WHEN ONE of Washington’s oldest and most revered wineries was purchased by a California giant in 2012, the entire wine industry wondered what might become of it.
Nearly two years later, we have a pretty clear picture of what Columbia Winery will look like under the ownership of E.&J. Gallo. It is smaller, more nimble, more focused and poised for the national spotlight.
Columbia Winery began in 1962 as Associated Vintners, led by a group of University of Washington professors. It was the first Washington winery to focus entirely on using classic European wine-grape varieties, such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon, riesling and gewürztraminer.
In 1979, Associated Vintners hired David Lake, a master of wine, as its winemaker. As much as anyone, Lake changed the face and style of the Washington wine industry. He introduced syrah to the state and began making vineyard-designated wines long before that was in vogue. During the 1980s, the winery’s name changed to Columbia, and it relocated to Woodinville, across the street from Chateau Ste. Michelle.
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Over the years, Columbia has gone through many ownership changes. The original owners sold the winery to Seattle-based Corus Brands (now Precept Wine). In the past dozen years, Columbia has become a winery lost in the wilderness, being sold to Constellation Brands of New York, then Ascentia Wine Estates in Healdsburg, Calif., and now Gallo, which is based in Modesto, Calif.
Immediately after buying Columbia, Gallo brought in Sean Hails as its winemaker. The Canadian native was working at Gallo’s Livingstone facility in California’s Central Valley, crushing more grapes per harvest than all of Washington grows, when he got the call to come north.
In January, Hails released four wines for Northwest distribution: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, chardonnay and a red blend called Composition. Together, they total about 80,000 cases — a far cry from a half-decade ago, when Columbia made nearly 100,000 cases of riesling alone. Hails also crafts a dozen wines for the tasting room and wine-club members.
Meanwhile, Gallo has the best wine-distribution system in the world, and this bodes well for Columbia, which will receive excellent placement when the wines are released nationwide this summer.
All of this indicates we can expect Gallo to bring the long-term stability and focus that this 52-year-old winery deserves.
Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com .