South Seattle College students craft award-winning wine from the Muller-Thurgau grapes lining the entry to the winery

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EACH YEAR, THE 300,000 people who visit Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville drive past several long rows of grapevines lining the dramatic approach to the manor. Some visitors are under the impression these are the source for Ste. Michelle’s wines.

While the vines serve only an ornamental purpose for the château, the resulting grapes are donated to the winemaking program at South Seattle College, where the students and faculty turn them into award-winning wines.

Ann Hunt is the winery’s resident arborist, caring for trees on the château property. Some are upward of a century old, dating to when this was the estate of lumber baron Frederick Stimson.

Try this Müller

Northwest Wine Academy 2015 Müller-Thurgau, Puget Sound, $15: Here is a bright, crisp, flavorful and complex wine with notes of passion fruit, white flowers and apple. It’s easy to imagine this with shellfish, salmon, baked chicken or garlic prawn pasta. This wine is sold out, but a new vintage will be released this spring.

The grapes used by South Seattle are Müller-Thurgau, a German cool-climate variety planted throughout the Puget Sound region.

When Hunt began working at Chateau Ste. Michelle 18 years ago, chardonnay vines lined the driveway and the field beyond. But because of our region’s soggy conditions, rot would set in before any fruit ripened. Those vines were ripped out, and Müller-Thurgau was planted in 1996. A few vines of Campbell’s Early, also known as island belle, now are planted near the bus-parking area. In the late 1800s, more than 300 acres of island belle were established on Stretch Island near the Kitsap Peninsula town of Belfair. A few acres still remain on the island. These vines were once used by St. Charles Winery (Washington’s first winery, also on Stretch Island) until it closed in the 1960s.

In 2011, Peter Bos of South Seattle College got a call from Ste. Michelle asking whether he wanted the Müller-Thurgau grapes. The offer came with restrictions: The college would need to pick the grapes, and it could not reveal the source of the grapes.

Bos, a fixture in the Washington wine industry for decades, jumped at the opportunity to work with Müller-Thurgau, a variety he knew from his days at Mount Baker Vineyards north of Bellingham. Bos returned to Ste. Michelle a few months later with a few cases of the finished wine from SSC’s Northwest Wine Academy program. After that inaugural tasting, the winery allowed Bos to tell folks where the grapes were grown.

In 2014, South Seattle entered the students’ Müller-Thurgau in a local wine competition. It received a double gold medal. Hunt took delight in pointing out to Chateau Ste. Michelle head winemaker Bob Bertheau that the college’s medal was better than any honor his wines won that year in the same competition.

Despite the jab, Bertheau, who makes more riesling than any winemaker on Earth, didn’t take the bait to change his focus to Müller-Thurgau.