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Intrinsic, A New Washington Wine From Ste. Michelle, Is Ramping Up For Growth

December 4, 2017

In the first quarter of 2016, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates launched Intrinsic ($22), an upscale Cabernet Sauvignon from Washington’s Columbia Valley with a unique production process. Intrinsic got off to a strong start, with the inaugural 2014 vintage finishing at number-32 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list.

Intrinsic is the creation of Juan Muñoz-Oca, head winemaker at Ste. Michelle’s Columbia Crest winery. It’s made with a technique called extreme extended maceration, whereby 40%-50% of the fermented grapes remain on the skins for nine months, compared to a one-month average for most red wines. “Our idea was for the skins to resolve the tannins like French oak barrels normally do,” says Muñoz-Oca. “We’re reaching for what’s ‘intrinsic’ in the grapes by letting the skins develop the texture.”

Ste. Michelle has been steadily boosting Intrinsic’s volume. From 30,000 cases made in the 2014 vintage, production rose to 55,000 cases in 2015 and 110,000 cases in the 2016 vintage. Planned output for 2017 is 130,000 cases. In mid-November, Intrinsic was extended with a Red Blend ($22), with 25,000 cases made for its inaugural 2016 vintage and 45,000 cases planned for the 2017 vintage.

The total Intrinsic franchise thus has seen its volume rise nearly six-fold, from an initial 30,000 cases to the current 175,000 cases, in a relatively brief period of time. “We’re starting to ramp up on Intrinsic,” says Ste. Michelle president and CEO Ted Baseler. “We’ve got the Cabernet and the Red Blend, and we’ll look at adding other things. It looks like lightning in a bottle.”

The new Red Blend is also from Columbia Valley and is made of 52% Cabernet Franc, 44% Malbec, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon and 1% Merlot. As with the Cabernet, 40%-50% of the grapes stay on the skins for nine months. But here the Cabernet Franc juice is fermented on the Malbec skins, and vice versa. The wines are then blended in a tank for three months prior to bottling. About 40%-50% of the wine for both the Cabernet and the Red Blend is aged in older oak casks.

Ste. Michelle has worked with Brooklyn street artist Zimer to develop contemporary, millennial-centric labels for both of the Intrinsic expressions. The brand’s current position recalls that of another Ste. Michelle label, 14 Hands, whose growth exploded from 400,000 cases in 2010 to blow past the 2-million-case mark by the end of last year. “We don’t really know how high is up at this point,” says Muñoz-Oca. “We keep doubling, and there still seems to be plenty of room to grow.” —David Fleming

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