One of the legends of Washington wine, Allen Shoup is the former CEO of Chateau Ste. Michelle who founded one of the great wine projects in North America, Long Shadows Vintners. Allen was an innovator at Chateau Ste. Michelle. During his illustrious career there he held 70% or more market share for Ste. Michelle which is a remarkable feat. Allen is a delightful person to chat wine with and I think you will really love hearing more about his illustrious career in the Washington Wine Industry. Here is my exclusive interview with Allen Shoup, Founder of Long Shadows Vintners.
WWB: How did you decide to come to Chateau Ste. Michelle?
AS: When I came to Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1980, the company was facing multiple problems. In 1979, a newly planted, 2,000 acre, vineyard froze through the root zone and had to be replanted. That left only about 1,500 acres throughout the state and most of the vines were damaged and had low yields. Our company bought about 80% of all grapes in the state so we went backwards in our growth plan. When the fine wine industry started commercially in Washington in 1967, its reputation was centered around White Riesling. Riesling was one product brand and almost all of it was sold locally, and it wasn’t very popular anywhere else. The rest of the country wanted Chardonnay, and Cabernet, of which we had very little. So we had to pay growers to pull out Riesling and plant these other varieties with high priced, long term contracts. The biggest problem was that we didn’t have a true wine industry. Thus, we didn’t have any awareness of our product outside of the state. We had to build an industry and build national awareness. We had to introduce other varieties and convince people that we made good red wines as well as white wines. We were owned by US Tobacco, and this was a very wealthy company that was willing to put incredible money into this venture. To put that in perspective, when I started there were very few wineries in the state and we dominated the market from day one. During my 20 year career with Ste. Michelle, we never had less than a 70% of the market share. We had to build an industry, and we would pay for wine writers to visit and tell our story. At Ste. Michelle, we promoted all other wineries that were making good products; we also knew that one winery doesn’t make for a serious viticulture region. Today there are over 1000 wineries in WA and over 65000 acres of vinifera vineyards representing almost a tenth of the domestic production. Ste Michelle pulled the plow but what really contributed most to the success was a bit of luck. We always knew we could make good wines but the real success came from the fact that Washington can grow the world class grapes needed to make world class wines, but in 1980 we just didn’t know this.
WWB: What were some of the challenges at Ste. Michelle with creating so many good wines that offered incredible value for the consumer in an unprecedented fashion?
AS: Controlling price and balancing profit and growth and supply was difficult but there are enough margins in wine that you can do this as long grape prices don’t go wild. We had lots of land suitable for quality grapes so that kept everything in balance over the long run. Also my marketing philosophy came from when I was working in the branding department for Ernest Gallo. Whatever brands you had were discussed in the meeting. You would bring in the competitor’s brands. We would blind taste the wines and if the Gallo brand wasn’t as better than the higher price competitors Ernest would get the message to Julio whom ran winemaking and they adjust the blend to improve it. That was his philosophy. We did a lot of blind tastings at Ste. Michelle and would blind taste against our best competitors. My goal was to see Ste. Michelle evolve into a winery which had a stellar reputation for producing great wines like Mondavi and I wanted Columbia Crest (our largest winery) to become like Beringer. Actually at the end of my career, I was working on merging us with both South Corp (biggest Australian wine group… Penfolds, etc) and Beringer,, but unfortunately for them that didn’t work out and both ended up as part of a beer group.
WWB: The vision behind Long Shadows Vintners is just incredible and pioneering not only in the world of Washington wine but in new world wine itself. How did you decide to create Long Shadows Vintners?
AS: It really didn’t take me a long time to figure this out, because when I was at Ste. Michelle I became close friends with Bob Mondavi. I thought the joint venture with Baron Rothchild that created Opus One was brilliant. It was the beginning of making California wines accepted on the east coast. So I knew that I needed to do something like that for Ste. Michelle, and I unfortunately got caught up with working on a joint venture with Bordeaux. There were too many French lawyers involved and they wanted too many sacrifices on our part. That never came together but that led to me getting to know Pierre Antinori quite well. There was a discussion about starting a winery, and he brought his winemaker over to Washington. We went out to the vineyards, and at that point in time in the 1990s we had about 50,000 barrels of red wine at various locations and we tasted extensively. That started Col Solare. Then later Ernie Loosen came to me to discuss a Riesling joint venture and that led to Eroica.
