Jed Steele, who graduated in 1967, found winemaking fame in California, but still works with grapes grown in Washington.
ONE OF CALIFORNIA’S most innovative winemakers — indeed, he came up with one of America’s favorite wines — has a secret love affair with Washington wines.
In fact, walk into Jed Steele’s tasting room in Kelseyville, Calif., and he proudly pours and sells three wines using Washington grapes.
It all began in the 1960s, when Steele attended Gonzaga University in Spokane on a basketball scholarship. The San Francisco native graduated in 1967, during which time his interest in wine was blossoming. He met Walter Clore, a researcher at Washington State University who is considered the father of Washington wine. Later, a visit to Austria — ancestral home to lemberger — sealed Steele’s interest in the obscure red-wine grape.
Three Washington Stars from Jed Steele:
Shooting Star 2014 aligote, Washington, $14: Inviting aromas of lemons and fresh limes give way to flavors of orange, apples, pears and mango, backed by bright acidity and a smooth mouth feel.
Shooting Star 2013 Blue Franc, Washington, $14: Beautiful plump, red aromas of cherries, raspberries and plums, followed by ripe plum, fresh-picked raspberries and Bing cherries. Mild tannins and a medium body make this a delicious and easy-to-love red wine.
Shooting Star 2014 Cote de Columbia red wine, Washington, $14: Black pepper, black cherry, espresso and baker’s chocolate lead to luscious flavors of cherry pie, ripe plum and ripe strawberry.
In 1968, he returned to California, finding work at a Napa Valley winery before heading to the University of California at Davis to earn his degree in winemaking. He worked in the Anderson Valley for a few years before landing at Kendall-Jackson Winery in Sonoma County. It was there he crafted the Vintner’s Reserve chardonnay, the wine that kicked off America’s love affair with chardonnay and became one of the best-selling wines in the country.
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He left Kendall-Jackson in 1990 to launch his own winery — Steele Wines — in Lake County.
About this time, he began a winemaking consulting relationship with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates that lasted 17 years. His interest in lemberger was rekindled, and he began buying grapes from a Yakima County grower in 1995, calling it blaufrankisch (its name back in Austria), and the label featured a pre-Euro 50 Franc note with a blue cast. The wine is made under Steele’s Shooting Star label and is called Blue Franc. Ironically, he now makes more lemberger than any Washington winery.
Last year, his source for lemberger grapes pulled out his vines in favor of cabernet sauvignon, so now Steele is working to find a new grower or contract with someone who will grow it for him.
He also makes aligote, an obscure white from Burgundy, bringing in the grapes from a vineyard near Sunnyside.
The third Washington wine is a red blend called Cote de Colombia, a lemberger-focused blend.
As much as he enjoys working with obscure varieties, he loves keeping his connection to an area of wine country he loves.