A Good Wine’s Owner Leaves a Sour Taste

Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc, 2016
13 percent alcohol content
Columbia Valley, Washington, $12

Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc is crisp and refreshing, a wine that’s an excellent choice to sip on a sultry summer night or to have for dinner with seafood or chicken dishes.

The wine is a good value and reasonably priced — I found it recently on sale for $9 — and it’s widely available across the country.

There are a lot of good things going on with Chateau Ste. Michelle, but I recently discovered something that makes the wine less savory — the company’s ownership.

Chateau Ste. Michelle is owned by the Altria Group Inc., the rebranded name of Philip Morris Companies Inc. It is the same firm that launched the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition to combat the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1992 ruling that second-hand smoke causes cancer. The coalition has since moved on to become a leading outlet for the denial of climate change.

Ownership aside, Chateau Ste. Michelle seems to be doing the right things and pushing in the opposite direction from its parent company. Although I can’t put the rotten morning-after taste of Altria out of my head, here are some good things about the wine producer:

As Washington’s founding winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle has established itself as a consistent producer of award-winning wines.

Over the last 51 years, the winery has not only made good wines, but it also has been a leader in sustainable farming and environmentally friendly, energy-saving wine production.

The winery traces its roots back to the beginning of repeal in 1933 when two wine companies teamed up to make fortified sweet wines on the 1912 Hollywood Farm estate in Woodinville, a town in Washington’s Columbia River Valley, an article in MikeL’s online Guide to Washington Wineries says.

In 1967, winemaker Howard Somes began producing premium wines under the Ste. Michelle label. Somes was fortunate enough to be able to hire as a consultant Andre Tchelistcheff, the dean of American winemakers. The resulting well-crafted wines brought the winery fame and financial success.

Tchelistcheff, known as the little Russian because he stood just 4-foot-11-inches, was held in the highest esteem in the industry and mentored pioneer winemakers in California, Washington and Oregon.

Under a group of investors who bought out the original owners in 1972 and changed the name to Ste. Michelle Vintners, the company grew rapidly and prospered. It was soon taken over by the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. Four years later, a new winery that looks like a French chateau, was built on the Woodinville site, and Chateau was added to the name. A drawing of the building tops the labels on many of the wines.

The company is one of the few producers of premium wines in the world that has two state-of-the-art wineries — one for white and one for red wines, the Chateau Ste. Michelle website says.

White wines are made at the Woodinville winery, where winemaker Bob Bertheau, who joined the company in 2003, oversees production.

Before coming to Chateau Ste. Michelle, the Seattle native worked at a number of wineries in California after he received a master’s degree in food science and enology from University of California at Davis. He also has a chemistry degree from Boise State University.

Bertheau’s wines regularly garner top national and international awards, and he is particularly well known for producing fine Riesling.

Grapes for the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc were grown throughout the Columbia Valley, where the vineyards receive 6-to-8 inches of rain a year. The days are warm and sunny, and the nights cool, which create ideal conditions for aroma and flavor development, Bertheau says in the tasting notes.

The grapes were fermented for three weeks in stainless steel tanks to preserve Sauvignon Blanc’s delicate fruit character. The result is a crisp wine that offers bright fruit flavors of melons and herbs.

My wife, Sandy, and I had Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc with grilled lemon, mustard and herb chicken, and it was a fine match, but it most likely will be the last time we have the wine.

The current owner of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Altria, acquired the winery when the conglomerate bought U.S. Smokeless Tobacco in 2009.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, Altria spent around $101 million lobbying the U.S. government between 1998 and 2004.

In 2006, a federal judge found the company guilty of civil fraud and racketeering for deceiving the public about the harms of smoking, an article in the Los Angeles Times says.

But Phillip Morris’ creation of the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition was “the first and most important of the corporate-funded organizations denying that climate change is taking place. It has done the most damage to the campaign to halt it (climate change) than any other body,” a 2006 article in The Guardian says.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc is a good wine, but I won’t be buying it again until Altria is no longer the owner or the ice caps regenerate, ticks and possums leave New England and I don’t need air conditioning to sleep on a summer night.

Suggestions of wines in the $10 range are always appreciated. Warren Johnston can be reached at raiseyourglassofwine@gmail.com.

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