“Chateau Ste. Michelle is the original,” said Doug Gore, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ vice president for winemaking, viticulture and production. “It’s the crown jewel.”
In the Northwest and across the country, a wine drinker’s first experience tasting Washington wine often is a glass of Chateau Ste. Michelle. A good impression could bring customers to the state’s 700- plus wineries — and a bad one could send them forever to California, Australia, France or Italy.
“That is a lot of responsibility, and I take it extremely seriously,” said Bob Bertheau, Ste. Michelle’s head winemaker. “My treasured moments are when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Ste. Michelle is the wine I trust.’ To me, that level of trust from the consumer means way more than a 93-point score.”
Chateau Ste. Michelle was born in the shadow of Repeal. Two wineries, Pommerelle and National Wine Co., launched in 1934 in Seattle, just months after the 21st Amendment was ratified. The fierce rivals merged 20 years later and became American Wine Growers. In 1965, it was renamed Ste. Michelle Vintners and two years later hired famed Napa winemaker André Tchelistcheff as its consultant — a sign it was getting serious.
In 1972, a group purchased the winery, renamed it Ste. Michelle Vineyards and began planting Cold Creek Vineyard north of the Yakima Valley at the suggestion of storied researcher Walter Clore. In 1974, U.S. Tobacco purchased Ste. Michelle Vineyards. Within two years, the company built a grand winery in a little-traveled area of King County known as Woodinville and renamed the winery Chateau Ste. Michelle.
By then, Ste. Michelle already was the largest wine operation in the state, and it began to expand, creating Columbia Crest and purchasing Snoqualmie Vineyards. In 1986, the company formed an umbrella company for the growing portfolio and called it Stimson Lane Vineyards & Estates. The name was inspired by the late Frederick Stimson, a Seattle lumber baron who started a dairy operation where Ste. Michelle is today.
“It was a road that came up to the winery,” said Ted Baseler, president and CEO. “The problem was nobody knew what Stimson Lane was. They’d ask, ‘What are you? An insurance company? A distributor?’ It was crazy.”
In 2004, four years after becoming CEO, Baseler fixed that by renaming the company Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. This was the same year Bertheau was promoted to Ste. Michelle’s head winemaker, a move that has propelled the winery.
Bertheau was born in Seattle but relocated to the Bay Area when he was 5. As he was making plans to go to med school, the wine gods stepped in. The Boise State University sophomore landed a job in the tasting room at Ste. Chapelle in nearby Caldwell. That sparked an interest in wine, so after graduating with a chemistry degree, he headed to U.C. Davis for his master’s degree, graduating in 1987. He worked at such Sonoma County wineries as Hanzell, Chalk Hill, Gallo Sonoma, Hambrecht, Belvedere and Bradford Mountain.
After 16 years, Ste. Michelle came calling.
“When we got ahold of Bob, we knew he was one of the top Chardonnay winemakers in the country,” Gore said.
He was brought in as the white winemaker, but he had no experience with Riesling, which was quickly becoming the company’s most important wine.
“The Chardonnays were reasonably similar, so I didn’t need to change much,” Bertheau recalled. “But I had a huge learning curve with Riesling. I knew about Ste. Michelle’s Riesling prowess. That was a steep learning curve.”
Fortunately, he had a strong mentor in Ernst Loosen, the famed German Riesling producer who began collaborating with Ste. Michelle in 1999 on the Eroica label.
In 2004, Bertheau was promoted to head winemaker and was faced with the daunting task of heading up the important red wine program.
“My biggest learning curve was understanding red wine tannins in Washington,” he said. “Techniques I learned in 16 years of making wine in California just didn’t translate to Washington.”
Bertheau had a lot of ground to cover to understand the vineyards of the vast Columbia Valley and how to coax from them what he envisioned in the bottle. It took him a couple of years to begin to dial in his fruit sources and how each could fit into the myriad wines Ste. Michelle makes.
One challenge of being a large winery that is 200 miles from its vineyard sources is communication. Ste. Michelle makes its white wines in Woodinville and its reds at its Canoe Ridge Estate facility in the Horse Heaven Hills, not far from Columbia Crest. Juggling two winemaking staffs can be difficult, and it keeps Bertheau on the road a lot. Last year, he spent 88 nights at the Marriott in Richland. To help, the teams now use technology to taste together, what Bertheau calls “bi-Cascadial video tastings.” Basically, it’s a video conference in which all the winemakers can taste together and discuss the wines.
In late 2007, he brought in Wendy Stuckey as his white winemaker. She had the reputation of being perhaps the finest Riesling producer in her native Australia, so her arrival was a coup for Ste. Michelle, now poised to become the largest Riesling producer in the world.
With just a few adjustments, Stuckey quickly fit in.
“Viticulturally, there is a huge difference between Washington and Australia,” she said, explaining that Australia gets rain throughout its summer months, raising the potential for mildew and other diseases in the vineyards — an issue Washington doesn’t have.
On the winemaking side, she was at home, though she wasn’t sure how well her experience would mesh with Loosen’s.
“Ernie makes wines that are much lower in alcohol and higher in sugar,” she said. “In Australia, ours are much drier. We don’t have anything in Australia like the Mosel. But when you come to Washington, you can make all those styles of Riesling.”
Today, she makes no fewer than seven different Rieslings for Ste. Michelle.
She admits she was a touch intimidated during her first Eroica blending session with Loosen.
“I was a bit nervous because of our different styles,” she said. “But when we tasted through 80 to 100 wines, it was surprising how close we were. It was eye-opening.”
Though Ste. Michelle makes more than 1 million cases of Riesling, its winemakers are quick to point out that they produce other wines. This became apparent during Wine Press Northwest’s Platinum Judging last fall, when Ste. Michelle won six Platinums: four for Riesling and two for Cabernet Sauvignon.
A big part of this is a two-story piece of equipment at Canoe Ridge Estate. It’s called the MOG Monster (MOG stands for “material other than grapes”). Basically, it removes stems, leaves, unripe berries and other matter that can produce off flavors in a red wine. It was installed in 2009 and had an immediate influence on the wine.
“Bob brought that forward,” Gore said. “The MOG Monster was a successful step forward in quality. Rarely can you buy a piece of equipment and see a jump in quality.”
While Baseler credits the MOG Monster with improvement, he sees Bertheau as the catalyst behind the winery’s success.
“We brought Bob in at a time when our wines were good,” he said. “But we needed to ramp things up. Bob and his team have really pulled that off.”