On October 13, 1974, The Los Angeles Times announces the results of a wine competition sponsored by the newspaper in which a Riesling from Washington – Ste. Michelle Vineyards' 1972 Johannisberg Riesling – stunningly finishes first ahead of the finest Rieslings from California and several entries from Germany, where Riesling grapes were first cultivated in the fifteenth century. The victory propels Ste. Michelle to the forefront of the state's nascent wine industry. By the 2000s, Chateau Ste. Michelle will be the world's leading producer of Riesling and the undisputed kingpin of Washington wine.
A Surprise in L.A.
As California's wine industry began a growth spurt in the late 1960s, The Los Angeles Times began setting aside one issue of its Home magazine each year "for the exploration of wine. As our project for this 1974 feature, we asked Robert Lawrence Balzer, prestigious evaluator, reporter and connoisseur in the world of wines and foods, to spearhead a special wine tasting ... each of the top 27 selections will be sent our Golden Eagle award of merit. That should be a coup for the vintners, but the fun for our readers should come from putting the resulting information to work" ("Inside Home").
To judge wines in four categories – 1971 Chardonnay, 1970 Cabernet Sauvignon, 1970 Pinot Noir, and 1972 Riesling – Balzer recruited 14 panelists from various segments of the California wine industry. Among the notable names were Robert Mondavi, the winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery; Brother Timothy, the winemaker at The Christian Brothers Winery; actor Burgess Meredith, a wine connoisseur who played the Penguin in the popular TV seris Batman; and Andre Tchelistcheff, a consulting enologist who would later work for Chateau Ste. Michelle and lend his considerable expertise to Quilceda Creek, one of Washington's most acclaimed wineries. The judges tasted 101 wines over two days, rating each on a 20-point scale created by the department of viticulture and enology at the University of California at Davis. All were tasted "blind," without any identifying labels.
The results indeed were a coup for Ste. Michelle. Its 1972 Johannisberg Riesling, made in Seattle by winemaker Howard Somers from grapes grown in the Yakima Valley, edged a California wine – Inglenook Napa Valley Johannisberg Riesling – for first place with a composite score of 15.9. The Inglenook bottling received a score of 15.6, and two wines – one from Napa Valley, one from Germany – tied for third at 15.4. The competition included "P. J. Valckenberg in Worms, the oldest family-run wine export company of Germany, as well as Liebfraumilch Madonna, the oldest brand of German wine. Domestic producers included a who’s who of California stalwarts such as Beaulieu Vineyards, Heitz Cellar, and Freemark Abbey" (Croisier).
Moreover, Ste. Michelle's Riesling was the least expensive wine in the competition, retailing for $3.95 a bottle. "It may surprise devotees of California wines that a wine from a neighboring state took top honors in one category," wrote the Times, describing Ste. Michelle's Riesling as a "flowery, delicate, sweet-edged wine with wonderful fragrance" ("The Search Begins").
The King of Riesling
Its victory in Los Angeles helped launch Ste. Michelle to new and dizzying heights, though the process had begun earlier, in 1965, when its founding company – American Wine Growers (AWG), which had specialized in non-grape fruit and berry wines – planted the first Riesling vines ever grown in the Yakima Valley. In 1969, AWG created the Ste. Michelle brand of fine wines, and in 1972 the company was acquired by a group of Seattle investors who renamed it Ste. Michelle Vintners before selling out to U.S. Tobacco in 1974.
"Spurred by growing interest in varietal wines, Ste. Michelle ... began planting extensive vineyards in eastern Washington," wrote Paul Gregutt in his 2010 book Washington Wines & Wineries. "Others were conducting their own experiments in far-flung corners of the state ... This was the first great wave of Washington viticulture ... Ste. Michelle Vintners became Ste. Michelle Vineyards and planted cabernet and riesling at their Cold Creek site. But the most far-reaching event was the purchase of the Ste. Michelle brand, vineyards, and winemaking facilities by U.S. Tobacco (UST) in 1974. From then on, the company controlled the vast majority of Washington state's varietal wine vineyards and production" (Gregutt, 6-7).
Washington winemakers came to recognize that the state was an ideal place to grow Riesling. When a Time magazine reporter visited the state in 1983, he noted that vineyards in the wine-growing areas of the Yakima and Columbia valleys "are sheltered from the heavy rainfall in the western part of the state by the Cascade Mountains, much as Alsace is protected by the Vosges. During the growing season, the Washington vineyards enjoy cool nights and in June, 17 hours or more of not-too-intense sunlight daily, allowing the grapes to ripen with good sugar-acid balance. The fruit tends to be tarter and crisper than California's, with a more intense flavor and aroma and a more powerful varietal character" (Demarest).
When Seattle Times wine writer Tom Stockley revisited Ste. Michelle's Los Angeles victory 22 years later, he wrote:
“The major award was a happy win for other Washington wineries as well as for riesling, then the most widely planted grape. It also was believed that Washington was the best spot in the nation for that variety (which could be true). Now, more than 20 years later and with merlot and chardonnay selling briskly, Johannisberg riesling is still king. The bottle I purchased for just under $6 was from the 1994 vintage. No surprise, it was great - brimming with peach and apricot fruit with just a tad of sweetness, yet balanced by firm acid. No wonder it sells! At this time of year, riesling is a great match with our fresh Dungeness crab" ("Johannisberg Riesling Reigns ...").
Ste. Michelle moved its winemaking operations to a new facility in Woodinville in 1976 and continued to grow. The winery building resembled an old French chateau, and thus the company was recast as Chateau Ste. Michelle. Its wines won several tasting competitions in the early 1980s, and in 1983 Chateau Ste. Michelle produced 1.8 million gallons, making it the nation's second-largest premium wine producer. By the early 2000s, Ste. Michelle was the world leader in Riesling production.
"Chateau Ste. Michelle is a Riesling powerhouse," wrote Seattle Post-Intelligencer wine writer Richard Kinssies in 2005. "Not only was Washington's showcase winery the first to produce a commercial wine from this grape back in 1972, it is now the world's largest Riesling producer, it says, releasing hundreds of thousands of cases annually. Proof of its prowess is the range of wines made and the recognition they receive. Besides the workhorse Columbia Valley tier, there is also the single-vineyard Cold Creek version, as well as various late-harvest bottlings. The flagship is the superpremium $20 Eroica, which is a joint venture between the Chateau and the well-respected Dr. Ernst Loosen, whose winery is in the Mosel region of Germany. Eroica has earned a spot on most any list of the best Riesling made in this country" ("Vintage Washington ...").