By DAN WHEAT
The icon of Washington's premier winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, is a French-style chateau on a wooded estate in Woodinville, Wash., 15 miles northeast of Seattle.
But the wine grapes come from Benton and Walla Walla counties in Eastern Washington, including the company's 800-acre Cold Creek Vineyard on the eastern slopes of Yakima Ridge some 35 miles east of Yakima.
In early August, crews are finishing up cluster thinning. They were pulling leaves around clusters to increase their exposure to sunlight and aid maturity and flavor. Equipment was being readied for harvest to start the second to third week of September, said Mike Means, director of vineyard operations.
The winery in Woodinville is a visitor and historic attraction on what was once a state-of-the-art dairy farm dating back to 1912 and developed by Seattle lumber baron Frederick Stimson.
The winery opened in 1976 but traces its roots to the National Wine Company and the Pommerelle Wine Company, which made blackberry and loganberry wines in Seattle after Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
In 1954, the companies merged to become American Wine Growers and 20 years later the company, having expanded into making wines from European grape varietals taking hold in Eastern Washington, changed its name to Chateau Ste. Michelle to compete better globally. That same year, 1974, the company's Johannisberg Riesling won a gold medal over Rieslings from California and Germany.
The company grew, as did its reputation.
In 1984, Chateau Ste. Michelle led in establishment of Eastern Washington's Columbia Valley (Basin) as a federally designated American Viticulture Area.
Many awards followed, including "American Winery of the Year" in 2004 by Wine Enthusiast Magazine and "Winery of the Year" in 2005 by Restaurant Wine Magazine.
In 1986, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates was formed to encompass wineries acquired in Washington, Oregon and California. The company, owned by Altria Group Inc., now has 23 wineries and makes more than 60 percent of the wine produced in Washington. It owns 3,500 acres of vineyard, mainly in Washington, but most of its wine grapes come from contracted growers, said Kevin Corliss, vice president of viticulture.
The company exclusively imports Antinori wines from Italy, which combined with its U.S. wineries gives it annual U.S. sales of 6 million cases.
The company's Washington wineries include Columbia Crest, Domaine Ste. Michelle, Snoqualmie, Northstar, Stimson Estate Cellars and Red Diamond Wine.
In February, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates pledged $1 million toward a new Washington State University Wine Science Center in Richland. It was in addition to its commitment to more than half of the $7.4 million the industry is raising toward the center in assessments on grape tonnage and gallons of wine produced.
In May, Chateau Ste. Michelle reopened its summer tasting gallery at its Canoe Ridge Estate red winery in Paterson. In June, it released its new Indian Wells Red Blend.