Ste. Michelle to open stand-alone winery

Washington is running short of red wine grapes, so the state's largest wine producer is turning to California.

Next month, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates will unveil Two Vines as a new stand-alone winery, separating the brand from Columbia Crest. And it will produce a quarter-million cases of wine using California grapes.

Beginning in January, the Columbia Crest Two Vines tier will be known as Two Vines and will not include any reference to Columbia Crest. Columbia Crest introduced the Two Vines wines with the 2004 vintage, replacing the bottom-tier "Columbia Valley" designation.

The wines retail for about $8, sell for as low as $5 to $6 per bottle and are priced to compete at the lower end of the premium wine tier.

Two of the wines -- Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon -- will carry the "California" appellation on the label, while the Chardonnay, Gewrztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Merlot-Cab blend will use Washington grapes.

"Washington is the heart and soul of our operation," said Kari Leitch, vice president of communications for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. "We're looking to California as a shorter-term way to fuel demand for Two Vines."

Juan Muoz-Oca, head winemaker for Columbia Crest, will continue to oversee production and winemaking quality for Two Vines.

When released early next year, the Merlot will be 100,000 cases in production, and the Cabernet Sauvignon will top out at 150,000 cases. Both will be made using grapes from California's Lodi region.

The decision to use grapes from California will be made on a vintage-by-vintage basis, depending on availability of enough fruit to slake demand for Ste. Michelle wines.

Leitch explained that making Two Vines into its own brand helps Muoz-Oca and his team at Columbia Crest in Paterson focus on the winery's other three tiers: Grand Estates, H3 and Reserve. And using California grapes for Two Vines will free up Washington fruit for the higher-priced tiers.

The move is not unprecedented for Ste. Michelle. Red Diamond, a brand also overseen by Muoz-Oca at Columbia Crest, uses grapes from Spain, Argentina and California, as well as Washington.

And in the mid-1990s, the company used grapes from Francel.

Leitch said the new Two Vines wines are being shipped to distributors this month and could be on the shelves as early as January.

Andy Perdue is editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company.