WOODINVILLE, Wash. – During his lengthy tenure in the Washington wine industry – a career that stretches back to 1984 – Mike Januik has always been a head winemaker.
This is a remarkable achievement because most people must work their way up through the ranks. But straight out of the University of California-Davis, Januik landed a head winemaking job in the Yakima Valley and from there continued his rise through the industry.
Today, Januik owns his own winery – Januik Winery in Woodinville – and his work in the Washington wine industry has led him to be recognized this summer as the Auction of Washington Wines‘ honorary vintner.
We recently sat down with Januik to talk about his career making Washington wine and the path he has taken. Here’s the interview.
Mike Januik’s road to Washington wine
Januik grew up in California and came north to the University of Oregon to earn a bachelor’s degree. He and his wife owned a wine shop in Ashland, Ore., when she decided to go back to college to earn her MBA.
About the same time, they sold the wine shop and Januik decided a career in wine was in his future. But to get into UC-Davis’ vaunted winemaking program, more chemistry classes were required, so he went back to school at Southern Oregon University while his wife earned her MBA.
“She finished up, and we moved down to California and I started at Davis,” he told Great Northwest Wine.
After earning a master’s degree in fermentation science at UC-Davis, Januik and his wife headed back to the Pacific Northwest in 1984, this time to now-defunct Stewart Vineyards near the Yakima Valley town of Sunnyside.
“What happened to me was kind of unusual,” he said. “Ordinarily, someone would finish school and they’d get a job working for a winemaker, someone who would mentor them.”
But the owner of Stewart Vineyards offered Januik the job as head winemaker, so he took it. He ended up staying for three years.
“That first year, I spent a lot of time calling friends in California asking them what to do next.”
He was making a fairly small amount of wine at Stewart, about 2,000 cases. His next job was quite a bit bigger.
From Snoqualmie to Chateau Ste. Michelle
While Januik handled about 100 tons of fruit each harvest at Stewart Vineyards, his next stop in Washington was much bigger: about 5,000 tons of grapes each fall.
Januik moved from the Yakima Valley to the remote Wahluke Slope near the town of Mattawa. Snoqualmie Winery was owned by a group of investors in Bellevue, who bought Langguth Winery in fall 1986. Langguth had been a German producer that came to Washington to make Riesling.
“In the summer of 1987, I went to work for them, and about three weeks later, they went into chapter 11 bankruptcy,” Januik said.
He stayed on for three years, working hard to turn the winery around into profitability.
In the fall of 1989, Chateau Ste. Michelle approached Januik about coming to Woodinville to become its head winemaker. At first, he declined.
“I decided to stick with Snoqualmie a little longer to see if we could make it work,” he said.
By the spring of 1990, Ste. Michelle called again, and this time Januik decided to make the move. He began in July 1990. Within six months, Ste. Michelle purchased Snoqualmie Winery out of bankruptcy court and has owned it ever since, turning it into a successful and profitable part of its portfolio.
Januik remained at Washington’s flagship winery for the next decade, a time of tremendous growth in the state wine industry. This coincided with Ste. Michelle’s determination to make better wine, and this gave Januik an incredible opportunity.
“I had chances to work with great people all over the winemaking world,” he said. “It was a great experience for me, in large part because Ste. Michelle had decided that they wanted to do whatever was necessary to improve the quality of wine. So they pretty much gave me carte blanche to do whatever I thought was necessary.”
This included a massive increase in the winery’s barrel program, as well as replacing old equipment with the latest technology.
“It was about as good an opportunity as anyone could ever ask for,” he said. “I learned a lot and also worked with a lot of great people. I walked away having only positive feelings about my whole experience there.”
Launching Januik Winery
By the spring of 1999, Januik knew it was time to leave Ste. Michelle and begin his own winery. He let the company know and left prior to harvest that summer.
“Ste. Michelle gave me a very generous consulting agreement for the next two years to work with the winemakers who were replacing me,” Januik said. “As much as anything, they did it because they wanted to help me out, which it did. After two years, I was at the point where it was time to start selling wine that I’d started making in 1999.”
