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Great Northwest Destination Wineries: Columbia Crest
Editor’s note: This is the 13th in an occasional series on destination wineries of the Pacific Northwest.
PATERSON, Wash. – What started out as Chateau Ste. Michelle’s River Ridge facility became one of the most recognized wineries in the United States.
For three decades, it’s been known as Columbia Crest, home to the Pacific Northwest’s largest winemaking facility and, for at least one year, the world’s best wine.
In 1978, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates recognized the potential of the Horse Heaven Hills as a wine region and began the most intense planting schedule in Washington’s modern wine history, with hundreds of acres of vineyards going into the ground.
The winery, designed by Seattle’s Howard S. Wright as a French country manor house, opened to the public in June 1983 and represented an astonishing $26 million investment in the nascent Washington wine industry.
This was a remarkable leap of faith for U.S. Tobacco of Connecticut, which bought Ste. Michelle in the early 1970s and built the company’s chateau in the King County community of Woodinville. But building a grand winery near Seattle is one thing; creating Columbia Crest in the middle of nowhere was something entirely different.
Yet as always, Ste. Michelle had a vision for the future and created a true destination winery with Columbia Crest.
Early wines at Columbia Crest
Columbia Crest’s first wine, the 1984 Vineyard Reserve White, was released in 1985. It was an off-dry blend of Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat Canelli crafted by head winemaker Doug Gore.
By 1988, the first varietal red wines – Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – were released from the 1984 vintage.
Since the beginning, Columbia Crest was envisioned as a winery that produced value-minded wines, and it has stayed that course through the years. In 1990, Wine Advocate, the newsletter started by famed wine critic Robert Parker, named Columbia Crest one of the world’s 24 best value wineries.
In 1997, two Columbia Crest wines – the 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1995 Estate Series Chardonnay – made Wine Spectator’s top 100 list. And in 2002, Wine Press Northwest magazine named Columbia Crest its inaugural Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.
Columbia Crest evolves with new winemakers
In 1993, Columbia Crest managed to recruit Ray Einberger to Washington as Gore’s assistant winemaker. The two had grown up 20 minutes away from each other in California but never met until Gore attended an industry event at famed Opus One in Napa Valley, where Einberger was on the winemaking team.
“He was a talented guy who brought with him really, really good winemaking skills,” Gore said. “Between the two of us, we had a good sharing of ideas and thoughts and discussions and arguments. It made for really good winemaking at Crest.”
A decade after he arrived, Einberger was promoted to head winemaker after Ste. Michelle elevated Gore to an executive overseeing the entire company’s winemaking and viticultural operations.
It was a move that led to one of Washington’s most-talked-about wines.
In 2009, Wine Spectator unveiled its annual top 100 wines of the year. At No. 1 was Columbia Crest’s 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, a $25 wine. This shocked the wine world and focused unprecedented attention on the Washington wine industry.
Ironically, Einberger didn’t even think it was his best wine that year; he gave that nod to the 2005 Walter Clore Private Reserve, a Bordeaux-style blend named after the father of Washington wine.
By 2011, Einberger was promoted to a new position of in-house wine consultant, and he worked with the company’s ultra-premium labels until he retired this spring.
That opened the door for Juan Muñoz-Oca to be promoted to head winemaker. The Argentine native joined the company in 2001 as an intern, then returned in 2003 for a full-time job. He was part of the red winemaking team, including work on that legendary 2005 Reserve Cab. He now oversees production for several brands, including Columbia Crest, 14 Hands, Snoqualmie Winery, Two Vines, Red Diamond and O Wines.
Making of a destination
Even in its early years when the Washington wine industry was barely viable, Chateau Ste. Michelle drew more than 200,000 visitors annually – thanks to its location near Seattle. Columbia Crest will never have that kind of draw, regardless of how great its wines are.
On an average year, Columbia Crest welcomes perhaps 30,000 visitors per year – a remarkable number considering its remote location. Thanks to a growing interest in the Columbia Gorge as a wine-touring destination, that will likely improve, even though Maryhill Winery is a full hour to the west.
Columbia Crest plays host to several events annually, including car shows. Free guided tours are offered every weekend, and self-guided tours are available daily. The winery staff also offers a wine-and-food-pairing experience on selected weekends throughout the year. The experience lasts about 45 minutes and costs $25 ($15 for wine club members).
During spring, summer and fall, Columbia Crest’s beautifully manicured grounds are perfect for a picnic. However, be sure to bring your own food, as the only nearby restaurant is a greasy spoon down the road.
Amenities at Columbia Crest
- Gift shop
- Picnic area
- Food for sale, such as cheese
- RV parking and camping
Nearby restaurants and accommodations
The nearest restaurants and accommodations are about 30 miles to the north in Prosser or 35 miles to the northeast in the Tri-Cities.
Columbia Crest directions, contact information and hours
Columbia Crest is on Highway 221 just north of the community of Paterson, Wash., a couple of minutes from Highway 14.
From Portland, take Interstate 84 east. Cross the Columbia River north on Highway 97 at Biggs, Ore. Head east on Highway 14 for about 70 miles and turn left onto Highway 221. The winery entrance is to the left.
Hours: Open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily.