By contributing writer Joe Roberts
Few U.S. winemaking brands are household names, but Chateau Ste. Michelle certainly qualifies. This Washington state producer boasts one of the largest and most awarded lineup of wines in the Pacific Northwest.
In this winemaker interview, we chat with Raymon McKee, one of Chateau Ste. Michelle’s winemakers, who was trained as a chemist and now oversees red wine production at the celebrated company. McKee has longstanding ties to the Washington state wine scene and fills us in on what makes Washington such an exciting wine destination, how he tries to emphasize the state’s unique vineyard areas in his winemaking, and when he most wants a beer rather than a glass of vino.
You’re someone with long ties to the WA wine industry. What do you think is the most exciting thing about WA state wine right now?
I have seen wine lovers’ knowledge, appreciation, and passion for Washington wines grow so much, I am really excited for our near future. I have been blessed to be a part of the Washington wine industry since my parents moved here in 1986 to begin their wine journey by starting Tefft Cellars (I was 14 at the time and would never have believed I would be a winemaker myself!). When I began my career in earnest during Harvest 1994 as a cellarhand and lab assistant, there were quite a few wineries, less than 80 perhaps, and now we have grown to over 700 wineries.
Consumer knowledge of Washington has increased right along with the number of wineries, vineyard plantings, and AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), but it was a slow and steady process, which ensured that the quality of all of Washington’s wines was great. So through those years, there was (and still is) a sense of an impending explosion of the demand for Washington wines, and I am excited that the moment is closer than ever before.
Do you and the winemaking team have a particular consumer in mind when crafting wines for Chateau Ste. Michelle?
To me, one of the most important qualities in a wine is that it speaks of where it was grown. We want the sense of place to show clearly from the grape through to the wine. Our Washington grapes ripen at moderate to low cropload, which is an important aspect of getting the sense of place. At Chateau Ste. Michelle, we make each lot of wine to be itself (it’s best self), and we ferment each vineyard block separate in small fermentation tanks. Because of this, our wines end up being uniquely ‘Washington State’ when we create the final blends.
You were a Chemistry major at Gonzaga; how has that background helped you in crafting wine?
Chemistry has helped me immensely with crafting wine, by keeping me grounded in the scientific method. Continually asking questions about wines and fermentation, testing hypothesis and ideas (in an anecdotal way, mind you, this isn’t a research winery, ha-ha), learning from failure and success, and repeating through these many vintages has given me a lot of knowledge about the artistry of making wines. Yes, I just mixed art and science! Wine is the artistic expression of the grape, and there is real mystery and awesomeness that occurs during that transformation.
You’ve said that there are at least a hundred decisions to make when crafting wine; which decision(s) do you think is (are) the most critical for fine wine?
The three most important things that a winemaker does are: picking the grapes at optimal ripeness, making grapes into wine, and the blending process. Of these, tasting grapes during ripening and determining the best picking time is one of the most critical to the finished wine.
Grapes comprise the majority of what a wine becomes; a winemaker’s input, such as yeast and barrels, are minor in comparison. Picking at the right time ensures that the raw material of the wine is of the highest quality and can yield the best wine possible. I believe that if I capture all of the grape’s potential, a great wine will be made, but I cannot make a wine into more than what the grape has inside.
What do you drink (or not drink!) to unwind after a difficult or particularly long day?
Wine of course. I may make wine, but when I am at home, I am a wine lover. The discovery of wines and regions will never get old. That being said, in the middle of Harvest, when I am tasting wine and grapes most of the daylight hours….beer please!
What wines and/or wine regions have you most excited as a wine lover right now? If you could make wine anywhere but WA, where would that be?
I have been really enjoying Syrah, Grenache, and Rhone blends from France. I would love to make either Sauvignon Blanc in the Loire Valley of France or Brunello di Montalcino in Italy.
Any thoughts on the Wine4.Me app, and how it might help wine consumers?
I can see how Wine4.Me can help both new wine consumers and dedicated wine lovers to search through the vast selection for those wines which match their taste profile. Perhaps like a personal sommelier.
Chateau Ste. Michelle Wines in the Wine4.Me App
- Indian Wells Cabernet Sauvignon
- Canoe Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- Cold Creek Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
- Columbia Valley Chardonnay
- Indian Wells Chardonnay
- Cold Creek Vineyard Chardonnay
- Columbia Valley Gewurztraminer
- Indian Wells Merlot
- Canoe Ridge Estate Merlot
- Columbia Valley Riesling
- Eroica Riesling
- Horse Haven Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc
If you want to know which wines YOU will like best, download the FREE iPhone app Wine4.Me. Tell it what wines you know you like and get your own personalized rankings of best-selling, widely available wines in the US.
Joe Roberts is a writer in the greater Philadelphia area. His work has appeared in Playboy.com, Answers.com, PalatePress.com, Publix Grape Magazine, The Guardian, and Parade. He holds the Level 2 and Level 3 Certificates in Wine & Spirits from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in England, the Certified Specialist of Wine certification through the Society of Wine Educators. Roberts was included among the top fifteen entries in IntoWine.com’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the U.S. Wine Industry for 2013, and his website received the Wine Blog Awards honor for Best Wine Blog in 2010. Follow him on Twitter at @1winedude.