WOODINVILLE, Wash. – Were it not for two chance meetings, Wendy Stuckey might have happily spent her entire winemaking career in her native Australia and missed out on a great adventure.
Instead, she arrived in 2007 in Washington as the white winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle and now gets to make more than 1 million cases of her beloved Riesling and work alongside some of the world’s best winemakers.
We recently caught up with Stuckey at Chateau Ste. Michelle and chatted with her for this week’s Great Northwest Winecast. Here’s the interview.
Coming to America
Stuckey grew up on a farm in Australia’s Coonawara wine region. She got into wine in her mid-20s and spent the next 18 years working in the Barossa Valley. At Wolf Blass, she was in charge of the white wine portfolio.
“My expertise was in Riesling and a lot of other white varieties,” she said. “I had a love for Riesling.”
In 1992, she decided to travel to California to work harvest at Chalk Hill Estate near Healdsburg in Sonoma County. Bob Bertheau was the assistant winemaker there, and they became friends and ultimately kept in touch over the years.
In 2003, Bertheau was hired by Ste. Michelle to come home to the Seattle area and become white winemaker. A year later, he ascended to the head winemaker job. In 2007, Bertheau was in need of a new white winemaker, and that summer at the inaugural Riesling Rendezvous, he ran into Stuckey, who was there representing Wolf Blass. He mentioned the job opening, and the next day she applied.
Stuckey planned to arrive in time for harvest that autumn, but U.S. Immigration was slow to process her paperwork. She got here during the last week of the 2007 harvest.
Allure of Eroica
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One of the biggest attractions for Stuckey was the opportunity to work on Eroica, the collaboration between Chateau Ste. Michelle and Ernst Loosen of Germany. The wine, launched in 1999, is largely responsible for the revival of the American Riesling industry.
With Stuckey, Loosen and Bertheau, Ste. Michelle had created a Riesling dream team. But in her first blending session for the 2007 Eroica Riesling, she admits to being more than a little intimidated.
“Going into that blending session, I didn’t have a great deal of understanding of those wines,” she said.
But it turned out she had little to worry about.
“My palate was pretty tuned in to what (Bertheau and Loosen) were looking for.”
While Eroica is the most important Riesling the company makes, it is but one of 10 produced by Chateau Ste. Michelle.
“They have to have their own personality,” she said.
Starting with the Dry Riesling and going all the way to the ultra-sweet Single Berry Select, the range of Rieslings is amazing to Stuckey. Perhaps the most fascinating is the ice wine, which has been produced only eight times in the winery’s 80-year history. It’s been made three times during Stuckey’s tenure, with the first occurring in 2008.
“It was exciting,” she said. “It was an experience. It’s not something you can do everywhere.”
Certainly not in her native Australia. The few who try it Down Under must put their grapes in a freezer to accomplish the feat.
And the Riesling closest to Stuckey’s heart is called Waussie, a reference to a Washington Aussie-style Riesling that is bone dry. It’s a small-lot wine made for the wine club, with just 600 cases produced. She said she makes it similar in style to a Riesling from Western Australia’s Clare Valley. It’s a fascinating wine that stands out amid Washington Rieslings, as well as in a lineup of Clare Valley Rieslings.
Last year, Loosen’s wife was so smitten with the Waussie Riesling, she took a case home with her to the Mosel.
More than Riesling
While Riesling would seem to be the focus for Stuckey and her team, it isn’t the only white wine she makes. In fact, Chardonnay has a renewed focus in the company. Ste. Michelle has been strong in Chardonnay since the 1980s, and it now makes six styles. In fact, the current release of the winery’s main Chardonnay – the 2013 Columbia Valley – is nearly 650,000 cases.
She also makes two vineyard-designated Chardonnays, the Ethos Reserve Chardonnay, an unoaked Chardonnay and the plump Indian Wells Chardonnay.
“Each has their own distinct style,” she said.
In addition to Riesling and Chardonnay, Stuckey has her hands full with several other varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Gewürztraminer, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.
Last month, Chateau Ste. Michelle launched a new white wine club, which already has attracted 200 members. Stuckey is excited to experiment with small lots of unusual wines, including Grenache Blanc and Grüner Veltliner.
Heart still in Australia
Though she’s now been in the United States for a half-decade, Stuckey’s heart remains in her native Australia. She tries to get back home at least once a year and will be heading there in February for Riesling Down Under, which is similar to the Riesling Rendezvous.
While she misses her native land’s sandy beaches as well as family and friends, she is especially happy to be only an hour away from ski slopes in the Cascade Mountains. Back home, the nearest skiing was a 13-hour drive, which she and her family would do once a year.
“Now we can go for the day,” she said.
She’s also happy that she can find Vegemite here in the states. The savory paste is an Australian favorite, and she has little trouble finding it in Seattle.