Golitzin, Alex (b. 1939)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 6/23/2021
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21250
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Alex Golitzin (b. 1939) is a revered figure in Washington winemaking. Born in France, raised in California, and trained as an engineer, Golitzin was living in Snohomish and working at Scott Paper Company in Everett when he began making wine in his home garage in 1974. For advice and encouragement, Golitzin leaned on his uncle Andre Tchelistcheff, a famed enologist in California, who recommended that Golitzin source his grapes from the Columbia Valley in Eastern Washington. In 1978, Golitzin formalized his operation as Cedar Ridge Winery, soon changing the name to Quilceda Creek Vintners, with a visionary plan to specialize in Cabernet Sauvignon. The superior quality of his early wines quickly led Quilceda Creek to be "recognized as one of America's finest producers of Bordeaux-style wines" (Perdue). In 1983 the Northwest Enological Society awarded the young winery a gold medal and the Grand Prize, a surprising victory that brought widespread demand. In 2002 it became the first Washington winery to earn a perfect 100-point score from Wine Advocate magazine, an achievement it would repeat several times over the years. In 1995, Golitzin turned over head winemaking duties to his son Paul Golitzin while remaining active in winery operations. 

Old World Origins

Quilceda Creek Vintner's winemaking pedigree is golden. Alex Galitzine was born in Paris on December 8, 1939 to Peter and Alexandra Galitzine, who had fled Russia for safety following the first stirrings of the Russian Revolution in 1917. One prominent forebear was Prince Lev Sergeevich Galitzine, Czar Nicholas II's personal enologist, and the man credited as the creator of Russian champagne. In 1946, when Alex was seven, his family, having Americanized its name to "Golitzin," moved to the United States. There to greet them in New York City was his uncle, Alexandra's brother, Andre Tchelistcheff (1901-1994), who guided the newcomers west to California, where Tchelistcheff already was carving out a career as a winemaker and vineyard consultant to high-profile wineries.

Trained in France, Tchelistcheff was recruited to California by Georges de Latour, the founder of Beaulieu Vineyards Winery (BV) in the Napa Valley. Joining the BV team in 1938, Tchelistcheff proceeded to steer it to greater status while also mentoring some of the area's other leading winemakers, including Robert Mondavi (1913-2008) and Louis Martini (1887-1974). Tchelistcheff became known as "the dean of American winemakers" and is widely acknowledged as America's most influential post-Prohibition (1916-1933) winemaker.

Alex Golitzin, Tchelistcheff's lucky young nephew, got to enjoy playing in the sunny Beaulieu grounds as a lad. In 1962, Alex earned a chemical engineering degree at the University of California at Berkeley, a discipline that would serve him well in future undertakings. He married Jeanette Palengat, a San Francisco State College student with a French lineage whom he'd met at a dance. Together they developed a keen appreciation for Napa Valley wines, especially Cabernet Sauvignon, which had originally hailed from Bordeaux, France, but was now being produced by California wineries.

From 1962 to 1964, Golitzin served as a biological warfare officer with the U.S. Army Chemical Corp, including a stint in Washington at Fort Lewis in Pierce County, where the couple fell in love with the trees, greenery, and abundant water in the Northwest. He then worked for a Standard Oil refinery in Richmond, California, up into 1967, when the couple and their first daughter Lisa (b. 1965) returned to Washington and Golitzin took a job with the Scott Paper Company in Everett. They made their home on a woodsy ridge of rural land outside of Snohomish.

Not impressed with the first Northwest wines they tasted, the Golitzins pondered making their own. Along the way, they were influenced by the wisdom of Uncle Andre. By this time Tchelistcheff was making his mark on the Washington wine industry. In 1967 he'd served as a consultant for the first varietal wines produced by American Wine Growers, a firm that had been making clumsy fruit wines in a modest space along the Duwamish River in Seattle's industrial Georgetown neighborhood since 1938. The first wines made under Tchelistcheff's guidance were released under the label of Ste. Michelle, and by 1972 that became the name of the winery itself. Ste. Michelle would soon develop a giant new facility in Woodinville and become the state's biggest winery.


