Washington Wine History Interviews: Doug Gore, Columbia Crest and Chateau Ste. Michelle

  • By Ariana Heath
  • Posted 2/03/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22827
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Doug Gore (b. 1952) helped to lay the groundwork for establishing Washington red wines not only in the nation but on a global scale. He began as the assistant winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1982 but quickly moved on to become the head winemaker at Columbia Crest during its inaugural year. During his time at Columbia Crest, he worked with Washington State University (WSU) to establish groundbreaking irrigation research and share his findings with the Washington wine industry. His and others research proved that grapes could handle smaller amounts of water than previously thought, not only conserving resources but adding flavor and depth to the grapes. He was promoted to Executive Vice President of Winemaking for Chateau Ste. Michelle in 2003 and helped oversee the beginnings of several of their sister wineries. In 2009, Columbia Crest’s Cabernet Sauvignon was named the Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator, the first and so far only Washington wine to receive the honor. Just before his retirement in 2018, Gore was inducted into the Legends of Washington Wine Hall of Fame. 

California Kid

Doug Gore: I was born and raised in San Jose, fifth generation, Santa Clara Valley, public school system, went to Cal Poly down in San Luis Obispo, got a degree in food science. After a couple of years, I took a break from college, was having a good time. It was time for a break, make some money and regroup and get a little more focused. Then at that time, my brother had just been hired to be a vineyard manager. It was in the early '70s up in Sonoma. He put me on a tractor. I worked out in the vineyards for about six, seven months, then had a short stint in the winery, and this was 1973. An assistant winemaker got a hold of me, said, '"food science, winemaking, a growing industry. It's something you should think about." So I said, "Good idea."

Cal Poly required all students to declare a major and Gore chose food science after speaking with a neighbor who majored in the same subject. Gore didn’t expect to get into the wine industry but he really enjoyed it after his brother introduced him.

DG: And then with the introduction to the vineyard side and the winery side, it just made a lot of sense, and I loved it. So yeah, I didn't grow up with wine. Grew up with parents that drank cocktails and beer, and my siblings introduced wine. I'm the youngest. My siblings introduced wine into the household, and that's when I first saw it. Never really drank it until I got to college. So I worked the next three harvests at Souverain Winery in Sonoma, September through December. And then I would attend summer quarter at Cal Poly to get three quarters in, which ain't a bad gig.

The wine industry in California in the 1970s was already taking off and going global. Many California wineries were started by large corporations or were funded by companies looking for investments.

DG: I use the term "gold rush," that means vineyards were slamming in with no concern to the environment. You had erosion, all kinds of stuff. But back then people didn't know. Vineyards were slamming in, wineries are being started up, money's coming in. Souverain was owned by Pillsbury. There was all kinds of different ownership and money coming in. There was a lot of tax benefits for some of these businesses and vineyards. So it appealed to a lot of people, and it was very exciting. And it was go, go, go.

North to Washington

After graduating from Cal Poly, Gore worked at Beringer Vineyards as an enologist. He then was "lucky enough" to get a job in Washington with Chateau Ste. Michelle as an assistant winemaker, in charge of red wines from 1982 through 1986. When Columbia Crest was launched, Gore became its head winemaker. One of the largest challenges for Columbia Crest was explaining its relationship to Chateau Ste. Michelle.

DG: And it was a real hurdle when Columbia Crest first came out, because it was called a second label to Chateau Ste. Michelle ... which I would tell people, "Look, we're sister wineries, Chateau Ste. Michelle is the second-best winery in Washington." So then hopefully that shut people up from saying, "Oh, you're a second label. Chateau Ste. Michelle." I said, 'No, we're our own standalone winery" 

Gore spent the majority of his career making red wines exclusively for Columbia Crest. In 2003, he became the Vice President of Winemaking for Chateau Ste. Michelle.

DG: So in '03, I became senior vice president of winemaking. And although my offices were at Columbia Crest, another fellow was the Columbia Crest winemaker, although obviously near and dear to my heart. So I was still involved simply because they wanted me involved. But officially on paper, I was over here [Woodinville] now, and I had to be because I had Ste. Michelle under me as well. So I had to show that I could do things with an even hand.

One of Gore’s biggest accomplishments was taking part in irrigation experiments run by WSU. It was known as the Regulated Deficit Irrigation Experiment, or the Clore Experiment, named after the founding scientist, Dr. Walter Clore. Their goal was to study the amount of water being used to irrigate grapes and how that might be altered to conserve resources and better serve the grape vines. Not only did the experiment help with physical irrigation and growth of the vines, it began to change the characteristics of the wine as well.

