Ste. Michelle Wine Estates (SMWE), the largest winery in the Pacific Northwest and the third largest high-end winery in the United States, has announced changes to the winemaking teams at three of its largest wineries in the Northwest.

In the Château Ste. Michelle, founder of SMWE’s winery and flagship brand, Katie Nelson has been named Chief Winemaker. Nelson joined SMWE in 1999 and has since held various positions, most recently as winemaker at Columbia Crest. Nelson also had the opportunity to visit Charles Smith Wines.

Each winemaker brings a unique perspective and a different way of working, Nelson says. My goal is to continue producing good wines for Chateau Ste. Michelle, showing all the sights in Washington.

His appointment follows the announcement last month that winemaker Bob Berto would be leaving the company after 18 years. With Nelson, Washington’s most recognizable brand now has a female face.

I’m excited because I think the future of the wine industry in Washington State and the future of Stefan Michelle’s winery is looking female, and that’s great, says Juan Muñoz-Oca, head winemaker at SMWE.

Kathy Nelson, the new head winemaker of Château Ste. Michelle / photo by Kevin Kraff; images courtesy of Ste. Michelle Vineyards

With Nelson’s arrival at Château Ste. Michelle, Will Wiles became winemaker at Columbia Crest, the state’s largest winery, producing about 2 million cases a year. Wiles has worked for Stephan Michel since graduating from college in 2009, most recently as an assistant winemaker at Red Mountain’s Col Solare. Wiles will also lead the Elicit Wine project, SMWE’s innovation center.

We produce a diverse group of wines, and I look forward to refining those styles, says Wiles.

Finally, at Erath in the Willamette Valley, Leah Adint has been appointed winemaker. She will be working with Gary Horner, Senior Director of Winemaking. Adint, 34, was previously a winemaker at Château Ste. Michelle and has winemaking experience in Burgundy, the Russian River Valley and the Adelaide Hills.

I’m a Pinotphile, Adint said. In the Willamette Valley, just a few miles away, there is a big difference in the structure, style and taste of the wine. It will be a whole new world for me.

Adint and Wiles are both graduates of Washington State University’s viticulture and enology program. SMWE has invested heavily in this program with $9 million in direct and indirect contributions to the university’s Wine Science Center, which opened in 2015 and is named after Stephane Michel.

It’s what we’ve all dreamed of – a place to train and produce the best winemakers in the world, who understand our terroir like no other, says Ryan Pennington, senior director of communications and corporate relations at SMWE, about graduate appointments at the university.

The winemaker’s announcements come at a time of transition for SMWE, which appointed a new CEO in late 2020, its second since 2018, when Jim Mortensen took over from longtime CEO Ted Baseler. During his tenure, Mortensen restructured the company and emphasized innovation before choosing David Dary as his successor.

SMWE, a subsidiary of tobacco giant Altria, also announced a $292 million stock write-down for 2020, calling it a strategic reset. Like the industry as a whole, the company is facing headwinds: wine consumption will decline in 2019 for the first time in 25 years, and demographics are affected by the growing importance of millennials and Generation Z.

Published on 23. March 2021

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