Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington’s largest winery, has discontinued its Tenet Wines brand. The Syrah-focused project was a partnership between the winery and two renowned Rhône winemakers, Philippe Cambie and Michel Gassier.
“With the unfortunate passing of Philippe in December, 2021, Chateau Ste. Michelle and Michel came to the difficult decision to bring the collaboration to a close,” Lynda Eller, senior director of communications and corporate affairs at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, said via email. “However, Ste. Michelle continues to be extremely passionate about Washington Syrah and Rhône varietals.”
A brand with national ambitions
Tenet had its earliest roots in 2012 when Gassier came to Washington and tasted through Ste. Michelle’s barrels of Syrah. That year, Gassier, Ste. Michelle, and Cambie made the decision to do a “ground up” project, collaborating on viticulture and winemaking starting in 2013. The Tenet brand was officially launched with great fanfare in 2015.
The Pundit Syrah, the brand’s main wine, had an eye-catching, edgier label than the norm for Ste. Michelle, seemingly targeting younger consumers. Ste. Michelle made 8,000 cases of the wine in 2013. Two years later, that number swelled to 15,000 cases. This would be a high point that the winery would sustain for several years.
The brand also launched an imported Syrah from France’s Costières de Nîmes and a Washington Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre (GSM) blend. The latter was, at the time, the most expensive GSM blend in the state. In subsequent years, the winery added several appellation-specific Syrahs.
Tenet was Ste. Michelle’s third major partnership, so there was already a roadmap with a prior history of success. Col Solare is a partnership with Italy’s famed Antinori family that began in 1995. It focuses in large part on Cabernet Sauvignon, Washington’s most produced variety. The brand has a vineyard and a winery on Red Mountain.
Eroica, a partnership with German producer Dr. Loosen, began in 1999. This project makes Riesling, Washington’s second most-produced white variety, in several styles. Eroica has been successful in raising the profile of Washington Riesling with trade, media, and consumers nationally and internationally.
Big hopes run into circumstances, timing
The hope had been that Tenet would elevate Washington Syrah the same way Eroica had for Riesling. Syrah is the state’s third most produced red variety and fifth most produced overall. Syrah also makes many of Washington’s highest scoring and most distinctive wines.
Alas, when Cambie passed away in 2021 at age 59, it called into question the future of the project. Cambie had world-renowned skills as a winemaker and blender. He also brought a bright light of attention to the project due to his long track record of success.
Other complications preceded and came after Cambie’s death. The pandemic severely impacted on-premise sales. In 2021, Ste. Michelle’s owner, Altria, sold the winery to Sycamore Partners, a New York-based private equity firm. Since then, one CEO has left Ste. Michelle and another joined. Most recently, Ste. Michelle told its growers that it would be terminating 40% of the company’s grape contracts.
Given all this, the shuttering of Tenet is unsurprising. Importantly, it says more about Cambie’s passing, difficulties at Ste. Michelle and other large wine companies, and overall headwinds in the wine industry than anything in particular about the national viability of Washington Syrah. Tenet was always a project that needed a fairly sizable runway to succeed. Unfortunately, circumstances did not give it that chance.
Impacts for Ste. Michelle, Washington
In an ideal scenario, Tenet would have created a broader awareness and demand for Washington Syrah. That would, in turn, help elevate that category for the entire industry. Unfortunately, that goal was not achieved in the short time the partnership existed.
Tenet did, however, have an impact. It influenced numerous changes at Ste. Michelle. In the vineyard this included more canopy, more shading, and reduced crop yields for Syrah. In the winery, Tenet brought increased stem usage, longer macerations, and lower oak impact. Those improvements will remain at Ste. Michelle and beyond.
“We had nearly 10 years of collaboration in the fullest sense of the word,” Brian Mackey, head red winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, said via email. “We changed viticulture for many of our grower partners and within our own estate vineyards in permanent ways, we brought new equipment into the winery, and brought Washington Syrah to a larger world stage. All of that collaboration, improvement, learning, and achievement still resides at Chateau Ste. Michelle, and we are using it.”
Ste. Michelle also continues to make an assortment of Syrah under its own label. These include its Columbia Valley Syrah, its Ethos Reserve Syrah, and limited release single vineyard offerings.
The end of Tenet less than a decade after its launch is, however, a considerable loss for Washington and its numerous wineries that focus on Rhône varieties. Tenet was producing high quality, nationally distributed Syrah. It was doing so at a price ($25) that consumers appreciate, that was viable on-premise, and that no small producer in the state could achieve.
Ultimately, for Ste. Michelle, discontinuing the Tenet brand allows the winery to focus more fully on its core offerings. For Washington wineries looking to make a national impact with Syrah, they are left with the same set of issues that existed prior to Tenet’s launch. The wines have limited production and therefore reach and also have an expensive entry point. Taken together, this leads to difficulties creating widespread interest and demand. That said, qualitatively, Washington Syrah remains as compelling as ever.
Images courtesy Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
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