Andy Perdue

The Wine Knows: Mega winemaking as craft

A few months ago, I wrote an article about David Rosenthal, the new head of white winemaking for Chateau Ste. Michelle. A comment about the story on Facebook got me to thinking a lot about how we as consumers approach wine.

The person commented that it was too bad Rosenthal chose a winemaking path that wasn’t too creative because it was all about making millions of cases of wine — far from any level of artistry, the person wrote.

I try not to get too riled up about comments on websites (if I did, I’d probably accomplish little else in life), but this one struck a nerve.

Why can’t large-scale winemaking be a craft? Why should we cast downward glances at large wineries? Can’t mega-producers make wine worth talking about?

Let’s start with the first question:

Why can’t large-scale winemaking be a craft?

In fact, it can. In the case of Chateau Ste. Michelle, the Woodinville winery produces about 1.3 million cases of Riesling — more than any other winery in the world (yes, including Germany). Ste. Michelle's Columbia Valley Riesling weighs in at about 800,000 cases. And since the winery doesn’t have a tank that holds 19 million gallons, the Ste. Michelle team bottles that wine over the course of weeks, even months.

With that in mind, the true artistry of the Columbia Valley Riesling is that the first bottle of wine tastes exactly like the last. Consistency at this level is a craft, a marvel.

Why should we cast downward glances at large wineries?

This is the ultimate in wine snobbery. We should all applaud the large winery that can craft delicious, approachable wines at a scale that makes them affordable and widely available.

Those expensive bottles we buy and collect — wines that typically cost, say, $30 or more — are not what we tend to pull out of the cellar for Tuesday night pot roast or Thursday night takeout pizza. Instead, we should seek a steady supply of less-expensive wines, bottles that run $20 or less. Leave those more exclusive bottles for special occasions.

It’s important to remember that if every bottle is a high-priced, hand-crafted fine wine, then how many people would actually become wine lovers? It’s the Washington Hills Cabs, the Charles Smith Velvet Devil Merlots and the Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnays that draw in the curious and convert the macro-brew crowd.

Few of us cut our teeth on Veuve Clicquot, Leonetti Reserve or Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. My first memorable wine was a Yakima Valley Merlot. I can still remember how it tasted, and as I recall, it was about $8 at Safeway.

Where would Washington’s wine industry be without the likes of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Hogue Cellars, Pacific Rim, Charles Smith and Precept? During the past 80 years, Ste. Michelle has plowed the road for the rest of the industry, providing quality wines, viticultural research, winemaker recruitment and global marketing. Today, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates still uses two out of every three grapes grown in Washington (and a whole lot grown in Oregon and California, for that matter). Without these large wineries pushing the industry along, few vineyards would be planted.

(Folks at Ste. Michelle will be the first to say that they also need the artisan producers to raise the status of Washington wine; thus, it’s a symbiotic relationship.)

Earlier this year, we conducted a blind tasting of 22 of the best Rieslings produced in North America. Twenty of them were small-production wines, lovingly crafted by artisan winemakers in such places as New York, Oregon, California, Michigan, Idaho and British Columbia. The top two wines of the tasting: Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Dry Riesling and Charles Smith's Kung Fu Girl Riesling — both wines made at large scales yet stunningly world class when the bias of size was removed from the judges' minds.

Can’t mega-producers make wine worth talking about?

Absolutely. Any member of the Chateau Ste. Michelle wine club will tell you that. While David Rosenthal and his boss, head winemaker Bob Bertheau, focus on the large-scale wines, they also get plenty of opportunities to play. The team crafts no fewer than 10 Rieslings, and nearly that many Chardonnays. While some of those wines hit grocery store shelves across all 50 states, others are made in precious little amounts and make it to just a privileged few.

I recently shared a bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle 2008 Druthers Cabernet Sauvignon. It was a bottling of fewer than 200 cases. It stole the spotlight at the tasting where I presented it, and the only grumbling came from those who realized they'd never, ever find another bottle of it.

Ste. Michelle and other large-scale producers know they need to provide an outlet for their winemakers to craft wines at an artisan level. It keeps them fresh, sharp and happy.

Some think of Charles Smith as a guy with big hair and a mouth to match. Few realize he makes more vineyard-designated wines — from nearly every American Viticultural Area in Washington — than any other winemaker in the state. His wines range in price from $10 to $140. Ste. Michelle is no different. As a company, its least-expensive Washington wine is around $6 — and its most expensive tops $200 per half-bottle.

Every winemaker is an artist, so let us not forget who actually drives the wine industry.

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