Washington state: Identity Crisis

15 October, 2015

DISTINCTIVE FEATURE

One of the distinctive features of this region is the dominance of one large company: Ste Michelle Wine Estates, which in turn is owned by tobacco company Altria (previously known as Philip Morris). The most famous name in the portfolio is Château Ste Michelle, closely followed by Columbia Crest. Other wine brands include Col Solare, North Star, 14 Hands and Spring Valley.

This dominance reflects the history of winegrowing in the state. The company began as the National Wine Company in 1934, and this then merged with the Pomelle Wine Company to form the American Wine Growers in the 1950s. In 1967 famous Californian winemaker André Tchelitscheff joined as a consultant, and a new name, Ste Michelle Vintners, was adopted for wines made exclusively from vinifera varieties. In 1976 the winery moved to Woodinville and the name changed to Château Ste Michelle. 

The dominance of Ste Michelle Wine Estates is reflected in the fact it buys around two-thirds of Washington State’s production of vinifera grapes (there’s still quite a bit of Concord, an American non-vinifera variety grown here). Among other things, it is the world’s biggest producer of Riesling. In 1999, by a stroke of genius, Ste Michelle began a collaboration with Ernest Loosen from Germany’s Mosel, to create Eroica. It’s an affordable, high-quality Riesling that has done a lot to raise the profile of Washington State as a Riesling producer. 

“Riesling is the number one variety in the region,” says Ste Michelle director of winemaking Bob Berthau, explaining why the company began its hugely influential and successful collaboration. “The idea of Eroica was to try to bring up the idea of American Riesling.” 

Further high-profile international collaborations have taken place in the state, including Col Solare, which is a Ste Michelle-owned partnership with Piero Antinori, and the Long Shadows winery set up by ex-Ste Michelle boss Allen Shoup, where each of the wines is a collaboration with a famous wine-making consultant.

Aside from Ste Michelle, the other notable large winery in the state is the Columbia Winery, started in 1962 by 10 friends – six of them Washington State University professors, led by the dean of the psychology department, Dr Lloyd Woodburne. The winery began in Woodburne’s garage and was called Associated Vintners. In 1963 it planted the first vines at Harrison Vineyard, and a big step was taken in 1979 when it hired David Lake, the first MW in north America. It was the first to do vineyard designate wines in the state in 1981, and in 1983 changed its name to Columbia Winery. In 1988 Lake’s inaugural Syrah release was the first example of this variety from Washington State. Since 2012 it has been owned by Gallo, and in this short time production has risen from 100,000 cases in to 400,000.

LARGER COMPANIES

The structure of the Washington State wine industry reflects the dominance of larger companies – 90% of its wines retail in the US at $12 or less. This has led to the image crisis, because they are mostly well made, tasty wines that deliver good value for money, but have very little sense of place. 

In terms of retailing these wines to their target market, the story of Washington State is too complicated and carries too much room for confusion. It’s probably for this reason that in 1984 the AVA of Columbia Valley was created, with the support and political pressure of the big companies. 





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