This Washington Wine Region is Becoming a ‘World Class Tourism Destination’

The grand opening of Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1976 / Photo courtesy of Chateau Ste. Michelle

As a wine region, Woodinville is full of contradictions. While the town itself has a rich agrarian history, whatever grapevines exist are purely decorative. Almost all of the state’s grapes are grown at least 100 miles to the east.

With a population of 13,000, Woodinville has an appealing, small-town feel, yet downtown Seattle lies only 20 miles away. It’s home to more than 130 wineries and tasting rooms, by far the most of any region in the state outside eastern Washington’s Walla Walla Valley. Many of them are situated curiously in industrial parks and strip malls, while others are in French-style chateaus.

Woodinville’s juxtapositions have always been part of its charm, however. It’s a unique, ever-changing wine region. Its latest evolution is underway.

Chateau Ste. Michelle
Chateau Ste. Michelle / Photo by Richard Duval

From unlikely beginnings

The town’s vinous origin story starts in 1973, when Ste. Michelle Vintners (as it was called then) looked to relocate from its Seattle home. The winery’s parent company purchased the Woodinville estate of a long-deceased lumber baron, Frederick Stimson. It built a French-style chateau and rebranded as Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1976, Woodinville’s first winery.

“It was an immediate success,” says Bob Betz, MW. He served as director of public relations when the chateau opened and had a 28-year career there, in various roles, before he left to focus on Betz Family Winery. “The winery itself, the physical structure, was in the news. And almost out of the chute, we were jammed every day.”

A smattering of other wineries soon joined. One was Columbia Winery. It opened in 1988, also with a lavish building. Another was DeLille Cellars, which became Woodinville’s fifth winery in 1992. There were multiple reasons why DeLille planted its roots in Woodinville, says cofounder Jay Soloff.

“One, one of our partners owned property there,” he says. “Two, Chateau Ste. Michelle in those days was bringing 250,000 visitors a year. We thought, ‘We should be near this place.’ ”

A photo of DeLille Cellars at night
DeLille Cellars / Photo by Richard Duval

Warehouses to wineries

While much of Woodinville remains a mixture of woodlands and farms nestled into the Sammamish Valley, the north side of town stands in contrast. There, warehouse buildings in office parks dominate, a remnant of the area’s manufacturing past. Where some might have seen post-industrial blight, aspiring winemakers saw opportunity.

“It was what was available,” says Mark McNeilly of his decision to open Mark Ryan Winery in the warehouse area in 2003. No doubt price played a factor, as it does now.

“There’s a great sense of community. Everybody is a little bit scrappy.” —Mari Womack, Damsel Cellars

“To be plain, the warehouse was an affordable option,” says Chris Sparkman, who started Sparkman Cellars next door to Mark Ryan in 2005.

More wineries began to open in what’s now called the Warehouse District. They took advantage of its low overhead and roll-top doors, which helped the forklifts unload grape bins trucked in from eastern Washington. The wineries bonded quickly and committed to each other’s success.

“There’s a great sense of community,” says Mari Womack, owner and winemaker at Damsel Cellars.

“Everybody is a little bit scrappy. People share equipment. That environment really facilitates creativity and innovation.”

For wine lovers, these warehouse wineries offered a gritty, garagiste vibe in contrast to Ste. Michelle’s chateau and manicured lawn.

Mark Ryan Winery
Mark Ryan Winery / Photo by Richard Duval

“It’s such an interesting counterpoint, where you have these two extremes,” says Womack. She believes that warehouse wineries have an additional draw, as they are almost all are small, family-run operations.

“Most of the time, if you’re walking around tasting in the warehouse area, you are very likely going to meet the winemaker,” she says. “I think that’s a really unique and kind of exciting prospect.”

Today, the Warehouse District is packed to the brim with wineries and tasting rooms. Consumers can walk from one to the next, with food trucks parked along the way on weekends.

“In the warehouse part that we were in, we were one of four [wineries],” says Sparkman. “Now there’s about 40 in there I think, maybe more.”

Chris Sparkman, who started Sparkman Cellars in 2005
Chris Sparkman, who started Sparkman Cellars in 2005 / Photo by Richard Duval

Hollywood Comes to Woodinville

In the late 2000s, the region near Ste. Michelle was redeveloped. Long called the Hollywood Schoolhouse area, named for the holly trees that line the original Stimson property and the former schoolhouse that stands there, the area became home to numerous tasting rooms and restaurants.

This offered a somewhat upscale experience to the warehouse wineries, albeit in a strip mall setting. A number of Warehouse District wineries opened second tasting rooms in the Hollywood area.

“We ran two tasting rooms on weekends concurrently, only three miles apart,” says Sparkman. “The warehouse attracted the locals, and the Hollywood tasting room area, which is much closer to Chateau Ste. Michelle, drew a lot more folks from out of town.”

Founder John Bigelow giving a tour of JM Cellars
Founder John Bigelow giving a tour of JM Cellars / Photo by Richard Duval

Meanwhile, some older wineries began to outgrow Woodinville.

