U.S. wine estate Chateau Ste. Michelle continues to evolve while also cementing its position as one of the largest wine companies in the nation. The wine giant, known for its Chateau Ste. Michelle and 14 Hands brand of wines, was sold to Sycamore Partners in late 2021 by its previous parent company Altria.
With this sale came big changes for the future of the 69 year-old estate: The brand put its iconic Woodinville headquarters up for sale, allowing the company to shift priorities in where it makes much of its wine, and it just announced that Marchesi Antinori will buy out Ste. Michelle’s interest in Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars in California. The brand continues to buy up new and successful wine brands like Oregon-based A to Z and Rex Hill, making Ste. Michelle the largest wine producer in both Oregon and Washington. The brand is also fostering new national partnerships — including a multi-year deal with Live Nation to supply wine at concerts nationwide — all while focusing on Washington as its long-term home and investing in the state’s wine growing future.
Ste. Michelle has also brought on new talent to reflect the company’s plans for growth. One of these hires was Toby Whitmoyer, who serves as the president of the company’s Washington business unit. Whitmoyer joined Ste. Michelle in February of 2022 after serving as global marketing and innovation officer with Barcardi Limited in London.
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We spoke with Whitmoyer about Ste. Michelle’s next steps, as well as its commitment to Washington and the Pacific Northwest.
1. A lot of changes came about after the sale of Ste. Michelle to Sycamore Partners just two years ago. Are you still focused on Washington as a home base?
If people step back, they’ll see what we’re doing is really investing in the company. Our leadership in Washington is really the bedrock of the company, so this is our home and we’re not going anywhere. Strengthening both the category and our role in it is incredibly important to us. We’re fortunate to own some great brands in Oregon and the same in California, and we have partnerships with Antinori, Dr. Loosen, and others. But we’re a Washington company, and we want to be a big player in the Pacific Northwest. I’m happy that we’re now an independent, stand-alone company. And since the sale, we’ve [had]a lot of changes, including a change in route-to-market by going all in with Southern Glazer distributors and the 36 states they’re active in.
2. The brand is also selling the iconic Woodinville Chateau itself. Why now?
We’ve been producing wine in the Chateau since 1976, but it just isn’t financially or environmentally responsible to be trucking grapes back and forth across the mountains. We would bring the grapes over [to the Chateau], produce and bottle the wine, then ship it back over the mountains for distribution. Once we made that change, we had enormous space open at the Chateau, and we’re now making our wines closer to the vineyards where they’re grown. We have 110 acres [in Woodinville], and 60 of those are zoned for residential [use], which we can’t use. The responsible thing for the community is to get that property to a better use. But we are still here in Woodinville, and this is still headquarters for us.
3. How did the new partnership with Live Nation come about?
We’ve [already] been associated with Live Nation in a smaller way since they’ve helped with the Chateau’s concert bookings. Given our 39 year history of throwing great concerts here at the Chateau and knowing that music is such a passion point for all generations — particularly younger generations — a live music and great wine experience makes a lot of sense. It’s a nationwide, multi-year agreement that encompasses digital marketing, ecommerce, social media, and official wine sponsorship at 78 of Live Nation’s venues.
4. Live Nation caters to a wide demographic, of course, but certainly they have a strong appeal to younger LDA drinkers who frequent live shows. Was that part of the decision to create this partnership?
A large part of the intent is to give us a shared point on that. The data definitely shows that people, particularly young people, are much more open to experiences and willing to spend money on quality drinks and food. In that way, concerts have changed a lot in the last 20 or 30 years, where now you’re making that investment in time and energy, you want a great glass of wine, and a great meal — really to have good quality. With our brands, and the focus on live entertainment, we definitely want that to be part of our efforts.
5. In 2015, the Wine Science Center at Washington State University opened with a large financial commitment from Ste. Michelle and the company’s name on the building. Is that still a focus for the company?
It’s still very much a focus, yes. If you go back in history, Chateau Ste. Michelle was the genesis of bringing vinifera wines to Washington, so we’ve been engaged in this from the beginning. It’s not really about finding new vineyards, but focusing on what makes Washington so special and so we’re very much invested in the Wine Science Center and in the future of Washington wine. We take that responsibility quite seriously, and we want to continue that commitment.
6. How do you see Ste. Michelle’s role in the continuing growth of the number two wine producer in the United States?
Washington is only 10 percent of the size of California. I do think we need to be smart about how we develop the Washington category. We’re not the lowest cost producer, and it’s not about delivering millions of more cases of wine. It’s about delivering wines at a more premium price, because that’s the kind of wines we produce, so there is a balance between vineyard expansion and lower yields for creating better wines. The Wine Science Center is a really important part of growing our brands. I’m hoping to see Washington brands grow bigger, because that helps all of us. We see ourselves as the founding winery, and the largest here, and we want to grow the whole Washington wine category.
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