Most wine lovers, when they think of Riesling, think of Germany. But In the entire world, there is no larger producer of the aromatic white wine than Chateau Ste. Michelle, in the Seattle suburb of Woodinville.
Ste. Michelle makes more than 2 million cases of Riesling a year. That’s over 24 million bottles. The grapes are grown and pressed in eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley, then carried across the Cascade Range in tanker trucks for final processing and bottling.
Chateau Ste. Michelle is the oldest winery in Washington, a state whose annual wine production is exceeded only by California. It was founded in Seattle as the American Wine Company when Prohibition was repealed in 1934. Company owners soon discovered, in rural Woodinville, the 87-acre estate of an early-20th-century lumber baron that was ripe for redevelopment. On the Hollywood Farm, so named for holly trees that lined the main drive, they built a French-style chateau and gave the estate its new name.
Today, as Woodinville has grown to a bustling town of more than 10,000 people, with scores of other wineries, that estate has become a landmark in the hinterlands of northeast Seattle. Visitors may wander the grounds, from tree-lined lanes and duck ponds to a 4,300-seat outdoor amphitheater that hosts a popular summer concert series.
Considered one of the top three white-wine varietals in the world (along with Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc), Riesling is distinguished by its flowery nose and high acidity. Often identified as a “sweet” wine, it can also be semi-sweet and even dry and may be structured as a sparkling wine. It is rarely blended and seldom oaked.
The character of Riesling is heavily influenced by the terroir in which the grapes are grown. Chateau Ste. Michelle produces 10 different styles of Rieslings, showcasing a variety of styles. The company planted its first Riesling grapes in 1967, and in 1972 its Johannisburg Riesling won an international blind tasting of 19 Rieslings sponsored by The Los Angeles Times.
These were snippets that I learned as one of just four guests on a free tour of the winery, accompanied by a company guide. I was led past fermentation tanks and down a long corridor that eventually ended in a palatial tasting room. I learned that all of the winery’s red wines (mainly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) are produced at its Canoe Ridge Estate, in the Columbia Valley’s Horse Heaven Hills, but its whites (primarily Riesling and Chardonnay) are produced in Woodinville.
The tour ends in the tasting room, which in fact is a series of interconnected rooms that host about 300,000 visitors a year. Besides several elegant tasting bars and a broad selection of white-related souvenirs, a special Plexiglas enclosure in the heart of the room is home to a partner winery, Italy’s high-end Col Solare.
There are about 100 wineries and tasting rooms in the Woodinville Wine Country today, and the number continues to grow. But it wasn’t always so.
Scores of vineyards were planted in the warm, semiarid climate of eastern Washington, three to six hours’ drive southeast of Seattle, beginning in the 1970s. Grape growers established their wineries amid their vines, in the Yakima and Columbia valleys and the Walla Walla region. Only a few winemakers considered the obvious advantages of building their businesses closer to metropolitan Puget Sound.
The first winery to join Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville was the Columbia Winery, which opened just across State Highway 202 in 1988. It had been launched in 1962 in Seattle by 10 friends, most of them university professors, one of whom donated his garage for wine production. It flourished under late winemaker David Lake, renowned for experimentation that led to the first production of Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Gris wines in Washington.
From 1993 to 2007, Columbia was known as the northern terminus of the Spirit of Washington Dinner Trail, which traveled up the east side of Lake Washington from Renton. Only the tracks remain; there has been talk about turning it into a rails-to-trails corridor.
Woodinville’s winery rush didn’t begin until the 21st century, after the Washington State Legislature passed a law that allowed wineries to have satellite tasting rooms away from their wineries. Within a few years, dozens of tasting rooms — and a few wine-production facilities — were offering flights of white and red wines in a location where their direct-to-consumer sales and brand-awareness campaigns could burgeon.
As the wineries multiplied, Woodinville’s hospitality industry flourished. A luxurious urban resort, the Willows Lodge, opened near Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia in the fall of 2000, and greater Seattle’s best-known prix-fixe restaurant, The Herbfarm, established itself on the same grounds in early 2001. Craft breweries and distilleries followed.