Jeanette and Alex Golitzin had two more children, Victoria (b. 1969) and Paul (b. 1970), before they started dabbling in wine. In 1974, they produced their first homemade wine, and it was Tchelistcheff who advised them to buy grapes from two Eastern Washington vineyards in what later would be designated the Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA). One was the venerable Otis Vineyard at Grandview, which was planted to Cabernet Sauvignon in 1957. In 2006 that area was re-designated as the Rattlesnake Hills AVA. The second source was Jim Holmes' and John Williams' Kiona Vineyards at Benton City, which was first planted in 1975. In 2001, that area was re-designated as the Red Mountain AVA.

The Golitzins trucked those purchased grapes home and used their garage as a base, eventually adding a redwood shed out back for gear storage and as a barrel room. The first seven barrels they used were second-hand American oak units acquired from the BV and Jordan wineries in California. The wines crafted in 1974, 1975, and 1976, one barrel per year, were, "exceptional: a wealth of finesse, balance, and complexity, a depth and richness of blackberries that matured with each year" (Holden and Holden, 1983). A decade later, another writer would taste these same wines and note that, "Golitzin's early experimental Cabernets have developed exceptionally well, showing fine breed and complexity – and the capacity for further aging" (Meredith). That matter of aging, of a wine's ability to improve over time, was important in the early years of Washington winemaking, as few believed that Washington wines had the right stuff to cellar like many of the better wines from Europe or California. The Golitzin wines were among the first to refute that old notion.

Cedar Ridge Winery

In 1978 the Golitzins formally bonded Cedar Ridge Winery. Its debut crush came in the autumn of 1979. The fledgling winery was a genuine do-it-yourself, shoestring operation. The fermenters, for example, were repurposed dairy industry tanks. But even while the first wine was aging at the winery, word about the operation began leaking out in the media. In May 1982 The Seattle Times noted Cedar Ridge was the "state's smallest winery ... which produces a whopping 700 gallons of Cabernet Sauvignon ... The wine won't be ready until next year, but considering Golitzin is the nephew of the dean of American winemakers, Andre Tchelistcheff, it may be something to keep an eye on ... After all, a mom-and-pop today could turn into a Ste. Michelle tomorrow" (Stockley).

By 1983 the Golitzins had rethought their winery's name and substituted a localized moniker: Quilceda Creek Vintners, named after the ancient stream at Marysville that spills into Puget Sound near the Tulalip Indian Reservation. The native term (spelled as "Kwilt-seh-da" in the January 22, 1855, treaty document) meant the "basket people," which referred to their mode of catching fish in baskets.

Partnering with the Golitzins was Don Kotzerke, one of Alex's workmates in Everett. Quilceda Creek would be one of the first local boutique wineries, one that stood out from the pack by concentrating on only one grape variety, Cabernet Sauvignon. As early Northwest wine writers Ronald and Glenda Holden noted in 1983, "dedication to Cabernet could be dismissed as a quirk, an honorable eccentricity worthy of praise, but a quirk nonetheless – except that his homemade wines are so stunningly good" (Holden and Holden).

An Overnight Success

Quilceda Creek Vintners' first commercial batch -- 150 cases of luscious, unfiltered French-styled wine -- was released in June 1983. Two months later, on August 22, 1983, the Northwest Enological Society held its annual Wine Festival competition. The event attracted 91 Northwest wines (produced by 47 wineries) and 1,500 attendees to Seattle's Pacific Science Center. "We were asked to put the wine into competition," Golitzin recalled, "and I talked to Uncle Andre and he said, 'Don't ever do this -- the first wine. If it does not do well, it's not gonna do much for your reputation'" (Golitzin interview with author). But then, with those words of warning ringing in their heads, the Golitzins attended a dinner party where they crossed paths with an Enological Society leader who convinced them to participate. "So we entered the wine into competition," Golitzin recalled. "Andre was horrified" (author interveiw). 

Well surprise, surprise! Quilceda not only took home a gold medal, its wine earned a rare honor, "... the Grand Prize, which requires the unanimous vote of the judges" (Holden and Holden, 1983). Golitzin became the "first Northwest winemaker to win the grand prize for a red wine. The only other grand prize awarded in the festival's nine-year history was for a '77 Chardonnay" released by Preston Cellars in 1979 (Carter).

When the Golitzins called Tchelistcheff to share the news, he was shocked. Jeanette recalled him simply repeating back over the phone in his thick Russian accent: "GOLLD MEDULL!" (Jeannette Golitzin interview with author). Other experts were impressed as well. One of the festival's visiting judges was The New York Times' influential "Wine Talk" columnist, Frank J. Prial (1930-2012). In the wake of his rave review, Quilceda Creek's trajectory skyrocketed. "I was just flabbergasted," Golitzin told The Seattle Times ("Winemaker is Winner ...").

