For 40 years, Cold Creek Vineyard plays pivotal role for Ste. Michelle

By on October 21, 2013

Cold Creek Vineyard is an estate vineyard for Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington state.

The sun rises during harvest at Cold Creek Vineyard, an estate vineyard for Chateau Ste. Michelle. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

For 40 years, Cold Creek Vineyard has been a venerable location for Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Back in the early 1970s, Dr. Walter Clore, hailed as “the father of the Washington wine industry,” helped select the Cold Creek site for a vineyard to be planted by Ste. Michelle Vintners, the precursor to Chateau Ste. Michelle.

Long before wine grapes were grown here, the area was known as Cold Creek. Ben Snipes, a cattleman who raised tens of thousands of heads of cattle in the Yakima Valley around Sunnyside from the 1850s nearly into the 20th century, drove his cattle through Cold Creek on the way to Canada, where he sold his herds to hungry miners.

Cold Creek vineyard planting begins in 1973

Cold Creek Vineyard was planted in 1973.

Young vines are ready to go into the ground at Cold Creek in 1973. (Photo courtesy of Chateau Ste. Michelle)

In 1973, Ste. Michelle planted 500 acres at Cold Creek Vineyard, which receives just 5 inches of precipitation per year. When Ste. Michelle planted the first 500 acres, it doubled the number of acres in Washington at the time.

However, a deep winter freeze throughout the state in 1978 devastated much of the vineyard. As the story goes, the ground just below the topsoil was hardpan, and the vines’ roots never went too deep. So when the hard winter hit, much of the vineyard was damaged.

To solve this, machines were used to rip the ground much deeper, and U.S. Tobacco of Connecticut, which purchased Ste. Michelle in 1974, dug into its deep pockets and paid for the vineyard to be replanted. This, along with UST’s decision to build a grand chateau in the outskirts of Seattle, were seminal moments in the budding Washington wine industry. Had UST chosen to give up on Cold Creek Vineyard, it’s difficult to say what the region might look like today.

Instead, Cold Creek Vineyard is a thriving area of the Columbia Valley. In addition to Cold Creek Vineyard’s 811 acres, there are other surrounding vineyards, including Four Feathers and Wautoma Springs – two vineyards operated by the Zirkle family that also play pivotal roles within Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, as they supply grapes to Columbia Crest.

Cold Creek AVA unlikely

Cold Creek rarely appears in its creek bed near Cold Creek Vineyard in Washington state.

The dry creek bed where Cold Creek occasionally runs is next to its namesake, Cold Creek Vineyard.

Yet despite the fact that there are more than 1,500 acres planted in a small area around the usually nonexistent Cold Creek (it occasionally has water during late winter), the wines must carry the broad Columbia Valley American Viticultural Area designation. Even though this region – which has nearly as many acres of wine grapes as the entire Walla Walla Valley – is important, it’s unlikely to ever enjoy its own AVA status unless the folks at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates decide otherwise.

The grapes from Cold Creek Vineyard go primarily to Bob Bertheau, head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle. He produces vineyard-designated Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Riesling from the fruit. The Cold Creek Vineyard Chardonnay famously was mentioned in a Tom Clancy novel as being one of the best white wines in the world.

Cold Creek Vineyard is in a bowl just north of the Yakima Valley town of Sunnyside through a gap in the Rattlesnake Hills and just south of the Columbia River and the Wahluke Slope. Despite the region’s name, it is a warm area.

Today, Bertheau is happy about the young vines that were planted just a half-decade ago.

“Some of the young kids are showing as well as the older blocks,” he told Great Northwest Wine on Thursday as he walked through Cold Creek. “The younger vines are going into five years (in the ground) and starting to show style and quality. That’s exciting.”

Bertheau describes Cold Creek wines as being all about concentration and power.

“I call them big-shouldered wines,” he said. “It takes experience to work with Cold Creek fruit, and I have been learning for the past 10 years. The reds are powerful and, if not managed correctly, can have intensely high tannins. Even the Chardonnay has structure – and that’s unusual for a white.”

Cab is king at Cold Creek Vineyard

Wine grapes are harvested by hand at Cold Creek Vineyard in Washington state.

Some wine grapes are hand-harvested at Cold Creek Vineyard. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Cabernet Sauvignon is the most important variety at Cold Creek, with 344 acres planted. Perhaps surprisingly for a warm site, the No. 2 variety at Cold Creek is Riesling, with 161 acres. But Bertheau, whose team makes more Riesling than any other winery in the world, likes the mix of warm and cool sites for his signature wine so he can bring different styles to the blend – and so he can pick some regions earlier to make the harvest more even-keeled.

Chardonnay makes up 92 acres of Cold Creek, followed by 83 acres of Merlot. And 37 acres of Muscat Canelli also are planted, and they are a favorite of Bertheau, who has campaigned through the years to keep the aromatic white variety in favor of more popular varieties.

Though most of the fruit at Cold Creek Vineyard goes to Chateau Ste. Michelle and some of its sister wineries, a small amount also ends up in the hands of Mike Januik, owner of Januik Winery in Woodinville. Januik worked for Ste. Michelle as its head winemaker from 1990 to 1999, and he still buys a bit of Cold Creek fruit from his former bosses each year. This means he has made wine from this vineyard for 23 years, longer than any other winemaker in Washington.

Cold Creek Vineyard sustainability

Joe Cotta, vineyard manager at Cold Creek Vineyard, walks through the vines in Washington state.

Joe Cotta, Cold Creek Vineyard manager, walks through rows of vines. (Photo by Andy Perdue/Great Northwest Wine)

Cold Creek is sustainably farmed and is the largest Salmon-Safe certified vineyard in the state.

“That means we use sustainable, environmentally safe and socially acceptable control methods in managing the vineyard,” said Kevin Corliss, vice president of vineyards for Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “Some of our sustainable practices include reducing soil erosion through the planting of beneficial cover crops and using environmentally friendly methods of pest control. Our goal is to make sure this vineyard will thrive for decades to come.”

Corliss, who has been with the company for three decades, views Cold Creek as a personal journey.

“I have watched this site blossom into a world-class vineyard, and I think the best is yet to come.”

About Andy Perdue

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. He is a third-generation journalist who has worked at newspapers since the mid-1980s and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Eric Degerman and served as its editor-in-chief for 15 years. He is a frequent judge at international wine competitions. He is the author of "The Northwest Wine Guide: A Buyer's Handbook" (Sasquatch, 2003) and has contributed to four other books. He writes about wine for The Seattle Times. You can find him on Twitter and .

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