WOODINVILLE, Wash. – John Sarich brought class and integrity to the Seattle wine and food scene. Ultimately, the low-key chef became one of the region’s best-loved and most important food and wine emissaries.
On Sunday, Sarich lost the battle with a rare and destructive form of thyroid cancer. He was 67.
“John was part of establishing the story of Washington wine,” said Bob Betz of Betz Family Winery, who worked with Sarich at Chateau Ste. Michelle. “He took the message around the world. He had an influence on Washington wine globally.
Sarich, who grew up in the Seattle area and graduated from Ballard High School, turned a 1976 picnic at the recently opened Chateau Ste. Michelle into a career that lasted nearly 35 years.
“He came into the office a month after we opened the chateau,” Betz said. “We hired him as a tour guide.”
Sarich soon moved into sales and took his infectious style on the road, helping turn Chateau Ste. Michelle into a national brand.
“The sales force loved John because he was the complete package,” Betz said. “He was just a great personality, very charming and very endearing. Sales people loved having John come to their market.”
John Sarich launches two Seattle restaurants
Though not a classically trained chef, Sarich nonetheless had a knack for creativity in the kitchen. His passion for the culinary arts led him to leave Ste. Michelle in 1980 to open the highly regarded Adriatica Restaurant in Seattle with friend Jim Malevitsis. Five years later, he launched Dalmacija Ristoran at the Pike Place Market, a restaurant that was heavily influenced by Sarich’s Croatian roots.
By 1990, Sarich was ready to return to Chateau Ste. Michelle, and Ted Baseler, now CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, was quick to bring him back into the fold.
“We hired him on the spot,” Baseler said. “He’s been here for the past quarter-century and has been an integral part of our organization.”
Tom Stockley, the legendary Seattle Times wine columnist, wrote at the time that “the prodigal son returns.” Sarich became the winery’s executive chef and later its culinary director – the first on-premise chef for a Washington winery.
“John was just a guy everybody loved,” Baseler told Great Northwest Wine. “He was so talented. There’s a somber mood in the winery today.”
Sarich’s TV, cookbook career
Not long after Sarich’s return to Ste. Michelle, KIRO TV approached Baseler about sponsoring a cooking show – years before the Food Channel turned chefs into celebrities. Baseler didn’t want to do it, so he created what he thought was a ridiculous set of demands, figuring it would send the television station away.
“I said, ‘Well, you’ll have to film it here in our kitchen, have John Sarich be the star, tie in with local grocers and provide recipe cards, and you’ll have to have our wine in almost every camera shot.’ I figured there was no way they’d do it. A week later, they said it was a deal.”
Quickly, Sarich was the star of Taste of the Northwest, which later was nominated for Emmy awards.
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“John was just so good on camera,” Baseler said. “They were blown away by his gift not only for his cooking skills but also his on-camera presence. It ended up being No. 1 in its time slot, and all credit went to John.”
Taste of the Northwest was on the air for four years and was a favorite with regional viewers. It took Sarich around the world to a variety of locations. It also led him in a new direction: author.
In the ensuing years, Sarich wrote five books, including John Sarich’s Food & Wine of the Pacific Northwest, John Sarich at Chateau Ste. Michelle, Best of Taste and Entertaining Simply — Celebrate the Season. His last book, Chef in the Vineyard, was published in 2011.
“It’s hard to calculate what John did for the Washington wine industry,” Baseler said. “He taught the joy of food and wine, and that really increased the enjoyment of wine to a high level in our local markets.”
John Sarich’s sense of style
David LeClaire, a longtime Seattle wine professional who now works at Esquin Wine & Spirits, was friends with Sarich for more than 15 years and remembers him fondly.
“In his sense of integrity, John was a guy who was not a really flashy guy,” LeClaire said. “A lot of modern chefs try to reinvent things, but John was all about the classic recipes.”
LeClaire and Sarich became close through the years by working together on charity events.
“We had a nice camaraderie,” he said. “We partnered on a lot of events, and he did cooking classes at my home.”
LeClaire always marveled at how often Sarich traveled for Ste. Michelle and where he would end up.
“He would be in Hong Kong one day and Tokyo the next,” he said.
Baseler agreed, and he always appreciated Sarich’s approach and dedication.
“He was full of energy,” Baseler said. “He really was an ambassador. We sent him all around the world. He was easily one of the most-traveled people in our company.”
And Sarich always managed to work and play well with others, a style Baseler appreciated more and more throughout the years.
“There are lot of egos in the kitchens of great restaurants,” Baseler said. “But wherever he cooked, we would get comments from hotels and chefs. They would love John when he came in. He blended in well.”
Ste. Michelle found out about Sarich’s illness just about six weeks ago, so few were prepared for his death.
Betz remained close with Sarich even after Betz left Ste. Michelle in 2003. He now looks back on their final time together, a charity dinner at Betz’s home on Guemes Island near Anacortes.
“I was very fond of John,” Betz said. “Our last memory of John is dear and warm. It was a nice way to say goodbye.”
LeClaire said Sarich was completely dedicated to his two sons, Biagio and Dominic.
“His relationship with his kids was his No. 1 priority,” he said.
When Sarich became ill, his two boys came home and took care of their father until he died.
“He epitomized the Northwest spirit,” said Baseler, who visited Sarich on Thursday at his home. “I am just so saddened by his passing.”
Though a date has not yet been announced, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is planning a celebration of life for Sarich at the winery in Woodinville. The winery also announced Monday that it will establish a scholarship in Sarich’s memory to help culinary students. Baseler also said Ste. Michelle will prominently honor him on the winery grounds.