Ste. Michelle says she’s leaving town

Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville. Photo Richard Duval.

After nearly half a century in Woodinville, SMWE is making a run for greener pastures.

That’s Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the latest corporate umbrella for the Northwest’s largest wine company. ‘Twas in February, 1973, that Wally Opdycke (a business analyst for Safeco) and Joel Klein (winemaker from California) flew to Connecticut and convinced Louis Bantle (chairman of US Tobacco) that he should invest $150 million in an unproven venture: a winery in Washington State. But Bantle wrote the check, and, in the ensuing decades, Ste. Michelle was able to launch an entire industry.

Also during that time UST was acquired by Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris and Marlboro, and the inevitable shakeout took place last year: Altria sold SMWE to a private equity group named Sycamore Partners for the bargain price of $1.2 billion.

Now [drumroll], Sycamore is making its first big move, putting the 180-acre Woodinville property (the Chateau itself, the tasting room, the banquet facility, the barrel rooms, the gardens, and the amphitheater) up for sale. White wine production will be transferred back to eastern Washington.

No price mentioned in the announcement, but you have to wonder who might be interested. No other winery is big enough to make use of the property … unless it’s a developer smacking their lips over the prime piece of real estate.

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