We were entering the iron-gated drive into Chateau Sainte Michelle’s scenic acreage in Woodinville, 15 miles northeast of downtown Seattle. No budding vineyards stretched off toward the horizon, but the estate’s historic reception center echoes the elegance of Old World wineries. As Washington state’s founding winery, now marketing more than two million cases a year of white wine alone, how could it not merit reckoning as a peer of Europe’s leading chateaus?
Virtually all Ste. Michelle’s vineyards lie in the Columbia Valley, east of Washington’s Cascade Mountains and 200 miles from the winery in Woodinville.
Ste. Michelle is one of the few wineries worldwide operating multiple state-of-the-art wineries that make premium whites and reds respectively. The Woodinville location is where most of its award-winning whites are made. Its reds are created mainly at three affiliated single-vineyard wineries some 200 miles away, east of Washington’s Cascade Mountains in Columbia Valley. Virtually all the chateau’s vineyards lie in this Eastern Washington region, where drier weather and fertile soil have proven ideal for raising world-class grapes. Perhaps not coincidentally, both latitude and growing conditions are similar to those in the richest wine-growing regions of France and Germany.
Along with a dozen other food, wine and travel writers, I’d been invited to a tasting chaired by John Sarich, Ste. Michelle’s Culinary Director since 1986. Owing no little to his experience from 1980 to 1990 as owner and head chef of two upscale Seattle restaurants, Sarich is well known for expertise and passion about matching food and wine. He met us in the lobby and ushered us into the most spacious and elaborately appointed tasting room I’d ever seen.
I scanned the conference table‘s 16 settings, each with six wine glasses circled around platefuls of colorful hors d’oeuvres. Spotting what I thought would be Sarich’s seat at the far end, I claimed a chair two places away. The wines’ names and vintages were obligingly printed on our paper doilies. My greatest curiosity focused on three Rieslings, the best known stars in Ste. Michelle’s constellation.
Sarich led off with a rundown on the winery’s affair with Rieslings since first entering the winemaking sweepstakes in earnest in the 1970s. “The PR from Seattle‘s nine licensed wineries then,” he explained, “was letting people know Washington is on the U.S. West Coast, not the East. If you said you were a winery in Washington, people merely wondered which side of Delaware you were on. Today, Washington state is the number two premium grape wine producer in the United States, after California, with 800 plus wineries. And you get the whole spectrum of wine-making here.
“In general, our wines have a tendency to retain a bit more acidity and are a little crisper and brighter than California’s. They’re not better or worse, they’re different. And that’s the great thing about wines. Whether from Australia or Italy or Washington or California, they’re all going to be a little different.”
At this point, Sarich invited us to taste the first wine before us, a 2010 Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley dry Riesling. I did, and imagined it going nicely with my Chinese wife’s pork or chicken fried rice. A morsel of tender meat from my appetizer plate confirmed this, before our guide pursued his commentary.
Around the elaborately appointed tasting room’s giant conference table were 16 settings with six wine glasses encircling platefuls of colorful hors d’oeuvres.
“Most wines like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc have little or no oak, which is one reason why they work well with so many foods,” he said. “Their fruit does not affect foods’ flavors. When there’s oak, that’s what affects the balance of the food and wine together. Red wine can be harder to match because of its tannin quality and the oak. The dry Riesling you’re tasting now is bright and crisp, and works well with Asian foods and dishes featuring pork and veal.”
Sarich gave the Rieslings credit for putting Chateau Ste. Michelle and Washington on the wine map, noting that Washington is now the world’s largest producer and seller of Riesling. Ste. Michelle boasts the world‘s broadest Riesling portfolio, going from bone dry to the super-sweet Ethos Late Harvest dessert wine, whose 2008 vintage we also had for sampling.
A big reason Rieslings became St. Michelle’s backbone is they lend themselves to so many stylings. At first, the winery produced mainly a dry Riesling and another medium dry developed especially for the U.S. market. A “beginner’s” wine, kind of sweet and easy to drink, it pretty much went with everything. Then, 12 years ago, they developed their Eroica Late Harvest wine in collaboration with German winemaker Dr. Ernst Loosen, widely known as ‘King of the Mosel.’
Sarich led us in tasting various appetizers along with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s premium whites and reds, bringing out the pros and cons of different pairings.
“We were all at a New York Wine Experience tasting,” Sarich recounted, “and Dr. Loosen told us, ‘I want to show you guys how to make Riesling.’ So he partnered with us, and for the last 11 vintages we’ve been making this wine called Eroica together.”
Sarich invited us to sip the 2009 Chateau Ste. Michelle Eroica Riesling at our places, saying it was the wine that really helped turn people’s heads to Riesling. The reason: it has more subtlety and depth of character than the dry Riesling we had all tasted first — more of the Old World character reflecting Dr. Loosen’s input. Sarich said it goes especially well with spicy and fatty foods, and heavier winter cuisine, cutting through the richness.
As I sipped again, increasingly enjoying the process, he added, “Ten of our 11 vintages of Eroica have received 90 or better in the Wine Spectator. Ironically, the one that got 88 was Ernie’s favorite, since it was more where his Germanic palate’s at.”
According to Sarich, Washington’s more than 800 wineries are now the U.S.’s number two premium grape wine producers after California’s, and Ste. Michelle has the world‘s broadest Riesling portfolio.
