Carole Viney’s first day working at Chateau Ste Michelle was June 1, 1977. The chateau itself – now as iconic as any winery property in the Pacific Northwest – had its grand opening less than one year prior, with the company relocating from Seattle to Woodinville. Viney would spend the next 45 years – her entire career – working for Ste Michelle. This included working for all six presidents the winery has had.

“You get your first real job thinking you’re going to stay for a little while and go on, and 45 years goes by,” Viney says with a laugh. “I can’t tell you where it all went.”

Viney was born in Seattle and raised in Issaquah. She attended Griffin Business College in Bellevue and saw a position advertised for a receptionist/secretary at Chateau Ste Michelle. Viney had never heard of the company, but her father had.

“My father was a wine drinker. He said ‘You better get that job!’” Viney recalls.

She was subsequently recruited for the position and hired. At 20 years old, Viney was not even legal age to drink wine. Bob Betz, who spent 28 years working at the Chateau, recalls Viney’s start.

“Very quickly, it became apparent that she had more to give to the company’s success,” he says.

That opportunity came in 1981, when Bill McKelvey, who was the company’s controller at the time, suggested she apply to be executive secretary to president Wally Opdycke, Ste Michelle Vintners’ founding president. It took some convincing. Opdycke had already gone through several secretaries in short succession.

“I didn’t think that I wanted to do that!” Viney says.

Ultimately, she accepted the position. For the next four decades, she would be the right hand of the most powerful person in the Northwest wine industry. Viney has had her own quiet power at Ste Michelle as well.

“She was a strong, commanding presence at the company who never, ever, ever stood in the limelight,” says Betz. He notes that she immediately became an indispensable resource. “If I had one person to go to when I had to ask a question, it would be to Carole.”

It is hard to imagine just how different the state’s wine industry was at the time Viney started at Ste Michelle. Today there are nearly 1,100 wineries in Washington. In 1981 when Viney started working for Opdycke, there were 19. Some of those wineries were focusing on fruit and berry wines.

Over the ensuing decades, Ste Michelle went from fledgling winery to a dominant player, one of the largest wine companies in the United States. Similarly, Washington went from a handful of wineries to a place on the world stage, with dozens of producers making world-class wines.

However, at the time Viney started at Ste Michelle, that future was far from certain. Washington was a nascent wine industry. There was no roadmap, no template. That was true of Ste Michelle too.

“Being such a young company, there weren’t any rules to necessarily follow,” Viney says. “It was trying things out for the first time and seeing what happened.”

Over the decades Viney worked for presidents Wallace ‘Wally’ Opdycke, Hank Schones, Allen Shoup, Ted Baseler, Jim Mortensen, and, most recently, David Dearie. This is every president that the company has had back to when Opdycke and investors purchased American Wine Growers in 1973 and renamed it Ste Michelle Vintners. (The Ste Michelle brand’s debut vintage was 1967.)

“I always thrived on working behind the scenes,” Viney says. “I felt my role was to make their jobs easier, so they could do the big things and didn’t get mired in the details.”

Viney also got to see all of the comings and goings at the winery, including many industry icons. Legendary California winemaker André Tchelistcheff consulted for Ste Michelle for years. His wife Dorothy would drive Tchelistcheff to the winery. She would sit in the office and knit, talking with Viney while Tchelistcheff tasted the wines.

“Those are things you don’t even think about at the time, but they are pretty remarkable now,” Viney says.

In her role, Viney was privy to everything going on at the company, the highs and lows, and all of the palace intrigue. But whatever was or wasn’t happening, Viney held information tightly.

“She knew everything there,” Betz says. “But there is not a single person in my life that I think is as discreet. She is a person who you could tell your darkest feelings or secrets to, and she would never violate your confidence. She was so perfect for the role.”

Viney’s efforts at the company also went well beyond those in her immediate charge.

“She’s always looking out for other people no matter what role they are in the organization and what department,” says Dan Heller, executive vice president of sales at Ste Michelle Wine Estates. Heller first started working at the company in 1985 and, over two stints, has worked more than 30 years at Ste Michelle. “She also has a great way of providing leadership advice that you may not know that you need.”

Any company is defined by many things, but Ste Michelle perhaps more so than most has been defined by its core asset: its people. It is a testament to Ste Michelle that Viney has not even been the company’s longest tenured employee. That distinction goes to a vineyard worker at Cold Creek.

“We’ve got some really great people, and that’s always what’s kept me here,” Viney says. “It’s just been a remarkable legacy of folks coming through that have made their mark.”

Last year, Viney reached eligibility for social security and Medicare. With that and president David Dearie resigning in October, she decided it was time to call it a career and retire at the end of 2022.

Over the years, some executives and employees I have spoken to at Chateau Ste Michelle have referred to Carole Viney as the heart of the company, others as the brain or the soul. Whatever word one chooses, there is no question that Viney has had an integral role in the company’s out-sized success over the last 45 years.

“When she started, we were probably 100,000 cases [annually],” says Heller. “She saw it grow to seven million cases. She had a lot to do with that.”

In an age when employment often seems to be measured in months rather than decades, it’s a near certainty that no one will ever remain in the position Viney did as long. At minimum, no one will see the sweep of history in the industry that she has.

“There will never be a person in that role who has such perspective of where we came from and how we got to where we are,” says Betz.

While Viney didn’t start out intending to spend her entire career at Ste Michelle, she has no regrets.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I really have,” she says. “Every day was different. You never knew what you were going to do. You couldn’t ever get bored. And the wines were always so good. I always loved our wine.”

Images courtesy of Chateau Ste Michelle.