Washington State’s Founding Winery Turns 50
On the cusp of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s 50th anniversary, there is a palpable hum of excitement in the air. One can feel it coursing throughout the winery’s newly expanded visitor center. On the afternoon we visit, it is packed with garrulous patrons, looking relaxed and newly-tanned as they milled around sections still cordoned off by construction. From humble beginnings, Ste. Michelle has grown over the years. It’s now Washington State’s largest producer—a powerhouse dressed in elegant packaging, artfully shepherded by a team with a penchant for quality. Certainly, that’s one part of the equation. Innovation is another.
At the helm of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is President and CEO Ted Baseler. Respected as a visionary and champion of Washington State’s wine industry, Baseler comes across as soft-spoken and pragmatic. He’s been with the winery for over three decades—long before either the state or the chateau was on the map. “It’s quite an astonishing achievement,” Baseler admits. He pauses for a moment to collect his thoughts. “Last year was Mondavi’s 50th, and now it’s ours. In 1967, there were just 27 wineries in California as compared to 12 in Washington. And you think, wow. We joke with our friends at Antinori about turning 50—Piero likes to tell us they have hoses in their cellars that are older than that.”
Then named Ste. Michelle Vintners, the winery’s inaugural 1967 vintage—an eclectic if somewhat experimental portfolio of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sémillon and Grenache Rosé—amounted to 6,000 cases. André Tchelistcheff had been enlisted as a consultant. “André gave us a lot of time,” says Baseler. “We’re thankful he came to America. He was really big on hygiene in the winery, and he liked lower alcohol levels. He wouldn’t have approved of 14.5 percent; he kept us right at 12–12.5 percent. That was his style. He was here when we were just a small sales force; he was with us till the early ‘90s.”