With his telephone now ringing of the hook, Golitzin responded by taking "a day off work, unplugged the phone, and raised the price of the wine from $10 a bottle to $25; it became a collector's item" (Holden & Holden, 1986). A collector's item that had not even been distributed to retail shops. Seattle's most prominent wine writer, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Richard Kinssies, wrote, "The wine is available only at the winery and, if you want a tip, I would suggest you find the winery ... and buy what you can of his 150 remaining cases. If you don't you will have no one to blame but yourself" (Kinssies, August 1983). Legions of wine aficionados made contact with Quilceda Creek, thus launching the winery's legendary waiting list, which grew so long that retail distribution wouldn't be necessary, a list latecomers could only wistfully wish they'd gotten on much sooner.

An All-New Winery

In the mid-1980s Quilceda Creek built a new winery on the Golitzins' six-acre property at 11306 52nd Street SE in Snohomish. Although new, it evoked a comfortingly humble Northwest vibe. One writer described the place as "disarmingly unpretentious, the antithesis of the Napa Valley palaces that celebrate the lifestyle of the rich and vinous" (Gregutt). 

By this point, Washington's premium-wine revolution was well under way, and Ron Irvine, a longtime Seattle wine retailer at Pike and Western Wine Merchants, was an eyewitness to the unfolding action. In his 1997 book The Wine Project (co-authored with Dr. Walter Clore), Irvine recalled a series of 1980s tasting events that included esteemed Walla Walla wineries Leonetti Cellars and Woodward Canyon, plus Quilceda Creek, concluding, "By far the most outstanding wines were the wines from Quilceda Creek. As a group the Quilceda Creek wines definitely aged the best. In fact, the wines improved with age, developing a roundness and complexity of flavor often associated with outstanding Bordeaux" (Irvine, 382). 

Things were advancing quickly, and Quilceda was proceeding apace, expanding production, and winning more fans. In 1982 the winery produced 1,000 gallons. By 1985 it was up to 1,300 gallons, and by 1986 it was making 3,000 gallons. When the Washington Wine Institute organized a competition pitting Quilceda Creek against some of the finest Bordeaux, the Golitzins' 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon placed a proud second. Kudos, accolades, and awards began piling up. After Irvine had the opportunity to taste the 1988 and 1989 wines from the barrel, he praised them as "absolutely perfect wines ... They were as good as any young Bordeaux Grand-Cru Classe wine I have tasted. And as good as any of the best from California" (Irvine, 382).

Quilceda Creek released its 1990 Cabernet Sauvignon in 1994, by which time the winery's reputation was well established, as was the pattern of the wine selling out quickly. Kinssies noted, "Barely 1,000 cases are released annually and within months devotees are clamoring for the last few bottles." The 1990 Cabernet "has recently been released and the lines are forming ... This wine is not inexpensive at about $24 but it may look like a real deal when you consider that is sells for less than half the price of Gallo's cabernet" ("Gallo Boutique Wines ..."). 

Alex Golitzin was in his mid-50s when he finally retired from Scott Paper in 1994, shortly after promoting son Paul Golitzin to a leadership role. Paul "joined the winery intent on realizing his parents' vision by focusing Quilceda Creek's attention on its greatest asset -- the vineyards of the Columbia Valley" (Quilceda Creek website). He eventually took over managing all of the vineyard operations and today [2021] serves as President and Director of Winemaking. He was credited with introducing a reserve wine program, along with new production techniques and principles, including switching from using neutral American oak to the more traditional (and expensive) French oak barrels. The Golitzins were doubling down on their goal of making wines equal to the finest French wines. "Paul has a fantastic palate," Alex Golitzin told Wine Spectator magazine in 2010. "I'm not a great winemaker. I had aspirations and I worked hard, but we were successful in the beginning because the grapes are so darn good here that you could crush them, ferment them, and it would come out pretty good. He took it up to a different level" ("Pathbreakers: Alex Golitzin"). 

Paul Golitzin Takes Over

Under Paul's leadership, Quilceda Creek broadened its Eastern Washington grape sourcing, from just the Otis and Kiona vineyards, to also acquiring fruit from Mercer Ranch, Klipsun, Taptiel, and Ciel du Cheval vineyards. 

