Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), the largest winery in the Pacific Northwest and third-largest premium winery in the United States, has announced changes to the winemaking teams at its three most prominent Northwest wineries.
At Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s founding winery and SMWE’s flagship brand, Katie Nelson has been named head winemaker. Nelson first joined SMWE in 1999 and has worked in various capacities since that time, most recently as winemaker for Columbia Crest. Nelson also had a stint at Charles Smith Wines.
“Every winemaker brings a unique perspective and a different way of doing things,” says Nelson. “My goal is to continue making great wines for Chateau Ste. Michelle that showcase each site and place within Washington.”
Her appointment follows the news last month that winemaker Bob Bertheau would be leaving the company after 18 years. In Nelson, Washington’s most recognizable brand will now have a female face.
“I’m delighted because I think the future of the Washington wine industry and the future of Ste. Michelle winemaking looks female, which is amazing,” says Juan Muñoz-Oca, chief winemaker at SMWE.
With Nelson joining Chateau Ste. Michelle, Will Wiles has become winemaker at Columbia Crest, the state’s largest winery that produces approximately 2 million cases annually. Wiles has worked for Ste. Michelle since graduating college in 2009, most recently as assistant winemaker at Red Mountain’s Col Solare. Wiles will also oversee Elicit Wine Project, SMWE’s innovation hub.
“It’s a diverse group of wines that we make, and I’m looking forward to honing those styles,” says Wiles.
Finally, at Erath in Willamette Valley, Leah Adint has been named winemaker. She will work alongside longtime Senior Director of Winemaking Gary Horner. The 34-year old Adint was previously red winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, and has prior experience making wine in Burgundy, Russian River Valley and Adelaide Hills.
“I’m a Pinotphile,” says Adint. “In Willamette Valley, a few miles down the road there’s a huge difference in the structure, style and flavor of the wine. It’s going to be a whole new world for me.”
Both Adint and Wiles are graduates of Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program. SMWE has invested heavily in this program, giving $9 million in direct and indirect contributions to construct the university’s Wine Science Center, which opened in 2015 and bears Ste. Michelle’s name.
“This is what we’ve all dreamed of—a place where we can train and churn out the best winemakers in the world, who understand our terroir like nobody else,” says Ryan Pennington, SMWE senior director of communications and corporate affairs, of the appointment of the university’s graduates.
The winemaker announcements come at a time of transition for SMWE, which named a new CEO in late 2020, the second since 2018 when Jim Mortensen took the reins from longtime CEO Ted Baseler. During his tenure, Mortensen restructured the company and put a focus on innovation before handpicking David Dearie as his successor.
SMWE, which is a subsidiary of tobacco giant Altria, also announced a $292 million inventory write-off in 2020, in what it termed a “strategic reset.” Reflective of the industry more broadly, the company has been grappling with market headwinds, like wine consumption decreasing in 2019 for the first time in 25 years, and the changing demographics represented by the rise in prominence of Millennial and Gen Z consumers.