Emile Ninaud opened Champion Wine Cellars in 1969. The shop features more than 2,000 wines — and Ninaud’s cheerful expertise.
WHEN EMILE NINAUD arrived in Seattle a half-century ago, he found an all-but-nonexistent wine culture.
With the encouragement of friends, he set out to change that, and today Champion Wine Cellars stands as the city’s oldest wine shop.
Ninaud was born in China, where his father worked in a Shanghai hotel. After World War II, they moved to Vietnam, and then Ninaud returned to his parents’ homeland of France, where he attended restaurant-management school and began to learn about wine. Rosés from Provence were his introduction, because they were both delicious and affordable.
Three Champion selections
Champion Wine Cellars owner Emile Ninaud has selected these wines as three that he is particularly impressed with.
Brian Carter Cellars 2008 Trentenaire, Columbia Valley, $45: This Bordeaux-style red blend is from one of Washington’s longest-tenured and most-distinguished winemakers. Ninauld appreciates its amazing complexity.
Tempus Cellars 2011 cabernet sauvignon, Columbia Valley, $34: From a Walla Walla winery using grapes from renowned Sagemoor Vineyards, this cab is rich and concentrated without being ponderous. It offers a long finish and great aging potential.
Two Vintners 2013 syrah, Columbia Valley, $21: Here is a luscious syrah from Morgan Lee, the talented young winemaker for this boutique Woodinville brand. Ninaud describes this as graceful and complex.
He moved to San Francisco as an exchange student, then came up the coast to attend the University of Washington, where he earned a business degree. From there, he began working in restaurants, including El Gaucho, but he noticed there were few wines in Seattle, even at liquor stores. Part of this was tied to a post-Prohibition hangover, when few Washington wineries were making anything of quality and California wines had all but been shut out of selling here, thanks to protectionist laws.
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“The food here was excellent, but there was hardly any wine,” Ninaud remembers.
All of this changed in April 1969, when the Washington Legislature passed the “California Wine Bill” and allowed out-of-state wines to be brought in without antagonistic tariffs.
With the help of a few friends, Ninaud launched Champion Wine Cellars — named for David Champion Walz, one of his investors. It was a 500-square-foot space at Second Avenue and Marion Street. Champion opened a couple of weeks after Vintage Cellars in Burien — long out of business — and Ninaud was in possession of one of the state’s first retail liquor licenses.
By 1976, he had moved Champion to its current location at 108 Denny Way, just a half-mile from the Space Needle. Today, he regularly stocks more than 2,000 different wines, with a strong mix from Washington, Europe and the Southern Hemisphere.
While many wine retailers were deeply affected by the 2011 state liquor law changes, Ninaud has experienced few problems. He learned long ago that attention to detail, great service and cheerful expertise keep his customers coming back.
As they have done since 1969.