WASHINGTON’S WINE industry has long been geographically challenged. To provide the fruit that becomes wine, vines need the consistent warmth of sunshine — readily found east of the Cascade Mountains and in rather short supply around Puget Sound.
So those who aspire to make wine in Washington have for decades faced the conundrum of setting up shop near the vineyards — where they can more easily make their wine — or near the people, where they can more conveniently sell it.
Now, in a matter of just a few years, a solution has emerged and is coming on strong. Welcome to Woodinville.
From all appearances, Woodinville as wine country is a masterful strategy. It’s close enough to draw customers from the 3.5 million people living in the Greater Seattle area, yet it’s just far enough away from downtown to feel like a destination.
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In reality, the decisions that turned a sleepy backwater in northern King County into the epicenter of Washington wine tourism were almost completely random. And if the state’s largest and oldest winery hadn’t built a grand château here, most of today’s wine industry would have trouble finding Woodinville on a map.
Back in the 1970s, we here in Washington were not generally known for drinking premium wine, yet a burgeoning wine industry was poised to change that. In 1974, U.S. Tobacco of Connecticut bought Ste. Michelle Vineyards, a winery whose roots run back to 1934, just after the dark veil of Prohibition was lifted from the nation’s eyes. Ste. Michelle was based in Seattle but relied on vineyards and production facilities in the Yakima Valley.
So why Woodinville? Wally Opdycke, who sold Ste. Michelle to U.S. Tobacco and still ran the winery, negotiated the deal to buy the estate of Seattle lumber baron Frederick Stimson on the northeast side of Lake Washington. The reason was simple, as he told it to Ted Baseler, now CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates:
“I wanted to live in Seattle, so we built the winery here.”
Baseler calls it “one of those fortuitous events of unintended consequences.”
That was it. No big strategy sessions. No expensive consultants. No years of analysis. No trying to prognosticate about traffic or sales. It was merely out of convenience.
When the French-style manor was built in 1976, the winery was re-christened Chateau Ste. Michelle and focused on crafting dry table wines rather than the sweet, fortified dessert wines the company had been producing for 40 years.
Spending a then-exorbitant $6 million to build a grand complex in an unincorporated area of King County was fraught with risk. Chateau Ste. Michelle hoped to draw perhaps 30,000 visitors a year. It could hardly imagine nearly 10 times that many showing up. But that is exactly what happened.
TO SAY THE wine industry has changed Woodinville is a dramatic understatement. While weekdays can feel typical of any community, the weekends belong to the wineries, and business is good.
On any given Saturday, hundreds will crowd into Ste. Michelle’s ample tasting room, while across the street at Redhook Ale, crowds waiting for a lunch table can spill into the parking lot. A short drive up 145th Street through two roundabouts, a cluster of a dozen wineries is to the right, including Dusted Valley, Brian Carter, DeLille, William Church and Fidelitas. They surround Purple Café, which is the food hub. Enjoying a casual outdoor lunch on a sunny day is blissful. Entering the tasting rooms is more of a challenge. Many are frenetic hives of activity where everyone is having fun — even if they’re five layers deep at the tasting bar.
Head north on 148th Avenue and you’re 10 minutes from the Warehouse District.
Here, it’s a different feel, where wineries share a business park. Leave your car and begin the stroll from winery to winery. If you’re limiting yourself to five or six — a good idea if your goal is to taste and learn — you can do that here without walking much farther than 100 feet.
WHILE STE. MICHELLE’S 1976 move to the west side of the mountains was an enormously important moment for the modern Washington wine industry, inexplicably, few wineries followed. Granted, the state had fewer than 10 wineries then. Still, as the number grew into the hundreds, it took three decades for Woodinville to become a phenomenon.
In 1986, Haviland built a beautiful winery across the road from Ste. Michelle, but went bankrupt within three years. Columbia Winery, now owned by E&J Gallo of California, moved into the Haviland space and remains there today.
In 1989, Silver Lake Winery arrived, followed the next year by Lou Facelli, who relocated from nearby Kirkland. He was Haviland’s winemaker starting in 1988, which means he’s been making wine in Woodinville for 25 years — longer than anyone else.
A handful of wineries saw the opportunities of Woodinville in the 1990s, including DeLille Cellars, DiStefano Winery and JM Cellars. Bob Betz, a longtime executive with Ste. Michelle, opened his winery in 1997 in Woodinville. Mike Januik, head winemaker for Ste. Michelle, left the company in 1999 and started his eponymous winery that same year in Walla Walla but moved it to Woodinville a couple years later.
“It’s been interesting to watch its evolution,” Januik said. “When I started at Ste. Michelle in 1990, there were only a couple of wineries. Now, I keep hearing there are in excess of 100 wineries and tasting rooms. So it has changed a lot.”
Indeed, even when he returned to Woodinville with Januik Winery in 2001, there were only a few producers here.
Then everything shifted. A change in state law in 2000 allowed Washington wineries to create satellite tasting rooms. Before, the only way for a winery to operate a second tasting room was to have wine produced on the premises. Suddenly, wineries could open two other locations — and even serve food.
One of the first wineries to take advantage of the change was Bookwalter in Richland. Winemaker John Bookwalter opened his J. Bookwalter Tasting Studio just up the street from Ste. Michelle in August 2008 — mere weeks before the national economy tanked.
