It all started with Chateau Ste. Michelle, but small boutique wineries are shaping Woodinville’s burgeoning reputation.
There’s big business being conducted on the Eastside in places one might not expect.
Much of that business takes place on weekends, beyond the skyscrapers and busy malls of Bellevue. It occurs up Interstate 405, past the suburban warehouses of Totem Lake and Redmond and up the Woodinville- Redmond Road hill.
Twenty minutes from Bellevue in Woodinville, amid the towering trees and lush vegetation, sit Chateau Ste. Michelle
and Columbia wineries, both giants in the state’s multibillion-dollar wine industry. According to a 2012 report conducted by California-based Stonebridge Research Group, Washington’s wines had an $8.6 billion economic impact within the state and a $14.9 billion economic impact in the United States.
Ste. Michelle and Columbia are Woodinville’s — and the state’s — biggest players, but they are not the only ones. Most of Woodinville’s producers are small boutiques, about 50 of which produce fewer than 2,000 cases a year. Nearly 70 labels have production facilities in Woodinville, and about 30 wineries from outside the region have tasting rooms. These boutique wineries are further refining Western Washington’s wine capital, turning it into a
destination for those near and far.
AN INDUSTRY TAKING SHAPE
The tasting rooms of dozens of startup and established wineries are tucked into the nondescript Woodinville North Business Park. Located in the city’s Warehouse District, the park still has the industrial beige look of a place that 20 years ago would have been filled with computer-parts companies and office furniture stores. But 20 years ago there were fewer than 10 wineries in Woodinville; the region’s total has since grown tenfold.
Wine is big business here. And it’s getting bigger, says Sandra Lee, spokeswoman for Woodinville Wine Country.
“With 12 new wineries to the area this year, I don’t see it slowing down,” Lee says. Woodinville’s weekend scene gives credibility to Lee’s prediction. Throughout the city, visitors are greeted by colorful sandwich boards and the tongue-tingling aroma of wine being poured. Parking lots are packed. Many office entryways are occupied by a wine entrepreneur offering his or her take on the syrah, merlot, or riesling being made in small warehouses nearby.
FAR FROM GRAPES, BUT NEAR PEOPLE
Unlike wine regions such as California’s Napa and Santa Maria valleys, the working vineyards of Woodinville aren’t in the same location as the wineries. To get the 3 million cases of wine that are produced in Woodinville annually, more than 100 million pounds of grapes are trucked hundreds of miles from vineyards in the Columbia Valley, Yakima,
Prosser, or Walla Walla. Once in Woodinville, the grapes are crushed, processed, and fermented.
What Woodinville lacks in agriculture, it makes up for in proximity to customers. Woodinville is a perfect site for the 3.5 million Seattle metro area residents who want high-quality wines without the four-hour drive to Walla Walla.
There are wineries in Seattle, but the city’s throngs of tourists typically have coffee, not wine, on the brain.
“No one goes to Seattle to buy wine,” said John Patterson of Woodinville’s Patterson Cellars. A winemaker since 2000, Patterson learned that lesson after opening — and closing — a tasting room in Pike Place Market to sell the
wines he originally made in Monroe. People who are new to wine won’t go to Eastern Washington, either, he said.
Patterson opened a Woodinville tasting room in 2007, and the place is thriving. Today, Patterson Cellars has two Woodinville locations — one in the Hollywood District and another in the Warehouse District — and, on average, sells 6,200 cases a year. In an excellent year, he can sell close to 10,000. Both Patterson locations see heavy tourist traffic.
“Here, it’s an experience; it’s entertainment,” Patterson says. “A lot of novice people can come here and learn about wine.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT COMMUNITY
The more Puget Sounders learn about the booming wine industry that exists in their backyard the more they want to be part of the wine culture, says John Bigelow of JM Cellars.
Bigelow and his wife, Peggy, have worked since 2000 to transform their 7-acre hillside property neighboring Chateau Ste. Michelle into a tourist destination. Today, in addition to JM Cellars’ working winery, there are trails, ponds, and a lawn for weddings or bocce. Part of the appeal of the winery is Bigelow himself, who will gladly share details on the car-sized oak barrels imported from France.
Some of Bigelow’s customers even take part in the creation of the wine they drink, volunteering to pour on the weekends or crush the grapes for processing in exchange for a few bottles.
“We have never sold more wine than we are selling today,” Bigelow says. JM Cellars produces 5,000 to 6,000 cases of wine a year.
Chateau Ste. Michelle is one of the main reasons Woodinville is even on the map.
Its history dates back to the 1950s, when Seattle-based American Wine Company stopped using berries in its wine, opting instead to utilize the burgeoning Eastern Washington grape industry. In the early 1970s, then-president Wally Opdycke acquired Hollywood Farm, part of the Woodinville dairy operation founded by lumber baron Frederick Stimson. It was a strategic move to capitalize on Puget Sound residents’ growing interest in wines and to expand Ste. Michelle’s operations, says current CEO Ted Baseler.
“The traditional thinking would have put it in Yakima or Prosser — we can put it in Eastern Washington,” he says. But the winery ended up in Woodinville “to cater to the growth in the local Puget Sound market.”
Hollywood Farm was converted into a winery with a tasting room so restaurateurs, grocers, and tourists could sample and learn about the Washington wine varietals and regions.
The opening of the chateau came on the heels of the winery’s first national recognition, winning a Los Angeles Times taste test in 1972.
“(That) created the momentum,” Baseler says.
Ste. Michelle paved the way for another behemoth. Columbia Winery, another label with national distribution, moved to Woodinville from Yakima in 1988. Columbia’s purchase by California-based E. & J. Gallo in 2012 was another step in the maturing of Woodinville wine country. Gallo, the largest winemaker in the world, did not reveal the price of the acquisition, but the move was its first into Washington.
BOUTIQUES SHAPING WOODINVILLE
After Ste. Michelle and Columbia laid down roots, enough demand was created to support the influx of boutique wineries.
“As a salon or a travel agency went out of business, in came a tasting room,” says Mike Stevens of Brian Carter Cellars, one of those boutiques and located in the Hollywood District.
Then came restaurants, private tour companies and big-name concerts at Chateau Ste. Michelle. The growth of the industry so far has been organic, Baseler says. “There wasn’t some strategic plan to lure more wineries to town.”
The bevy of new wineries seems to be paying off for both the established brands and the entrepreneurs, he says.
“We are having more tourists now than we ever had before,” Baseler says. “The better each business does, the better it is for the industry.”
Despite its growth, Woodinville still has a lot of maturing to do as a tourist destination, Stevens says. Other than Willows Lodge, an 84-room luxury hotel that once had been the Stimsons’ hunting lodge, and a smattering of bed and breakfasts, there’s nowhere for tourists to stay in Woodinville.
A plan in the works since 2004 could help usher Woodinville into its next phase of development. Woodinville Village, a 24-acre parcel planned along the bank of the Sammamish River near Highway 202, calls for tasting rooms, restaurants, a luxury hotel, and apartments. Over the years, several prominent Woodinville wineries have announced plans to move there, including DeLille Cellars and DiStefano Winery. However, after years of litigation by the city, a foreclosure proceeding, and a change in ownership, the project remains in the design stage and has no timetable for construction.
Stevens, whose Brian Carter Cellars was among the wineries planning to move to Woodinville Village, believes that development, whenever it comes, will help Woodinville realize its tourism potential.
Other winemakers believe Woodinville is ready for its next step.
“Now you have about 90-plus tasting rooms right here,” says Lauren Ashton’s Kit Singh. “We have density. We have diversity. We have quality.”