After 20 years at Ste. Michelle I wanted to start my. own winery, so why not start more than one and use the Opus One model for each one of them? The idea was to have someone who excels with each particular grape. I met Michel Rolland very early in my career. Michel and I stayed friends and he became a good choice. Agustin Huneeus Sr. was a friend and so was Randy Dunn. We had Syrah and we knew we had to find someone for Syrah and the most famous Syrah in the world was Grange. It just so happened that the winemaker, John Duval, retired to start his own winery. I had met him briefly when I was over there to discuss the Beringer/South Corp/ Ste Michelle merger. So I connected with him and offered him this opportunity, and he came over and loved it so that became our Sequel. Piero Antinori introduced me to the Folonari family who becomes our partners for Saggi. Ernie Loosen introduced me to Armin Diel who became our partner in Poet’s Leap. I have since bought out the Folonari and Diel shares.
WWB: What led you to hire Gilles NIcault to be your primary winemaker?
AS: That is an interesting story. As we started construction at the winery in Walla Walla and five of the six of our Long Shadows winemakers flew over, on the way back we tried to figure out who was going to be the winemaker, sitting at the feet of these great winemakers. I was hoping that the right person will come to us. A week later Giles Nicault called and the rest was history.
WWB: Your Julia’s Dazzle Rosé and Poet’s Leap Riesling both are some of the top wines of their kind in Washington. How are you able to craft such exceptional wines and keep the prices so low?
AS: We were one of the first to really focus on Rosé in our state. Early on we had made great Rosé wine for Ste. Michelle which was discontinued when people stopped drinking Rosé, but I always believed that Rosé would have a renaissance. In reality, at an outdoor event on a warm day, there is no better product. It is very user-friendly. The serious wine drinker may not like a lot of styles but they will love a dry Rosé. We wanted to make a splash and have a special package. We used Pinot Gris which was different and that made it more flavorful. Pinot Gris turns pink when you ripen it enough.
Ernie Loosen taught us that we could make great Riesling. Ernie came over and was really involved right down to how we ferment and crop the wine. We made Eroica and in the first year we made it we sold over 20,000 cases at $20 a bottle and until that time Washington had never sold a Riesling for over $10 a bottle. Loosen and I also thought there would be a renaissance in Riesling. And so we used a combination of his techniques and Armin’s techniques and treated the grape as we would treat the Cabernet grapes. We did a lot of gentle fermentation and extra things to make a beautiful bottle of wine, which is a balancing act with residual sugar, acid and fruit. You don’t want it too fruity or too acidic but good amounts of both.
WWB: What are some of your favorite wines of the world? What is your wine cellar like?
AS: I have a very large cellar and it is probably 50% dominated by wines that I have made including wines that go back into the Ste. Michelle days. Two years ago, Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steinman was here at our house and I opened up a 1976 Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon and he thought it was one of the best wine he had tasted in a long time. It was over 35 years old which shows the aging potential of Washington wines. So my cellar also has a lot of aged single bottles which were given as gifts or left over from cases bought over the years. I used to have a huge amount of First Growths from the ‘80s and had a dinner party here at my house some ten years back when Margaux was commanding huge prices. The first two bottles of Margaux I bought were corked and I sold all of my so the four bottles I ended up opening probably had $10,000 in value (I’m sure I never paid more than $100 per bottle when I bought at release). Worse, those wines were hard to tell from a great bottle of American wine. . . needless to say I sold all of my First Growth wines.
I have a 1943 of Chateau Pichon Lalande (my birth year) which was given to me when I was there. These were difficult to make during World War II, and there is a great story behind making wines during the war. They only made a few cases of that wine. I have one of the first vintage of Bob Mondavi’s wine, a 1976 signed by him. That is probably the most special wine that I own. I have verticals from of many of the winemakers that I have worked with, verticals of Georges de Latour, all signed by Andrée Tchelistcheff (Ste. Michelle consultant for 30 years and a great friend), also Randy Dunn’s wine as well as Quintessa. What I don’t have but would love to have is 20 cases of great red Burgundies because I love those wines. I love them but the great ones are too expensive The one wine I have never had is Domaine Romanée Conti. I also love Russian River Pinot Noir, which is a better value Burgundy.