Food & Drink

Celebrated Ste. Michelle winemaker retires -- for now

One of Washington's most successful and celebrated winemakers is calling it a career -- at least for the moment.

Ray Einberger, whose Columbia Crest 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon was ranked No. 1 in the world by Wine Spectator magazine, is retiring from Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. His last day with the company is today.

Einberger, 62, met Doug Gore, head winemaker of Columbia Crest, in 1993 and expressed an interest in moving to Washington to make wine in what he viewed as a great place to produce Cabernet Sauvignon -- and make his mark.

Gore hired him as Columbia Crest's first assistant winemaker that same year.

"He was a talented guy who brought with him really, really good winemaking skills," Gore said. "Between the two of us, we had a good sharing of ideas and thoughts and discussions and arguments. It made for really good winemaking at Crest."

During his time at the winery, Einberger earned the nickname "Sugar Ray" because of his inclination to let grapes hang on the vines a little longer and accumulate a little more ripeness.

Within a decade, Gore was promoted to executive vice president, overseeing winemaking and viticulture, and Einberger took the helm at Columbia Crest.

Einberger led a team of talented winemakers who included Keith Kenison (now head winemaker for 14 Hands), Marcus Notaro (who went to Col Solare and now is head winemaker at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars), Juan Muoz-Oca (now head winemaker for Columbia Crest) and Darel Allwine (now head winemaker at Col Solare).

"I had great teams around me," Einberger said. "My team had more 90-plus-point wines than any other winery in the world in the decade I was winemaker at Crest."

That culminated in 2009, when Wine Spectator -- the world's largest and most influential wine publication -- named the 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon as the world's best wine.

"I was so happy for the state," Einberger said. "Before that, we were known for Merlot. But I always had this sense that our Cabernets were more like Bordeaux. By getting that award, it just propelled the whole industry. A lot of winemakers around the state called me and said, 'Ray, our Cabernets are selling like mad!' So we all won."

Two years later, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates promoted Einberger to a new position of in-house winemaking consultant. For the past three years, he has traveled between Washington and California to work with winemakers at the company's luxury brands, including Col Solare, Northstar, Stag's Leap and Conn Creek.

Now with more than 20 years with Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Einberger is ready to move on.

He plans to produce a few small-production California wines -- 500 cases each -- focusing on high-quality bottlings that reflect a sense of place.

He's in the early planning stages of a similar project in Washington, the details of which are still somewhat murky but might include Cabernet Sauvignon and perhaps Zinfandel.

"I still have the passion for vines, wines and life in general. I have many new adventures ahead of me," he said.

Andy Perdue runs Great Northwest Wine, a news and information company.