In 1996 Quilceda Creek entered a partnership with a group of winemakers including Woodward Canyon's Rick Small; Chris Carmada of Vashon Island-based Andrew Will Winery; and Bill Powers of Kennewick-based Powers Winery. This enterprise's origins began with a local, Paul Champoux, who had grown up working in Eastern Washington's robust hop industry. In 1979, Chateau Ste. Michelle hired Champoux to plant a 1,300-acre vineyard surrounding its new River Ridge winery (later recast as Columbia Crest Winery). Completing that task in 1983, Champoux then managed the agricultural operations for Don and Linda Mercer's Mercer Ranch Vineyards outside Prosser. After that winery folded in 1989, he leased the property and facility and carried on selling grapes to other wineries. He then sought out some partners, and in 1997 the operation reemerged as Champoux Vineyards, a pride of the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Today the Golitzins are the majority owners.

In 1996 or 1997 the Golitzins purchased the Palengat Vineyard, named in honor of Jeanette's maiden name, an 8.5-acre site located adjacent to Champoux Vineyards. They also contracted with a 40-acre property, Mach One Vineyard, located above the Columbia River along the Lake Wallula Reservoir. In 2001 and 2002, Quilceda Creek planted its 17-acre Galitzine Vineyard adjacent to Ciel du Cheval Vineyard on Red Mountain. In 2004, Galitzine fruit was featured in the winery's first vineyard-designated bottling.

That same year, Quilceda Creek opened up a new, 5,300-square-foot winery adjacent to their first, to help meet the relentlessly increasing demand for their fine wine. This building was decidedly grander than the first by an order of magnitude. Surrounded by lush landscaping and natural wetlands, the winery building features a custom stone exterior, lots of wood detail, and a towering entry with expansive windows, gigantic interior doors, soaring ceilings, and an arched copper roof. As relatively spacious as this castle was, within years the ever-growing company found the need to build yet another production facility next door, this time, a state-of-the-art 11,000-square-foot barn, one that Golitzin believes represents its final physical expansion.

In 2007, wine writer Eric Asimov of The New York Times visited Snohomish for first-hand look at Quilceda Creek Vintners. Of Alex Golitzin, he wrote, "Mr. Golitzin, whose heritage is Russian, is solidly built with the look of a grizzled Tatar. ... He is blunt, with little patience for some of the shibboleths of modern winemaking. One popular idea is that grape juice in the winery is better handled by gently moving it from one vessel to another in conjunction with gravity, rather than through pumping or other means. 'Gravity flow?' he said. 'Yeah, we have gravity flow. It’s called a fork lift.' He also prefers inoculating the wine with purchased yeast to begin fermentation rather than rely on yeasts from the grapes. 'We never use native yeasts. Remember, I'm an engineer — not enough control'" ("A Simple Thirst ..."). 

Robert Parker Weighs In

With its 2002 vintage, Quilceda Creek earned the prestigious recognition that some observers thought was overdue, when Robert M. Parker Jr.'s influential Wine Advocate magazine rated Quilceda's Cabernet Sauvignon with a perfect 100 points on their scale. That was big news in the wine world. One writer noted that it was "the first (and so far the only) 100 point Robert Parker scores in Washington wine history" (Gregutt, 263).

So, imagine the elation at Quilceda Creek when its Cabernet Sauvignon achieved that same score with the 2003, 2005, and 2007 vintages. Many other accolades and awards would follow, but scoring 100 is such a rare occurrence for any winery that even scores a bit lower are notable. In 2016, a judging year that saw zero 100-point wines, Wine Advocate gave Quilceda Creek its two highest scores: the Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley was rated at 99 points, and the 2013 Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain at 98 points. Both sold out upon release, at $140 and $120 per bottle, respectively. 

In 2017, Wine Advocate awarded two 100-point ratings: to the 2014 Quilceda Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley, and the 2014 Quilceda Creek Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain. The magazine's reviewer, Jeb Dunnuck, described the former as a "tour de force," and the Galitzine as "utterly spellbinding" ("Robert Parker's ..."). It was also the first 100-point wine using fruit from the Red Mountain AVA, thus kickstarting that area's rise to regional preeminence. In addition, Wine Advocate noted Quilceda's 2014 CVR Columbia Valley Red as "opulent, sumptuous and downright sexy," and their Palengat Proprietary Red Wine as "sensational" and "hedonistic" (Quilceda Creek website).

