A quarter century of making wine
Columbia Crest has one of the largest estate vineyards in the country.
Columbia Crest Winery is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The winery is located in the heart of the Horse Heaven Hills south of Prosser, Washington, and is surrounded by rolling hills filled with vineyards.
To an onlooker, it may seem like Columbia Crest Winery is located in the middle of nowhere. But to those in the know, the winery is located in the center of everything.
The winery is about 25 miles south of Prosser, Washington, in the heart of the Horse Heaven Hills, less than two miles from the waters of the Columbia River, and is in what has become known as one of the best wine-grape growing regions in the world.
Columbia Crest opened in 1983. For a quarter of a century, the winery has been producing award-winning wines and over the years has continued to learn from and build on its lengthy history.
Ted Baseler, president and chief executive officer of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, which owns Columbia Crest, can still remember the first time he saw the winery. "It was just this cavernous, empty winery," he said.
It was built on a large scale with the expectation that over time it would be filled out. "Not only is it completely utilized [now], but it's been expanded three or four times," he said.
The French-country-house style winery is surrounded by thousands of acres of wine grapes, which form one of the largest estate vineyards in the country.
"To have that much fruit grown around the winery is special," Baseler said, as it gives the winery a lot of options. It has wine grapes growing in different terroirs, which means when they are harvested they have different characteristics that can be used to create extraordinary wines. It has also given the winery the flexibility to create different kinds of wines, including the company's Two Vines wines, their Grand Estates, their recently introduced Horse Heaven Hills wines, and the company's top-tier Reserve wines.
The winery is one of the largest producers of wine earning 90-plus scores from the Wine Spectator.
Baseler said when Columbia Crest began, its first offering was a 1984 Vineyard Reserve White, a blended white wine. The second year, the winery offered a blended blush wine, and in 1987, the winery's first varietal wines were released, including a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Johannisberg Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, and a Chenin Blanc.
Juan Munoz Oca, Columbia Crest's red winemaker, is particularly proud of the winery's reserve program, which creates 20,000 cases a year.
"That's a little drop in the bucket when you consider Columbia Crest makes 1.5 million cases a year total," Oca said.
The reserve program, established by head winemaker Ray Einberger, is thought of as a winery within the winery. It has its own place within the winery with a different crew, and the wines are created using handcrafted, old world techniques.
The special care taken with their Reserve wines starts in the vineyard. Oca said the winery has contracts with growers on the Wahluke Slope, in the Horse Heaven Hills, and a few in the Columbia Valley. Those growers treat their vines differently, often picking the fruit when it's a little riper.
The wines are also blended during harvest, something Oca said gives the wine a different taste. Having the wine blended early gives the flavors more time to intermingle.
Oca said the reserve wines serve to give Columbia Crest Winery a sense of place and a history. The reserve program brings traditional elements to the winery, while the latest technologies the winery uses in other areas work to bring innovation and efficiency to the table.
"This is a very unique blend of both tradition and innovation," Oca said.
Doug Gore, senior vice president of winemaking and viticulture for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, was head winemaker at the winery from 1986 to 2003. During that period, the winery evolved from focusing on blended wines to creating award-winning varietal wines.
Gore said in the early years the key that would determine Columbia Crest's success was discovering where it fit into the Ste. Michelle family of wineries. "We needed to carve out a place for ourselves," Gore said.
A key to that success was taking wines to competitions and coming home with great scores. But Gore said that for him the best awards have always been those that came from pitting Columbia Crest against wineries that make 1,000 cases of one wine. To be able to compete against small-batch wineries and show that a 300,000-case vintage can score just as high as a wine made on a small scale shows how special Columbia Crest is, he said.
Looking to Columbia Crest's future, Gore said they hope to see their new Horse Heaven Hills line do well. Just one vintage of the new line is out, but it is already scoring well, with the Cabernet Sauvignon earning 90 points from Wine Spectator and the Chardonnay earning 91 points.
Gore said he thinks the grapes Columbia Crest grows will continue to improve over time. As changes are made in the vineyard over the next few decades, the growing practices will become more and more refined, and the end product should just keep getting better.
"As good as we are now, what we're going to become is going to be better," Gore said.
Elena Olmstead is a freelance agricultural writer based in Grandview, Washinton.