“My timing was impeccable!” Bookwalter jokes. “Woodinville was a solid performer, but it wasn’t at the top end of my budget. We’ve grown despite the challenges.”
Bookwalter made the move for three reasons: brand awareness, direct-to-consumer sales and wine-club growth. All have done well for him in Woodinville.
It didn’t take long for Woodinville to divide into two distinct areas: the Hollywood District around Ste. Michelle and the Warehouse District about 10 minutes to the north. Each has a distinctive vibe: urban in the Warehouse District, urbane in the Hollywood area.
Wineries such as Januik, Betz, Alexandria Nicole and Ross Andrew started in the warehouse area and eventually migrated south to the Hollywood neighborhood.
Today, no fewer than 55 wineries and tasting rooms can be found in the Warehouse District. The advantages are many: It costs less to be here, parking is ample and consumers can walk to dozens of tasting rooms.
Meanwhile, the wineries on the Hollywood end of town have the advantage of being near Ste. Michelle and its 300,000 annual visitors.
“Ste. Michelle is as good a neighbor as you could ever ask for,” Januik says. “We have a good relationship. Ste. Michelle is probably 100 yards away from us. That helps a lot. Folks there are always sending people our way. We have our favorite places, and Ste. Michelle is one of them because of its history, its beautiful grounds and its great wines.”
Since it opened, Ste. Michelle has continued to improve its facilities — and its ability to draw patrons. It has an amphitheater that holds more than 4,300 people. Tickets for the nearly 20 annual summer concerts sell out quickly. Its culinary team, led by John Sarich and Janet Hedstrom, puts on monthly winemaker dinners and orchestrates special food events for wine-club members as well as the general public.
With the challenge of sharing the Woodinville spotlight among about 100 other wineries, Ste. Michelle is constantly adding and tweaking its events. For example, three years ago it launched “Staycation,” a Memorial Day weekend event that includes a luxury-car show and 10 top Seattle food trucks. This year, it drew more than 4,000 visitors.
“We try to give people new reasons to come back,” says Lynda Eller, communications director for Ste. Michelle.
The Hollywood District also has most of the best restaurants in the burgeoning Woodinville food scene. The stalwarts include The Herbfarm, Barking Frog, Purple Café and Red Hook Brewery. But more have opened, including Le Petit Terroir, Village Wines, the Commons Café (owned by Purple Café), The Station Pizzeria and Sora Sushi.
Joshua Henderson, owner of Skillet in Seattle, is transforming the Hollywood Tavern into a new eatery. The building, just steps away from Ste. Michelle, also will house Woodinville Whiskey.
At least three wineries near Ste. Michelle also serve food: Novelty Hill/Januik, Alexandria Nicole and Columbia. And J. Bookwalter — across the parking lot from Alexandria Nicole — also offers fare via a food truck.
For at least the past three years, prognosticators have believed that Woodinville is played out, that it’s too full to be able to sustain more wineries. Yet the number of tasting rooms has grown more than 20 percent in that time.
Januik believes Woodinville’s reputation is only helping to build a bigger audience, even as more wineries enter the fold.
“This has been our best year so far,” he says. “The tasting room has been noticeably busier this year than it ever has before.”
Januik and Novelty Hill’s tasting room has been open near Ste. Michelle since 2007 and was able to weather the recession. This August, Januik said his sales were up 37 percent over a year ago.
Bookwalter agrees: “This is our best year by a long ways.”
ONE NEW, true believer is Charlie Hoppes, owner and winemaker at Fidelitas Wines on Red Mountain. In 2010, he wanted to open a satellite tasting room and figured Woodinville was full. So he joined Urban Enoteca, a multi-winery tasting room in Seattle’s up-and-coming Sodo neighborhood. It didn’t work, and he left Seattle some 18 months ago.
“I was just flat wrong,” Hoppes says. “I pooh-poohed Woodinville for a long time.”
This August, Fidelitas became one of Woodinville’s newest wineries, opening its tasting room near Purple Café, where a beauty salon once was.
“The beauty salon was there for 18 years,” Hoppes says. “But there wasn’t enough parking for the clientele.”
So far, business has been even more spectacular than Hoppes could have imagined.
“We haven’t been disappointed,” he said. “It’s been great. Saturdays can be overwhelming. I’m not complaining, but you have to be ready.”
Hoppes began working at Chateau Ste. Michelle 20 years ago and was its red winemaker through most of the ’90s before opening Fidelitas with the 2000 vintage.
“A lot more people live here now,” he notes. “There’s a lot of good wine here. You can park here and walk to 30 different tasting rooms.”
Hoppes, who has a loyal following, wanted to make sure he is reaching out to his Puget Sound customers. In fact, some of his former wine-club members who got tired of the drive to Red Mountain have rejoined since he arrived in Woodinville. And the tasting room has even helped draw more customers over the Cascades.
“We’ve seen an uptick in our Red Mountain tasting room since we opened in Woodinville,” he said.
Now that he’s a Woodinville disciple, Hoppes isn’t sure when the winery growth will stop — or even slow down.
“After seven years (of being a destination), Woodinville is still feeding itself. People don’t travel as much as they used to. I guess we have to go where they are instead.”
It’s a lesson Chateau Ste. Michelle learned nearly 40 years ago.
Andy Perdue is a wine author, journalist and international judge. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com