Head winemaker Bob Bertheau holds back the grapes from one of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s few estate vineyards for powerful reserve-tier wines.
A HALF-CENTURY AGO, Walter Clore, “The Father of Washington Wine,” thought a bowl-shaped valley north of the Yakima Valley town of Sunnyside would be a perfect place to grow wine grapes. He suggested as much to Chateau Ste. Michelle, which then — as now — was the state’s largest wine producer. Clore had retired from Washington State University and turned consultant, with Ste. Michelle as one of his clients.
On his suggestion, the company planted 500 acres of grapes — a move that effectively doubled the vineyard planting in the state. The devastating winter of 1978 left the vineyard in ruin, primarily because the vine roots hadn’t been planted deeply enough.
The winery’s new owners, U.S. Tobacco in Connecticut, didn’t hesitate to invest the money needed to replant, because of the vineyard’s unique attributes. This time, however, the ground was ripped deeply before the vines went in.
Three to try
These wines use grapes from Cold Creek Vineyard in the Columbia Valley. While you might find them in better wine shops, your best bet is directly from Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2015 Cold Creek Vineyard merlot, $36: This effort shows how muscular and powerful Washington merlot can be, with notes of smoky oak followed by flavors of Bing cherry, ripe plum and bittersweet chocolate. Don’t let this big wine scare you off; the structure is based on refined tannins and acidity.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2015 Cold Creek Vineyard cabernet sauvignon, $40: This quickly reveals the complexity and depth that I love in Washington cab, unveiling aromas and flavors of dark, ripe fruit; black licorice; and black olive, alongside hints of smoky meat and maple syrup. Behind all the robust, dark fruits are firm tannins and complex notes of stony minerality.
Chateau Ste. Michelle 2015 Cold Creek Vineyard riesling, $22: This is a classic amid all the rieslings winemaker Bob Bertheau and his team craft, with fruit flavors that ride bright acids to new heights. Just a kiss of sweetness buffs the edges to a finish of ripe orchard fruit and a hint of vanilla, alongside dusty minerality.
While Ste. Michelle Wine Estates uses 2 out of every 3 grapes grown in the state, the company contracts most of that fruit and actually has few estate vineyards — making Cold Creek Vineyard a happy anomaly. Most of the Cold Creek clusters go to Bob Bertheau, Ste. Michelle’s head winemaker. A tiny amount of Cold Creek’s harvest is sold to other wineries, and another small lot is shared with Northstar in Walla Walla.
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Bertheau won’t disclose his favorite vineyard, no matter how hard you press him. But Cold Creek has to be in the running based on its heat units and rocky soil, which inspire the vines to struggle, and the powerful wines he makes. Bertheau crafts several vineyard-designated wines, and holds back Cold Creek grapes for reserve-tier wines.
Now at 753 acres, Cold Creek focuses on cabernet, which rules the vineyard, even though 11 clones of the famed Bordeaux grape are planted here.
And while a dry creek bed really does run through the vineyard, it only rarely has water in it. Local lore had it that the creek once was fed by a spring, which meant it once was really cold.