It’s a New Day in Woodinville

With Chateau Ste. Michelle’s continued presence in question, Washington state’s mecca of wine tasting looks to its future

It’s a New Day in Woodinville
A thriving community of winery tasting rooms has sprung from the shadow of Washington's Chateau Ste. Michelle. (Courtesy of Chateau Ste. Michelle)
Dec 22, 2022

When Chateau Ste. Michelle put its flagship Woodinville property on the market this summer, the Washington wine community was puzzled. Soon after, Gallo announced it was closing its Columbia Winery tasting room, located just across the road from Ste. Michelle. These two wineries were the cornerstone on which the bustling Woodinville wine scene was built.

What was going on? Was Woodinville in trouble, or just in transition? It’s a complicated story. First, let me set the scene. Woodinville is northeast of Seattle, just 30 minutes from downtown. Originally a logging town, it became a farming community in the early 20th century, and then a suburb of Seattle after World War II.

There were no wineries or tasting rooms in Woodinville when Ste. Michelle opened its iconic chateau in 1976. Columbia followed suit later, opening in 1988. The irony is, there were no vineyards there either, and that remains true today. Most vineyards are on the other side of the Cascades, in the vast Columbia Valley.

It wasn’t until 2000 that Woodinville came into its own. That year, a state law changed, allowing wineries to open standalone tasting rooms. Prior to that, wines had to be produced on site before tastings were allowed. Satellite tasting rooms soon proliferated, feeding like little fish on Ste. Michelle’s annual bounty of 300,000-plus visitors.

Today, there are about 110 tasting rooms. Let that sink in … 110! Even Healdsburg and Napa in California, known for a preponderance of tasting rooms, can’t claim that many. “We have 126 wine brands in those tasting rooms,” said Adam Acampora, executive director of Woodinville Wine Country, a nonprofit group that promotes tourism. “In 20 years, we’ve gone from 12 to 126.”

Four districts have formed like wine neighborhoods in recent years. Hollywood was the original district, springing up around Ste. Michelle and Columbia. West Valley, Warehouse and Downtown followed. These wine trails are populated largely by storefront tasting rooms, but there are also full-fledged wineries like DeLille and Sparkman, which turned the old Red Hook Brewery into a stylish destination.

And things are just getting started. Opportunities abound and change is coming rapidly in Woodinville. Mark Ryan, Long Shadows, Fidelitas, Latta, L'Ecole No 41 and Mullan Road are opening new tasting rooms. Several ambitious projects are in the works. The two largest are mixed-use developments Harvest and the Garden District. Both will have retail, tasting rooms and restaurants. Each will have residential space and Harvest will include a 170-room hotel, both of which are much needed in Woodinville.

Amid all this, why would Columbia, and especially Ste. Michelle leave? “It doesn’t make any sense,” Acampora said. The closing of Columbia is easiest to understand. Gallo bought the winery in 2012, along with Covey Run. It was the company’s first Washington venture. Neither brands lived up to their potential, and Gallo quietly ceased production of Covey Run a few years back. The Columbia brand has a longer, richer reputation, but the wines aren’t made in the Woodinville facility. Perhaps it no longer merited a facility open to the public.

When word leaked earlier this year that Ste. Michelle put its 109-acre property on the market, it also appeared to be a cost-cutting measure. New York–based private equity firm Sycamore Partners purchased Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE) in 2021 and was stirring things up. The Woodinville winery produced all the company’s white wines, but it was aging. After harvest 2022, the company consolidated all of its winemaking to existing facilities in Columbia Valley. The company was making 1,600 freight trips a year, back and forth over the massive Cascades, burning about 75,000 gallons of diesel while doing it.

That’s reason enough, and an eco-friendly message, yet what is really driving the potential sale is housing. Woodinville needs it, and 54 of Ste. Michelle’s 109-acres are zoned for it, and have been since at least the 1970s. Ultimately, the goal is to retain the 45-acre campus, which is home to the chateau, and sell the rest for development. Ryan Pennington, SMWE’s vice president of communications, framed it this way: “How can we redeploy that capital and improve the consumer experience.”

Consumer experience in this case would be a more expansive tasting experience and improvements to the winery’s popular outdoor concert venue, just as examples. Corporate offices, which are currently scattered in different locales, could also consolidate in the chateau and former winemaking spaces, which once produced a million cases of wine a year.

“We are committed to having a presence locally, no matter what.” said Pennington. The Woodinville wine community is glad to hear that, but even without Ste. Michelle, Woodinville would survive. “If this were 15 years ago, it would have been difficult,” admitted Acampora. 

“Woodinville has grown up.” said vintner Chris Sparkman, applying his forestry background to Ste. Michelle’s influence. “When a mother log falls in the forest, a whole new ecosystem grows up around it.”


Follow Tim Fish on Instagram at @timfish_wine, and on Twitter at @TimFishWine.

Opinion economy winery-purchases-and-sales Washington

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