Napa winemaker produces Platinum’s top wine at Chris Daniel Winery

By on January 3, 2022
Chris Stewart and the Chris Daniel Winery 2017 Malbec from Stillwater Creek Vineyard along Washington’s Royal Slope topped the 2022 Platinum Awards. (Photo by Fanny Deneuville/Courtesy of Chris Daniel Winery)

QUINCY, Wash. — It’s not the story of a hired gun, but there is a young hot shot Napa Valley winemaker and his father who are crafting some of the Pacific Northwest’s best wines near the Columbia Basin town of Quincy, Wash.

Chris Daniel Stewart works with his father, Michael, to produce fewer than 1,000 cases each year at Chris Daniel Winery along Highway 283. This year, they earned four Platinum Awards from Great Northwest Wine’s year-end judging of gold medal wines. Last year, the Stewarts won three Platinums.

On top of that, the Chris Daniel Winery 2017 Malbec ($30) from Stillwater Creek Vineyard on the Royal Slope ranks as “The Best of the Best” — the top-rated wine from the 2021 Platinum and meriting 99 points from the judges.

“It’s nice to have someone come and say, ‘Yeah, you’re doing a good job,” Chris says. “We know we’re making really good wines, and we want to put them out there and get some exposure. Our other wines are pretty good, too, and hopefully more people will notice.”

The Royal Slope, the deep purple Bordeaux variety Malbec and viticulturists Ed Kelly at Stillwater Creek and Josh Lawrence of Lawrence Vineyards all have been making headlines in the past year. This fall, the Gärd Vintners 2017 Lawrence Vineyards Malbec was named the No. 1 of 2021 by The Seattle Times. 

“All of our Malbec comes from the Royal Slope and we love Stillwater and Lawrence vineyards,” Chris says. “I’ve been attracted to the varietal ever since I worked at a couple of awesome wineries in Chile. I try to highlight the blue fruit and earthy notes and create a really nicely textured midpalate. We’ve been quite pleased with the Malbec we get from the Royal Slope because you can get it quite ripe and it’s not as late as Cab.”

Those sites and Jerry Milbrandt’s Northridge Vineyard on the Wahluke Slope also factored into other two Double Platinum wines for Chris Daniel — a 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2017 Syrah.

Michael Stewart’s history in irrigation management and a consultant for orchards and vineyards introduced him to those plantings early in their history as well as some historic sites and figures. There was Mike Hogue, the Gordon brothers, Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval on Red Mountain and Mike Sauer at Red Willow Vineyard.

“Meeting all of those people was a hoot, and I began to wonder if we could have a winery someday,” Michael says.

It’s not often for a teenage boy to consider going into business with his parents, but theirs is a special connection.

“Even as a young kid, I thought, ‘What is this work that my Dad is getting so excited about?” Chris says. “That definitely got me thinking about it as a career.”

Once he graduated from Quincy High School in 2006, Chris entered the viticulture and enology program at Washington State University in Pullman. Five years later, he’d earned two degrees — one in science, the other in Spanish. Both have served him well in Chile, France and California.

“There have been a few times when I’ve come home and thought to myself, ‘I don’t think I spoke any English today,’ ” Chris says. “While I was going to school, I had an internship in South America and I realized that if I don’t want to shovel rachis all day, then I would need to take more than the Spanish classes I had in high school.”

And it was in California wine country where he met his future wife, Fanny, who grew up in Buthiers, a small town south of Paris.

“Between the two of us, we can travel the world and manage pretty well,” said Chris, who also has an introductory certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Even though he eschews all titles, Michael essentially serves as the cellarmaster at Chris Daniel. Dianne, his wife and Chris’s mother, manages the tasting room near their home and cherry orchard.

“I’m just the janitor — I clean,” Michael says with a chuckle. “I spend all my days cleaning and cleaning.”

When he’s not sterilizing, there’s the endless sending of tank and barrel samples to Napa. Throughout the process, Michael shares his own sensory evaluations and executes Chris’s work orders.

“I figured out how to boss my Dad after 18 years,” Chris laughs. “Honestly, it’s a great excuse to call up my parents all the time, and I’m able to guide him on exactly what we need to do by shipping samples back and forth with me 1,110 miles away.”

All of the vineyards they work within are within a 30-mile radius of the winery, and it is Michael — not Chris — who makes the picking decisions.

“We’ve had eight vintages of learning how to communicate with each other,” the father says. “Fortunately, Chris is always multiple steps ahead of me, so maybe I’m becoming a better communicator, and I pay close attention to the details.”

Chris playfully points out, “Luckily, we share DNA.”

Father and son were traveling in Spain, relishing their time together touring wine country, and decided to finally pull the trigger on their own winery. The name of their brand came naturally.

“I guess my parents really liked the sound of it since that’s what they named me,” Chris chuckles, “but my Dad calls me CD.”

The Stewarts launched the winery in 2014, and their first wines were released while he was an assistant winemaker at Bell Wine Cellars in Yountville. Now he’s in Calistoga with Girard Winery, a brand owned by Vintage Wine Estates. In recent years, founder Pat Roney and his California-based VWE have acquired three Northwest properties — Owen Roe in the Yakima Valley, Tamarack Cellars in Walla Walla and Firesteed in the Willamette Valley. In 2021, shares in VWE began to be publicly traded on the NASDAQ.

“In the wine industry, I don’t know if anyone knows where your career path will take you, and that’s part of the fun in it,” Chris says. “There have been a lot of different acquisitions, and we’re public now. It’s fun being a part of a dynamic company, working with multiple brands and fruit from all over the state of California. It’s an incredible learning environment.

“My parents always raised me and my brothers to explore and look outward while we were growing up,” Chris added. “I got my feet wet working in Washington, but after graduation I ended up in California and it’s helped me really up my game and learn from some amazing players on the winemaking and farming side.”

The Platinum judging also underscores how father and son have completed a circle of sorts. Michael played a role in the first Milbrandt plantings on the Wahluke Slope in 1996. Two decades later, his son began making wine from Milbrandt vines, and the 2015 Petite Sirah from Northridge Vineyard produced the first Platinum for Chris Daniel Winery in 2019.

And PS, their 2017 scored a Platinum this year, too. That Petite Sirah is sold for the same price as the “Best of the Best” 2017 Malbec.

“I just bought a house down here and spending $60 for a really nice bottle of local wine is a bargain,” Chris Stewart said.

Thanks to the Stewart family, the 2021 Platinum Awards proved a 99-point wine can be found in the Northwest for $30.

  • Chris Daniel Winery, 2743 Highway 283 North, Quincy, WA, 98848, ChrisDaniel.wine, 509-398-1417.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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