“As good as our current warehouse was, because of its small space, it was very limiting as well,” says McNeilly. He relocated production to a 12,000 square-foot space in nearby Kirkland before ultimately moving it to Walla Walla.

“I didn’t want to leave, but we had to,” says McNeilly. “I could not find that [space] in Woodinville.”

Some wineries began eschewing Woodinville for urban areas of Seattle. Others looked to nearby towns.

“I looked in Woodinville, and there really wasn’t anything,” says John Bigelow, who founded JM Cellars in Woodinville in 1998. “Number one, it was really expensive per square foot for any warehouse space that would fit, and the minimum was probably 10,000 square feet. I just didn’t need that much space at the time.”

Bigelow and five other Woodinville wineries relocated production to nearby Maltby, where they moved into new facilities that offered substantially more space.

“I could never turn a forklift inside any [warehouse] facility I was ever in,” says Chris Gorman, of Gorman Winery, which opened its Maltby facility in 2019. “It was always like the Austin Powers 30-point turn he did in the hallway with the golf cart. That is Woodinville. Now I can drive a forklift in circles.”

John Bigelow of JM Cellars
John Bigelow of JM Cellars / Photo by Richard Duval

Woodinville Comes of Age

It seemed that Woodinville might become a victim of its own success, but some businesses doubled down and worked to create new experiences and spaces. Matthews Winery, founded in 1992, established a two-acre farm on its property and began offering farm-to-table dinners.

“It’s not just the wine quality. It’s also the experience we provide.” —Tom Dugan, DeLille Cellars

“What’s special about being here?” asks Matthews proprietor Bryan Otis. “It’s a uniquely rich, soil-driven community that loves to farm and loves to grow things out of the ground.” Ownership decided to combine that with its wines.

“If you talk to people about their favorite wine experiences, 99% involve their favorite people and their favorite food,” says Otis. “It was just a way of incubating those experiences.”

Meanwhile, others took advantage of Red Hook Brewery vacating its space near Columbia and Ste. Michelle. In 2019, after an extensive renovation, DeLille Cellars opened an expansive, three-story tasting room and production center there. Complete with a roof deck that looks onto Mount Rainier, it raised the bar for the local tasting experience.

An outdoor tasting at Matthews Winery
An outdoor tasting at Matthews Winery / Photo by Andrea Johnson

“It’s not just the wine quality [that draws customers],” says DeLille CEO Tom Dugan. “It’s also the experience we provide. We wanted to make sure we could provide a great experience.”

In another part of the old brewery, Sparkman Cellars opened a tasting room and production facility last fall. Sparkman built out several event spaces that can accommodate anywhere from six to 1,000 people.

“My wife and I said, ‘There’s not another one of these, and either we do it, or we watch someone else do it,’ ” says Sparkman.

Other changes have taken place or are in the works. Chateau Ste. Michelle completed a sweeping remodel of its tasting facility in 2017. More buildings are being developed at the Red Hook property and elsewhere, which promise additional tasting room and restaurant spaces.

The most ambitious of them is Farmstead.

Long planned, with several fits and starts, it’s slated to include retail space for at least 15 wineries as well as space for restaurants, a bakery, coffee shop, luxury hotel and hundreds of residential units. The project, now estimated to be completed in 2023, will also provide ample parking, which is at a premium in the area.

“It will be a game changer. There’s no question about it,” says Jim Tosti, part of the Farmstead ownership group. “It will have a huge impact on the tourist industry in Woodinville.”

Mari Womack, owner and winemaker at Damsel Cellars
Mari Womack, owner and winemaker at Damsel Cellars / Photo by Richard Duval

Uniquely Woodinville

Despite its contradictions, Woodinville’s recipe for success is relatively simple: great wine and a great location.

“We are closer to Seattle than Napa is to San Francisco,” says Ryan Pennington, senior director of communications and corporate affairs at Chateau Ste. Michelle. “That’s a huge, huge advantage.”

Chris Gorman, of Gorman Winery
Chris Gorman, of Gorman Winery / Photo by Richard Duval

Ste. Michelle was originally the draw that other wineries leveraged. They still do. But in addition to scores of local wineries, numerous eastern Washington-based producers have opened satellite tasting rooms in Woodinville, their eyes trained on Seattle’s massive consumer base.

“You can come here and taste wines from every growing region within the state without even getting back in your car,” says Pennington. “That’s pretty unique.”

All of this contributes to Woodinville’s distinctive vibe.

“You still feel like you’re in a small town, yet you’re close to everything,” says Woodinville Mayor Elaine Cook. “[Woodinville] has a unique quirkiness to it.”

As a wine region, Woodinville continues to change, moving toward its potential.

“It’s been an evolution,” says Pennington. “The Chateau and other early wineries were the first chapter in Woodinville, the warehouse wineries the second. Now we’re growing up and becoming a true, world class tourism destination.”

Published on March 25, 2021