The Quilceda Family

Over the decades Quilceda Creek Vintners has remained a family-focused enterprise. In addition to the Golitzins nurturing their talented son Paul into the top leadership position, other members of the family have contributed greatly, including daughter Victoria, two sons-in-law, Marv Crum and John Ware, and a couple of their six grandchildren. Several other employees have worked for many years and are considered family. Among them is Lawrence Stewart, the first non-family member to join the team. From working the bottling line in 2002, he moved up to office manager, and then director of member relations. Meanwhile, Stewart's sister MacKenna Bean came aboard as Washington sales manager after a long career at Seattle's Canlis restaurant. 

Dan Nickolaus is Quilceda's viticulturist, or vineyard manager. He earlier worked for Hogue Cellars in Prosser, and then for the Den Hoed family's Wallula Vineyard. Former assistant winemakers Jessie Schmidt and Hal Iverson contributed their skills for more than a decade. Another key hiring was general manager Scott Lloyd, a Napa Valley product with an MBA in Wine Business.

As the Washington wine industry matured, Quilceda's stellar reputation skyrocketed and prices increased dramatically. Quilceda's four 2017-2018 offerings were its Columbia Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($200), Galitzine Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($200), Palengat Proprietary Red Wine ($150), and Columbia Valley Red, or CVR ($70). The winery's tradition of honoring old family names – Galitzine and Palengat – would soon be augmented with the addition of yet another vineyard, and wine, Tchelistcheff, that will bring things full circle. The future of Quilceda Creek Vintners is in good hands, with Paul Golitzin promising, "The best Quilceda Creek that will ever be made is the next one!" ("Quilceda Positioning Statement").


Alex and Jeanette Golitzin interviews with author Peter Blecha, June 2, 2021, recording in author’s possession; Origin Of Washington Geographic Names, p. 288 (https://journals.lib.washington.edu/index.php/WHQ/article/viewFile/6217/5291); Andy Perdue, The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer’s Handbook (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2003) 62; Chuck Hill, The Northwest Winery Guide (Seattle: Speed Graphics, 1988) 84-85; Ronald and Glenda Holden, Northwest Wine Country (Seattle: Holden Pacific, Inc., 1986) 124-125; Ronald and Glenda Holden, Touring the Wine Country of Washington (Seattle: Holden Pacific, Inc., 1983) 65-67; Paul Gregutt, Dan McCarthy & Jeff Prather, Northwest Wines: A Pocket Guide To The Wines of Washington Oregon and Idaho (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1996) 154-155; Ted Jordan Meredith, The Wines & Wineries of America's Northwest (Kirkland: Nexus Press, 1986) 181-182; Ronald Irvine with Walter J. Clore, The Wine Project (Vashon: Sketch Publications, 1997) 382; Paul Gregutt, Washington Wines & Wineries -- The Essential Guide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) 139, 141-142, 263; "Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate Awards Quilceda Creek Winery Two 100-pt. Ratings," Quilceda Creek press release, June 30, 2017, Quilceda Creek website accessed on March 20, 2021 (https://www.quilcedacreek.com/robert-parker-awards-two-100-point-ratings.html); Don Carter, "Small Winery Wins Big Festival Prize," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 23, 1983, p. D-1; Richard Kinssies, "Newer Wineries Can Savor Victory Bouquets," Ibid, August 24, 1983, p. C-6; Richard Kinssies, "Gallo Boutique Wines Get Some Deserved Accolades," Ibid, February 2, 1994, p. C-3; "Winemaker Is Winner, Price Goes Up," The Seattle Times, August 26,1983, p. B-1; Tom Stockley, "Mom and Pop Wineries," The Seattle Times, Pacific Magazine, May 16, 1982 p. 13; Anthony Mueller, "Wine Advocate Reviews 20 Year Vertical of Quilceda Creek," Quilceda Creek website accessed May 11, 2021 (https://www.quilcedacreek.com/wine-advocate-reviews-20-year-vertical.html); "Quilceda Positioning Statement August 2020," document in author’s possession; Eric Asimov, "A Simple Thirst, A Great Cab," The New York Times, August 1, 2007 (nytimes.com); Harvey Steiman, "Pathbreakers: Alex Golitzin," Wine Spectator magazine, December 15, 2010, website accessed June 15, 2021 (Washington Pathbreaker: Alex Golitzin | Wine Spectator's Top 100).

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