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More Bumps in the Road for Ste. Michelle

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 2, 2007 2:03pm ET

Chateau Ste. Michelle thought it had corrected the winemaking errors that held down its 2001 and 2002 red wines, but it took another step backward with the 2004 high-end reds, being released now.

The good news is that a preview tasting of the 2005s indicates that the winery will be back on track by the time those wines reach us next year. But in the meantime, consumers must negotiate a few more potholes.

Back in late 2004, when I tasted Chateau Ste. Michelle's 2001 and 2002 red wines, many of them seemed thin and green. To Ste. Michelle's credit, the brain trust noticed this before I did, and promptly promoted winemaker Bob Bertheau from his responsibilities as the brand's white wine specialist (his whites have been consistently fine) to be the chief winemaker for the flagship Chateau Ste. Michelle label.

Bertheau got the promotion after the 2003 vintage was over and the wines were in the barrel, leaving him with limited options. He worked over the 2003s to soften them up as best he could. The wines showed improved mouthfeel and the scores went up, not as high as they once were, but better.

In 2004, Bertheau's first vintage as chief, he introduced a range of winemaking choices designed to make plusher, more complex wines. The 2004s do show the kind of seductive mouthfeel that makes red wines so attractive. Unfortunately, they also show something else: brettanomyces, a yeast that makes for gamy, barnyardy flavors. It's not harmful, but not everyone has a taste for it.

In several recent wide-ranging blind tastings of Washington reds, I noticed brett in the Chateau Ste. Michelle wines so prominently that I was flagging the bottles as all from the same winery before I pulled off the bags covering their labels.

Two wines struck me as especially harmed by the brett. Gamy flavors made the Merlot Columbia Valley Ethos (the former "reserve") and the Cabernet Sauvignon Canoe Ridge unpleasant for me. In other wines, such as the Merlot Canoe Ridge, the brett shows itself as an undertone that you may not expect to find in a Ste. Michelle red but would be common in some European or California wines.

Bertheau owned up to the problem and described what he had done about it. "We have made changes in the cellar to help mitigate the growth of brett we saw in 2004," he wrote in an e-mail. Specifically, every barrel and tank is now being sanitized with ozone between rackings. "We have seen virtually no growth in 2005s, and I honestly believe this is a one-year spike."

Indeed, in a broad range of tank samples of the 2005s (waiting to be bottled), I tasted clean, vivid wines that have a distinct crispness to go along with their fleshy textures. These will be wines worth waiting for.

Among Bertheau's innovations in 2004: less intrusive yeasts, more aeration at fermentation, backing off on acid additions and sulfur treatments. It's the kind of thing wineries that make small, hand-crafted lots do. But you must monitor brett development with a sharp eye, because all of these choices can open the door for the nasty little organisms.

Bertheau attempted to downplay the level of brett in the 2004s, arguing that I noticed them only because I tasted them "alongside other squeaky clean wines," he said during a tasting comparing the 2004s and 2005s (plus some 2002s and 2003s for context). "I honestly think the wines will keep integrating over time, and I think we did get to our goal of softer, more approachable, more interesting wines."

By the time a new red wine vintage reaches the market, two or three other vintages are in the barrel. Near as I can tell, Chateau Ste. Michelle is on the right track. We just won't taste the evidence that they got it right until we get past the rocky 2004s.

Don Willard
REDDING,CA —  April 2, 2007 7:49pm ET
Good on you Harvey. Too many wineries are passing along their problems figuring the consumers are ignorant.We're not. We vote with our dollars and it very hard to win back business you lose when you cheat your customers.Too bad too many wineries aren't paying attention to this.There are way to many options for us consumers to have to put up with the bad decisions being made by many wine producers." If it has problems price accordingly & move on". Don't try to sell it at the same price as if it were " on the mark" Who's fooling who?
Bryan Bucari
Baton Rouge, LA —  April 3, 2007 9:42am ET
Don't you wish more wineries were like Ste. Michelle! This is one of the reasons they are so successful. There aren't many large wineries that you can trust year in and year out, but it is good to hear that when there is a problem they fix it quick and fix it right. Thank you Ste. Michelle.
Dean Johnson
April 7, 2007 11:45am ET
When are you going to focus on the amazing wines being produced throughout the entire state instead of focusing on big accounts like Chateau St Michelle. I actually agree with your tasting of the St Michelle line of reds but it is an old story. Some of the most amazing 2005 syrahs are about to be released and other reds tasted out of the barrel are stunning. Why not focus a little bit more on the great wines of our state?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  April 7, 2007 1:20pm ET
Well, let's see. The first blog I ever did on this site was on Cayuse. I have also blogged on Long Shadows, Quilceda Creek and Betz, and used Doyenne in my video on chocolate and red wine. I have Tasting Highlights coming up on several Washington wineries that have impressed me in recent tastings. And that's just on the web site.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  April 9, 2007 12:47pm ET
Harvey, I have a question and I hope you can answer it. . .Is an elevated cork a warning sign that a wine should be consumed NOW? I have a 2002 Pinot that you rated in the 90-94 point range and I noticed the other night while in my cellar that the cork is slightly elevated. What causes this and should I pop it now? I was hoping to wait till my graduation in 2009. . .and according to your report it should be good till 2012. Thank you for taking the time to answer this for me...I appreciate it.

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