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America’s Great Value Winery

Washington state’s Chateau Ste. Michelle produces more than a million cases of first-rate value wines a year. Lettie Teague, one of the wine world’s best bargain hunters, pays a visit.

I tried a lot of wines before I finally found the one for me, an Australian Merlot," the wife of a friend said to me recently. While I had some doubts about her final selection (one grape Australians don’t do well is Merlot), I understood her desire to be done with the search. Even though I’m constantly looking for new regions and new wines to taste, I know lots of people who seek only vinous monogamy—a wine that can be theirs for life.

That’s the promise and the success of every big name brand from Dom Pérignon on down: dependability from one year to the next. And yet times have been tough for big wine companies, with so much competition from all over the world and so many consolidations within their own ranks. For example, several of the top 30 wine companies were sold within recent years, including (and most famously) Robert Mondavi. Yet there is one big wine company that is doing quite well: Washington state–based Chateau Ste. Michelle. My question was, why?

After all, the chief wine that Ste. Michelle makes is Riesling, a grape that most people still don’t fully understand or appreciate. Chateau Ste. Michelle is actually the biggest Riesling producer in the world. It’s not even located anywhere fashionable—not Napa or Sonoma, but the Pacific Northwest. Its name isn’t trendy; its labels aren’t cute. In fact, they are a bit dull—not unlike those of Bordeaux. (Perhaps they took that "château" thing a bit too seriously?)

But the shortcomings fortunately fall outside the bottle: Chateau Ste. Michelle makes some of the country’s most reliable value wines, year after year, especially Riesling, Cabernet and Merlot. Although this may not sound glamorous—not like making a 500-case, 100-point wine—it is, to me, equally laudable. After all, a wine that’s made well in large quantities (Chateau Ste. Michelle produces more than a million cases a year) not only reaches more wine drinkers, it’s also much harder to pull off.

And yet it’s not an accomplishment that seems very highly regarded, even by value wine drinkers themselves. For example, I’ve never been invited to a dinner featuring $15 Merlots or cheap Cabernets, or read tasting notes about them posted on the Web. "Had a great $9 Riesling last night!" isn’t something you’re likely to find on erobertparker.com. And yet these are the wines that people drink on a regular basis, that form their impressions and experiences—even if they may not know where the wines are made.

Indeed, according to Ste. Michelle’s CEO, Ted Baseler, "A lot of people think we’re a California winery." I wondered whether that bothered him. After all, Chateau Ste. Michelle spends a great deal of money every year educating people about Washington wine. "As long as they buy our wine, it doesn’t matter to me where they think we’re located," Baseler replied equably.

How was it that Baseler could be so sanguine? "We’re still in the underdog position," he explained, adding, "I think one of the healthiest places to be in life is in the underdog position. The minute you lose that, you’re susceptible to complacency, or worse."

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, currently the 10th largest wine company in the United States, is a collection of wineries that includes Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest, as well as Washington-based wineries Snoqualmie, Northstar and Spring Valley Vineyard, and a couple of joint international ventures, such as Col Solare (with Italy’s Piero Antinori) and Eroica (with Germany’s Ernst Loosen); there are also partnerships with California wineries like Conn Creek and Villa Mt. Eden, and Oregon’s Erath Vineyards. Every one of these wineries has its own market position and production facilities; the company clearly wants them to maintain their individual identities. It’s a strategy Gallo has used particularly well: There are so many Gallo-owned wines under so many different names (Red Bicyclette, Turning Leaf and Black Swan, to name just a few) that I wonder if even the Gallo family has trouble keeping track of them all. "I know we’ve done Turning Leaf and Black Swan, but have we done a Black Leaf or a Turning Swan?" I imagine one family member asking another.

Chateau Ste. Michelle’s current winemaker, Bob Bertheau, was once a Gallo man; he worked at Gallo’s Sonoma facility for five years, where he was responsible for "all the Zinfandels, Chardonnays and Syrahs" produced there before joining Ste. Michelle, where he has been the head winemaker since 2004.

Bertheau and I met up at Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Woodinville headquarters a few months ago for a tasting. About 20 miles north of Seattle, Woodinville is pretty much the town (or, more accurately, the suburban sprawl) that Chateau Ste. Michelle built. When the Ste. Michelle label was created some 40 years ago, there were only five other wineries in the area; now there are nearly 30, all within a five-mile radius of one another. There’s even an official Woodinville Wine Country trail, though there are no vineyards at all, aside from the decorative sort. The grapes are all grown some four hours away.

An affable fellow, Bertheau told me he was responsible for "50 different skews." Skews? Was this some sort of new winemaking measurement? "SKUs," Bertheau repeated and, upon noting my confusion, clarified the term: "Stock Keeping Units." It was the first time I’d ever heard a winemaker refer to his work by means of bar-code technology.

But the responsibilities, not to mention the vocabulary, of a winemaker at a million-plus-case facility are quite different than those of a smaller producer. Or as Bertheau explained, certain strictures apply. "I can instigate changes to the wines—using less new oak for Chardonnays, for instance—but I still need to make sure we’re meeting the flavor profile all our customers expect."

