WOODINVILLE, Wash. – Fifteen years ago, David Rosenthal knew next to nothing about wine. Thanks to a strong work ethic, a background in science and a previously untapped talent, he’s the new head white winemaker for Washington’s largest and oldest winery.
Rosenthal succeeds Wendy Stuckey, who left Chateau Ste. Michelle last month to take on the new position of director of winemaker for Constellation New Zealand.
In 2001, Rosenthal could not have imagined the path his life would take. He grew up in Colorado in a family that rarely had wine on the dinner table. In 1997, he moved to Tacoma, Wash., to attend the University of Puget Sound, where he earned a degree in marine biology.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with that professionally,” he told Great Northwest Wine. “So I went home and waited tables.”
In the summer of 2001, he heard about a harvest position at famed Robert Mondavi Winery in California’s Napa Valley. He took the job and headed west. As his father drove, Rosenthal read a copy of Wine for Dummies.
“Going into it, I knew nothing about wine. Zero,” he said. “I was 95 percent sure wine came from grapes – but I wasn’t 100 percent sure.”
He had a great experience that included getting to meet Robert Mondavi and even being invited to his home after work for glasses of wine. But Rosenthal figured that was the end of his brief wine career.
Coming to Chateau Ste. Michelle
After working the harvest for Mondavi, Rosenthal moved back up the coast to Washington, where most of his college friends lived. He thought that perhaps his experience in California could get him a job here, but he wasn’t sure about the Washington wine industry.
“Chateau Ste. Michelle was the only winery I’d heard of up here,” he said with a laugh. “And that’s only because every Wednesday at Mondavi, we tasted different wines. One was the Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay.”
Three weeks after arriving back in the Seattle area, a job came up at Chateau Ste. Michelle, and soon Rosenthal was working in Woodinville as a lab technician. He spent four years in that position before deciding his life needed a bit of adventure.
When marine biology dominated his career choices, Rosenthal had dreamed of going to Australia. Jessica Munnell, a Ste. Michelle winemaker at the time (and now head winemaker for Mercer Estates in the Yakima Valley), had recently returned from a winemaking job in Australia and helped him line up with a winemaking internship at Zilzie Wines in Victoria. It turned out to be a great training experience.
“It was two to three times the size of Columbia Crest,” Rosenthal said. “I learned a lot of tricks about how to turn mediocre grapes into slightly less mediocre wines.”
After five months, he returned to the states, where he landed at highly acclaimed Domaine Serene in Oregon’s Dundee Hills, working as a harvest intern with uber-winemaker Tony Rynders. Serene is a relatively small, ultra-premium producer – just the opposite of the winery in Australia.
By early 2007, Rosenthal was back at Chateau Ste. Michelle, rehired this time as an enologist around the same time Stuckey came on as white winemaker. In 2011, he was promoted to assistant winemaker, where his focus was on the white wine barrel program – primarily 27,000 barrels of Chardonnay.
Filling Wendy Stuckey’s shoes
While Rosenthal’s focus has been on Chardonnay, he’s also plenty familiar with that other important grape at Chateau Ste. Michelle: Riesling. The Woodinville giant produces more than 1 million cases of the noble German grape, making it the largest producer of Riesling in the world.
“I’ve been sitting in on all the Eroica meetings for years,” he said. “I spent a week with Ernie Loosen (Ste. Michelle’s Eroica partner) in Germany last year and have a great relationship with him. Ernie’s the man. I love his wines and think very, very highly of him. He’s such a great resource.”
Following in Stuckey’s footsteps, however, is a daunting task for Rosenthal – and he knows it. Stuckey arrived from her native Australia with the reputation as one of that country’s leading experts on making world-class Riesling, and she helped Ste. Michelle raise the quality and profile of its wines.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Rosenthal said. “It’s one of those things you dream about. I’m very excited and very nervous at the same time. My main objective is to keep things going in the right direction.”
His boss, Bob Bertheau, has been head winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle since 2004, a year after arriving in Washington as Ste. Michelle’s white winemaker. Bertheau said he is excited to have Rosenthal in the new position.
“David’s technical knowledge, passion for our wines, experience with the cellar crew and great communication skills made him a great choice for the job,” he said. “He loves what he does and does a great job conveying it. I am confident our wines will go to even greater heights with David at the ‘white helm’ for Chateau Ste. Michelle.”
Rosenthal said he keeps in touch with Stuckey, whose husband and children still are in the Seattle area until school gets out. As a result, she is racking up the frequent-flyer miles between New Zealand and Sea-Tac.
Meanwhile, even though Rosenthal now oversees production of more than 2 million cases of white wine, his wife is involved in Washington’s most popular drink as a project manager for Starbucks.
“We’re a beverage family,” he said with a laugh.
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