“Now,” Sarich went on with a mischievous smile, “I’d like you to eat one of the prawns from your plates. They have a lemon-lime zest with a little heat to it. Then sip the Eroica again, and you’ll find it takes away both the prawns’ heat and some sweetness from the wine. This is what happens with pretty much any food you put up against the Rieslings. They change dramatically with whatever you put on your palate, the only wines that do this.”
The next wine he had us try was one of our two reds, a 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon produced at Cold Creek Vineyard in Columbia Valley, Ste. Michelle’s oldest vineyard. He called it a good example of their having found where certain particular grapes grow best — whether due to the soil, or weather or another factor, as proven by at least three years’ production after initial planting.
“This bottle of Cabernet is a super value,” Sarich volunteered, “and I’d like to point out that, besides the ‘jammy’ character, you get a tiny bit of cedar — what’s in the barrel. In a red wine, unlike a white, you do want a bit of the wood character.”
Ten of the last 11 vintages of Ste. Michelle Eroica Reisling have received 90 or better in the Wine Spectator — just a few of many awards recalled by certificates on this hallway wall at the winery.
Turning to our Sauvignon Blanc, a 2010 from Ste. Michelle’s Horse Heaven Vineyards in Columbia Valley, he called it one of his favorites to have at home for everyday wine, and told how the chateau had perfected this varietal. Many of the fields where they began growing Sauvignon Blanc in the1970s used to be asparagus farms, and they’d simply ripped up the asparagus and planted grapevines. Soon they were hearing that their Sauvignon Blanc wine smelled a bit like asparagus. Vineyard managers did detect a grassy smell, but doubted the rumored explanation and set out to find the real reason.
What they discovered was that heavy early rainfall and watering encouraged growth of excessive canopy on the vines. This gave them too much chlorophyll and shaded the grapes from the sun, which caused uneven ripening. So they held back irrigation until the buds started to break, making the vines ‘think,’ “My God, I’m dying, I’ve got to produce more grapes.” This restrained the overgrowth of canopy, evened out the grapes’ ripening and suppressed the smell.
Asked if he’d advise serving asparagus with their Sauvignon Blanc, Sarich said most vegetables are tough to match with wine. As the typical American meal has all food groups on one plate — meat, potato and vegetable — it’s best to match the wine to the meat and how it’s prepared, ignoring sides. Ste. Michelle chefs’ trick is to curry the asparagus, so the wine matches the curry, not the asparagus. And this bottom line from Sarich ensued: “Sauvignon Blanc is a great curry wine. If you like curry, this is the wine to pick.”
Sarich said Washington is now the world’s largest producer of Rieslings, and Ste. Michelle boasts the world‘s broadest Riesling portfolio, from bone dry to supersweet.
As we scrambled to make notes on all this, he was already saying, “Hey, let’s try the Merlot,” meaning a 2008 Merlot produced by Ste. Michelle’s Canoe Ridge Estate in Columbia Valley’s Horse Heaven Hills area. “This Merlot,” he said, “is probably the red wine that first made people realize we’re producing great wines here in Washington. Our state’s Merlots are most often, though not always, bigger than our Cabernets. They’re ‘jammier,’ a bit thicker-bodied in a lush sense, than California’s are — especially in Napa, where Merlots are always lighter than Cabernets.
“But that’s just a geographic difference, not one of quality. Certain parts of Washington produce ‘jammy’ wines, and one of them is Walla Walla, where we own a complex of small-production wineries specializing in things like Merlot and Syrah, with a lot of sugar and alcohol.”
Sarich proceeded to explain that in the Old World, whether Italy, France or Spain, most red wines are between 12 and15% alcohol, and tend to be astringent. In contrast, New World vintages are less perceptive to weather changes than those in Europe, so the grapes hang on the vine longer and produce up to 25 or 26% alcohol. He said the plus side of higher alcohol content is that it gives wine more viscosity and softness, so New World reds are drinkable sooner than Old World reds. But they’re not wines to lay down for years and years. What you usually get is about ten years from the vintage date with Ste. Michelle’s reds, during which they round out nicely.
Ste. Michelle’s Woodinville winery is where it makes most of its award-winning white wines, but the red wines from its affiliated single-vineyard wineries in Columbia Valley are also sold there.
Sarich’s suggestion for pairing the 2007 Cold Creek Cabernet in our glasses was Tuscan-style grilled steak and, for the Merlot, premium Pacific Coast lamb.
His parting advice on food-and-wine matching was to avoid thinking, ‘You can’t do this or that,’ since you can’t know every ingredient that goes into most dishes. He told of a happening last year when he and a colleague went to an Athens food and wine festival. In one session Ste. Michelle’s Single Berry Select label, an exclusive dessert wine which is ‘Eroica’s sweet version,’ was to be served with an apple tart they’d provided the recipe for. However, the chef messed up and prepared chocolate truffles for tasting with it.
As Savich recalled, “Knowing that truffles and chocolate and sweet white wine just don’t work, my colleague said to me, ‘Omigosh, it’s going to be awful. I guess we’ll just have to describe how it doesn’t go.’ But when time for tasting came, it turned out the truffles had been sprinkled with sea salt. We took a bite, then tasted our wine, and it was marvelous! Not because of the chocolate. It was the sea salt! So you see, you can never say don’t do something when matching wine to food. There’s always a ‘Yeah, but,’ depending on what the chef puts in.”