath wines have used screwcaps since before Ste. Michelle bought it.)
New Columbia Crest wine under screwcap
“A wine like that is perfect for a twist-off,” Gore said. “It’s a new product, so it’s an easy way to dip our toe in the water and see how it does in the market place.”
In other words, don’t expect Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ 84 million bottles of wine to all be under screwcaps anytime soon.
In the middle of all this, the company also has rebranded its longtime bubble house from Domaine Ste. Michelle to simply “Michelle.” Gore said the wine’s style also has changed a bit to a creamier mouth feel.
“It’s a new blend and a new package,” he said. “They’re beautiful wines.”
And if that hasn’t kept Gore and his team busy enough, they’re also looking forward to more expansion as new vineyard acreage comes into production. This past year, Washington topped 50,000 acres of wine grapes – with a lot of them planted in the Horse Heaven Hills as Ste. Michelle Wine Estates prepares to ramp up its red wine production to satisfy growing domestic consumer demand.
“We’re making really good wines now, but we know what we’ve planted lately,” he said. “We’re very excited.”