Wasn’t that creatively crippling? Bertheau insisted otherwise. Besides, with 50 different wines (a.k.a., skews) and several winemaking teams to oversee, he still believed there were plenty of opportunities for self-expression: "If I had to be nailed down to a couple of styles, I’d go crazy."

ertheau was particularly fond of Riesling. "I love making Riesling," he said. And considering it’s one third of the winery’s production, this is just as well. We tasted four Rieslings, including the beautifully balanced 2006 Eroica at $22 a bottle. Although Eroica’s production numbers are bigger than boutique (27,000 cases), it is the one Chateau Ste. Michelle wine that can be found on the wine lists of serious restaurants and in upscale shops that usually won’t carry Ste. Michelle wines because they are "supermarket" brands, as one elite California retailer explained. (Although he did stock some supermarket-level California labels—state loyalty trumping snobbishness, I guess.)

I also found the 2006 Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Dry Riesling quite appealing: dry and clean, with a firm acidity and, at $12 a bottle, an excellent value. (It was launched nationally this spring, and at 25,000 cases, shouldn’t be too hard to find.) The 2004 Indian Wells Cabernet (20,000 cases), at $18, was another good buy. Bertheau was particularly keen on this wine. "I think this wine really shows what we can do with Cabernet," he exclaimed. "We want to over-deliver."

Corporate winemakers, it seems, talk that way—not unlike marketing executives or self-help gurus. Model-turned-inspirational-entrepreneur Kathy Ireland, for example, is also keen on the word "over-deliver," which she bats around in her book Powerful Inspirations. (Or so a friend who is a big Kathy Ireland fan tells me.)

And yet, there was some truth to Bertheau’s "over-delivering" assertion—at least according to Tom Merkle, vineyard manager for the Indian Wells Vineyard, which is a vast tract owned by the cartoonishly monikered Zirkle Fruit Company and leased long-term by Ste. Michelle. Said Merkle, "Chateau Ste. Michelle doesn’t force me to do anything I don’t want to do," and that includes cropping at "a lower tonnage than necessary—three-and-a-half tons rather than five." Lower tonnage means less wine, and therefore less money, but presumably a better quality wine.

While Bertheau took pleasure in the corporate winemaker role, his predecessor, Mike Januik, seemed to dislike the term. A fellow Washington winemaker had characterized Januik to me as "one of the best in the state," but added the qualifier "for a corporate winemaker," which I repeated to Januik. He bristled a bit. As Ste. Michelle’s head winemaker from 1990 to 1999, Januik made some of the winery’s first notable reds. Today, he turns out excellent wines under his own two labels, Januik Winery and Novelty Hill, at his winery near Ste. Michelle.

That is another admirable fact about Chateau Ste. Michelle: It’s been the starting place of some of Washington’s biggest talents, most of whom still have warm feelings toward their onetime employer. In addition to Januik, other illustrious alumni include Kay Simon of Chinook Wines, who makes a terrific Sémillon and a great rosé, and Charlie Hoppes of Fidélitas, who turns out some very good reds, as well as Bob Betz, who may have worked for Ste. Michelle longer than anyone else (nearly 25 years) in various positions before he started his own Betz Family Winery, where he makes excellent Syrahs and Cabernets.

Erik Olsen of Clos du Bois, head white winemaker at Ste. Michelle from 1993 to 2003, recalled the winery’s underdog status very well—even when it came to its star grape, Riesling. "We really wanted to partner with someone, but we didn’t think anyone would want to work with us," Olsen recalled. Indeed, Ernst Loosen, the wunderkind of the Mosel, had proposed the idea of making a wine with Chateau Ste. Michelle. "He came to us because he liked the winery and wanted to do a joint venture," Olsen reported. The result, of course, was Eroica.

This lack of pretension as a sort of corporate ethos was something I kept hearing over and over, and not just from former Ste. Michelle employees. It certainly seemed like a novel assertion: I can’t think of many large wineries that claim their success is modesty-based. But clearly it’s a corporate attitude that has created a lot of goodwill among many of the state’s smaller producers.

Jean-François Pellet of Pepper Bridge Winery and Chris Figgins of Leonetti were both quick to credit Ste. Michelle for its help during critical times, such as the harvest of 2004, when there was a terrible frost. Quite a few vineyards lost a lot of their fruit. Said Figgins, "In 2004, almost all our Merlot blocks froze, and the viticulturalists at Chateau Ste. Michelle called up and asked me how much fruit I needed. They told me to come and take my pick of any block I wanted." It’s an approach that benefits all, said Figgins, adding, "It’s like the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats." (Marking the first time JFK’s famous phrase had probably ever been applied to frozen Merlot.)

Figgins, whose father, Gary, helped put Washington wine on the map back in the ’70s, also mentioned other, less tangible things. "Chateau Ste. Michelle wines make for a good introduction to Leonetti wines," he posited. "Wine drinkers might choose Ste. Michelle for their daily wine, then graduate to a Leonetti or Quilceda Creek."

While it is best known for good values, Chateau Ste. Michelle does aspire to make wines that will rival Leonetti and others. Baseler cited the recent purchase of the much-acclaimed Spring Valley winery as a step toward that goal. "We want to make a 100-point wine at all of our wineries," he said. Toward that end, Ste. Michelle also produces a more expensive line of wines (Ethos) and an Artist Series Meritage, a Bordeaux-style blend whose label has frequently featured the work of glass artists like Dale Chihuly (whose work reminds me of Thomas Kinkade, the so-called Painter of Light and suburban mall king). The wine itself is appealing and reasonably priced at $48 a bottle.

Did Bertheau aspire to make collectible wines that could age? Bertheau, who has been known to do bottle signings at Costco, simply laughed: "I like to say I make wines that are aged on their way home from the grocery store."

Comments? E-mail Lettie Teague at winematters@aexp.com.

Published June 2007
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