Even today, Ste. Michelle still is close with Januik, 17 years after he departed. Each year since his first vintage of Januik, he has been able to purchase Chardonnay grapes from Cold Creek Vineyard. To his knowledge, he’s the only winemaker able to purchase those precious grapes.
“I’m very appreciative that they let me get the Chardonnay,” he said. “I’ve always thought it was the best Chardonnay in the state. I very likely may be the only person who uses it other than the winery.”
Chateau Ste. Michelle makes a vineyard-designated Chardonnay from Cold Creek Vineyard, which the company planted in the early 1970s and remains its oldest estate vineyard. That wine has gained such acclaim, it’s even been mentioned in a Tom Clancy novel as the world’s best Chardonnay.
Januik feels privileged to work with it today. And not only does he get the fruit he wants, but he also gets out to select the rows he prefers, and Ste. Michelle picks it when he believes it’s ready.
“I’ve worked with that Chardonnay since 1990,” he marveled. “So that’s 26 years.”
Starting Novelty Hill
Today, Januik is perhaps 150 yards from Chateau Ste. Michelle, just across the road at the winery he shares with Novelty Hill.
The idea for Novelty Hill began in December 1999, when Januik met Tom Alberg, a Seattle businessman who was an early investor in Amazon.com (and remains on its board of directors) and owns Madrona Venture Group, a venture-capital company.
In the 1960s, Alberg’s father purchased several hundred acres of sagebrush-covered hills near the Eastern Washington community of Royal City. He never did anything with it, so in 1999, Alberg asked Januik if it might be a good site for growing grapes.
The land is in what’s known as the Frenchman Hills, in an area commonly called the Royal Slope.
“I went and looked at it, and I also had some of the viticulturists from Ste. Michelle,” Januik said. “Everyone thought this site looked great for grapes, so in the spring of 2000, the first vines were planted.”
Thus, Stillwater Creek Vineyard was born. That first year saw about 100 acres go in. Today, more than 220 acres are planted, and grapes are sold to dozens of top wineries around the state.
Stillwater Creek is north of the warm Wahluke Slope. It’s a high-elevation site with a steep-sloping face. The result is that Cabernet Sauvignon can be left on the vine late into October, allowing the grapes to develop complex flavors without accumulating much additional sugar. The results are wines with tremendous depth but generally not over-alcoholic.
The next logical step in Januik’s mind was for Alberg to produce a little wine. The first vintage of Novelty Hill – named after another property Alberg’s father bought near the town of Duval – was in 2000, when Januik made 600 cases of Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.
New building for Januik, Novelty Hill
For the first few years, the wines for Januik and Novelty Hill were made in a Woodinville warehouse – long before that was fashionable. By 2007, both wineries moved across town to their current location. It’s a sleek, modern building with large windows that provide visitors the opportunity to view into the production area.
Januik makes about 33,000 cases of wine there, 12,000 for Januik and about 21,000 for Novelty Hill. Stillwater Creek accounts for nearly 50 percent of all the fruit that comes to the winery.
Januik and Alberg designed the building with consumers in mind, and they now have a fulltime kitchen and event staff that provides pizzas to patrons on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. They also have cheese plates and other foods. Weddings happen regularly – about 40 per year – as well as corporate retreats and wine club parties.
Next month, Januik will be recognized as honorary vintner at the Auction of Washington Wines, which takes place across the road at Chateau Ste. Michelle. He’s quick to deflect the attention.
“We have such amazing fruit to work with in the state,” he said. “Any success I’ve had is directly related to the quality of the fruit and the quality of the vineyards and vineyard managers I work with.”
Of all the success and honors he’s enjoyed in the past 30-plus years, Januik’s greatest joy comes from working alongside his son Andrew, who has launched his own label: Andrew Januik Wines.
The younger Januik grew up around wines and vines and made his first batch of wine as a young teenager. He was never pressured to follow his father, but he did take to it naturally and already is gaining attention with critics and consumers alike.
“It’s a real pleasure for me to have the opportunity to spend that time with him,” Januik said.