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Interview: Joel Butler of Chateau Ste. Michelle

Chateau Ste Michelle

Being a native Washingtonian, Wine Mutineer Alan Kropf has a soft spot in his heart for the wines of the Evergreen State. Given the wines being produced, that soft spot has evolved to a constant craving. I had the opportunity to ask Joel Butler, the Director of Education and Master of Wine at Chateau Ste. Michelle, some questions about Washington wine.

Mutineer Magazine: Do you think Washington wines have a sense of place, i.e. a Washington Cabernet vs. a Napa Cabernet? If so, does this sense of place extend itself to the appellation level, i.e. does a Walla Walla Cabernet taste different than a Yakima Valley Cabernet in a way consistent enough to be recognized on a blind tasting level?

Joel Butler: Yes, in general that is, I think our Cabs reveal less “pruny” or jammy flavors and aromas, as well as a particular “herbal” or mineral aspect. Even when pretty ripe, they don’t usually come across as porty or jammy as many. That said, you would want to taste a number of wines from each place and have some experience of the differences before it will be more easily apparent. As for consistent distinctions between the various Washington AVA’s, the answer is also affirmative and certainly recognizable, particularly on the basis of tannin intensity/quality and fruit “sweetness”; e.g. the very firm, almost grittily austere tannins of Red Mtn. vs. the very fleshy, chocolatey sweetness and thicker tannins of Wahluke Slope or Cold Creek Vineyard. If you take our Cabernet Terroir seminar, or the NorthStar Merlot seminar, you can easily see dramatic differences.

MM: Do you think a single varietal will emerge that will define fine wines in Washington?

JB: No- we have several that define us now – Riesling, Cab, Merlot, and Syrah, all of which can /do make superior wines here. Our climates are overall consistent enough, depending on the AVA, to produce a wide range of fine wines; limiting an area to just one variety, either de facto or by law as in France, simply doesn’t make sense given what we can achieve across a range of varieties.

MM: What is the biggest challenge facing the Washington wine industry?

JB: Overcoming the tunnel vision of the US Wine Trade that allows California wines to monopolize both the volume and the qualitative metrics in our country. The Washington wine industry must focus on doing an even better job of revealing to American consumers, on and off premise, the quality and value of our wines relative to California. The industry here is almost at the critical mass level to achieve initial success in this endeavor. We are the second largest producing state, yet still dwarfed by California. When people think domestic, California is where they go, yet Washington does make, both a lot of fine wine, and value wine. More effort and money needs to be spent on the goal of making Washington wines more than just an asterisk on the butt of California! When people think Washington, they think Space Needle, salmon, rain, Boeing, and Microsoft. They need to also think immediately: great fine wine and great value wine as good as anything, if not better, than California or France!

MM: What has been the biggest challenge the Washington wine industry has overcome in recent years?

JB: The flip side of the previous question! We have finally gotten at least a certain percentage of the wine press and trade to realize that Washington is a “player”, in a limited way at least, especially for certain varieties like Riesling and Merlot, perhaps Syrah next. This took about twenty years to gain traction! Hopefully overcoming our current challenges can take less time.


  1. brian | Thursday, August 14, 2008

    i love their Riesling!

  2. SideDish » Blog Archive » Has Anybody Seen Bottle Shock? | Tuesday, August 19, 2008

    […] to “present a grand tasting of stellar wines presented by nationally acclaimed wine educator, Master of Wine Joel Butler, from 4:00-7:00pm.” I read the whole release for the Bottle Shock connection and found only […]

  3. Patricia Braddy | Saturday, February 28, 2009

    We know about the value wines but not the “fine” wines. Maybe Washington should start touring the U.S. with wine tasting which would include the finer ones.
    Moving to AR. two years ago from CA. (don’t ask!), we get a lot of cheap (value) wines from Washington but I can not name any fine wines that can be bought through any of our wine shops. In this 3rd world state we cannot legally purchase wines from the internet nor have wines shipped to our home. AR. has 3 alcohol distributors which supplies all the wine/liquor stores. If the distributor does not or chooses not to supply a specific wine then we can’t get it.
    My husband and I took about 20 wine tasting/appreciation classes from Joel Butler before he started working directly with wineries. He’s the best around and we trust his palate completely. So where’s the fine wines from Washington, Joel?

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