DG: I think it helped the varietals that we had to more clearly express themselves. Because, for instance, with a lot that water on a Cabernet vine, not only did it delay harvest, maturation, it brought this vegetal character to it. Think of earthiness or bell pepper. It brought a character that we didn't want. We wanted it to more express the fruit character of the grape. But with all that water and all that growth and all that energy going into the vine, into the canopy, and not just the grapes, for a lot of varieties, it hid the true varietal character of the grapes, and therefore the wines.

The most important thing to Gore was to share the research with others.

DG: One bad Washington wine out there, it can give you a bad reputation. So you want everybody making really good wines. So from the pioneer aspect, this irrigation research, that was pioneering. I mean there's equipment, there's technology, there's techniques, there's things you do. There was a group before me that I would call pioneers. I would call myself the second wave coming in. But a lot of good people, it's always about the people ... You get the right people, especially in winemaking and vineyards, you get the right people, you leave them alone, and let them do their jobs. And you try to remove roadblocks from them succeeding. And if you have a suggestion, sometimes you wade in very gingerly.

Once the Washington wine industry began to switch its methods of irrigation, wines started becoming noticed by other parts of the country. Gore began to see the shift and spent long hours working around the country to promote Columbia Crest.

DG: When Columbia Crest was created, the first two, three years ... First off, we felt that the country could support another nationally distributed Washington state wine. Really for the most part, the one that was widely distributed across the country was Chateau Ste. Michelle. There were other wineries, but they weren't widely distributed across the country. So when Columbia Crest started getting accolades, started getting awards, started getting great scores, this was in the ... the late eighties to the early nineties, gaining little baby steps. That's when things took off. And back then Merlot was king, more so than Cabernet. And we had it. And we did very well with it.

Often, Gore liked to let the wine speak for itself when traveling. It was important to have good wine to promote since it felt like he might be helping other wineries from Washington get exposure. One thing Gore struggled with on the road was public speaking.

DG: I had to learn to ... I didn't take public speaking in college because I was deathly afraid to stand up in front of people. I remember I never took it, and it was a requirement for graduation. And I remember going to the registrar's office to put my papers in to graduate. And I knew I had not taken this course. I started a couple of times, I said, "Well I can't do this." And so I'm sitting in front of her and she says, "You haven't taken public speaking, but you have an extra math class here. We'll just deviate that with a math class." I'm like, "You've got to be kidding me. I've been worrying this whole time." And so that's just an insight into me. I had to learn to stand up and talk in front of people, which I did. But the first few tries were ... After a while you learn people really want you to be successful. They're not there to hurt you. They want to listen, they want to know. I also learned, if you stick to what you're talking about, you'll do fine. If you start talking about stuff you don't know about, you're going to get caught pretty quick.

When looking back at some of the major changes in the industry over his career, Gore said much of it took place in vineyards.

DG: So back then, much more handpicking than machine picking. But you start to get big, and you have that many bins, I was talking about dealing with other people's problems. Half your time in winemaking is spent managing bins. Believe it or not. This sounds like a funny story, and it is. But once we can get away from bins and get to big stainless steel tubs on the back of trucks so they could be delivered, picked quickly, delivered quickly, dumped quickly. I think that was a big moment. People won't understand that because I'll say, 'Well, hand picking is better than the machine and that everything should be done in small bins because then it's more artisan.' But if you have a lot of grapes to get in, you want to get them off when they're ripe and they're ready to go, machine picking is okay ... They're very good. They're very gentle on the grapes. And you can call the grapes in. You can go pick them at the peak of perfection, what you think is perfection, and get them in right away. Handpicking, hand labor these days is hard. It's hard to get people, you can get them, but when you, can you get everything you want off? That's actually one of the fights we would have internally, because you had a handpicking crew. If you wanted to use it, somebody else wanted to use it. Another third person wanted to use it.

Gore's career reached another high point in 2009 when Wine Spectator named its 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Reserve the Wine of the Year. 

DG: And it was a wonderful wine. It was Cabernet Sauvignon, it was under our reserve line, Columbia Crest. I do not have any, I've given it all away. But for me, it was very rewarding. Although I was not the day-to-day winemaker any longer, I was still there and participating. But it was very exciting. And you go to the gala and get the award, and you go up there. It was very neat. But it's not just for Columbia Crest or Ste. Michelle Wine Estate, but for the Washington wine industry, it's a big deal. What you learn is a rising tide floats all boats in Washington. And ever since I've been here, the idea is to make the pie bigger. Don't try to take business from somebody else, your neighbor here. Just try to grow Washington state. And that that's really been our mantra for when I was there.

More: Ariana Heath's biography of Doug Gore

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