remembering the overlooked and underrated

Chateau Ste. Philip Morris: Big Tobacco and Washington Wine

In Items of Singular Interest, Sipping on June 27, 2012 at 12:56 am

I have mixed feelings about this. I’m admitting that. Perhaps I’ll be less conflicted tomorrow. But today I am disturbed. Today I let a simple question — “What is Altria?” — lead me somewhere I didn’t expect to go. Today I am facing an ethical dilemma that’s grayer than what I normally encounter on a day-to-day. Today I am deciding if I should buy wine. Let me tell you what I mean.

Chateau Ste. Michelle is Washington’s oldest winery. Its roots go back as far as 1912. The current French-style château, located in Woodinville, wasn’t built until 1976, when the Ste. Michelle Vintners (formerly American Wine Growers, which originated in 1954 when the Pommerelle Wine Company and the National Wine Company merged) officially changed its name to Chateau Ste. Michelle. In 1974 the United States Tobacco Company purchased Chateau Ste. Michelle It is now Washington’s largest winery. It owns more than 3,500 vineyard acres in the coveted Columbia Valley. Its wines, distributed nationally, have received numerous accolades and awards.

Philip Morris is the nation’s leading cigarette manufacturer. That didn’t happen overnight, of course. Philip Morris, a tobacconist and importer of fine cigars, opened a shop in London in 1847. Seven years later he made his first cigarette. Forty-eight years later, in 1902, Philip Morris & Co., Ltd. was incorporated in New York. Then, in 1985, Philip Morris Cos. was incorporated, becoming the proud parent of Philip Morris Inc. (stay with me here). And then (last time, I promise), in 2003 it underwent yet another name change, this time becoming Altria Group, Inc. Six years later, in 2009, Altria acquired — can you guess it? — UST Inc.!

Wait, who? UST what? We mentioned them earlier, but only in passing. UST Inc. was founded in1911, except back then it was called United States Tobacco Company. The same one that bought Ste. Michelle Estates, and thus Chateau Ste. Michelle. Remember now? I thought so. The end result, of course, is that Altria is the present holder of Ste. Michelle Estates.

If you’re like me, you might wonder, just what does “Ste. Michelle Estates” entail? Aside from the Chateau Ste. Michelle brand, it includes 10 other Northwest estates (e.g. Red Diamond, 14 Hands, Columbia Crest) and four California estates (e.g. Stag’s Leap, Hawk Crest).

You will, not so oddly, find no mention of Altria on the Chateau Ste. Michelle website. Nor will you find it on the Ste. Michelle Estates website. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find mention of it anywhere. Granted, my search was not exhaustive, but the most I was able to discover, outside of Altia’s own informative site and a couple Wikipedia entries, was a brief mention on the blog Richmond Wine Culture. The author has titled the post “Boring Wines: Wines to Avoid.” The blogger highlights the wines of Washington’s oldest winery and derides them for being found “in every single grocery store in the country” and for being “flat and homogenized.” I take issue with that. I find Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Rieslings to be vibrant and superb for the price. I’ve also visited the estate and tried several wines, both  high- and low-end, in the enormous tasting room there. Not everything they make is widely distributed. Some of them, like the Ethos Reserve series, are luscious and complex and a little more difficult to get hold of.

I like Chateau Ste. Michelle wines. I like supporting a Washington winery. So what if it’s the biggest and who cares if you can find it in every grocery store? It’s not like I don’t buy other Washington wines, too. But I don’t like tobacco. I do not buy cigarettes. My grandfather was a lifetime smoker; it killed him. While I understand it is anyone’s right to choose to smoke, I confess that I’ve shed no tears as more and more cities and states institute no-smoking policies in restaurants. I’ve lost no sleep as anti-smoking policies have made their way into businesses. Is it an infringement on personal rights? You can make that argument. I’m not going to. That’s a different discussion for another time. That is not what this piece is about.

This piece is about whether I am comfortable giving money to a corporation that is partly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. According to the Center for Disease Control, from 2000 to 2004 there were around 443,000 deaths in the U.S. each year that were attributable to cigarette smoking. (More information on this statistic can be found here.) If I am a conscientious consumer — and I do try — can I justify handing my money over to Philip Morris and Altria?

Except it isn’t quite that simple. At least not to me.

Chateau Ste. Michelle is a local employer. It draws tourists to the Seattle area, which in turn brings money to other businesses, including the shop where I work. One of the reasons Altria no doubt wants the money is because the people running Altria are trying to increase their profits, and holding a wildly successful business like Chateau Ste. Michelle is a no-brainer. I understand that. It’s a business decision.

And I am painfully aware that criticizing tobacco in favor of alcohol is, well, let’s say it is not the most valiant of stances. The CDC reports that in 2009, 10,839 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes. According to MADD and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, another 10,228 people died in drunk driving crashes in 2010.

As far as deaths go, the numbers are kinder to alcohol than they are to cigarettes. But really, who is going to run out and celebrate that?

As I said at the top, I have mixed feelings. If I was willing to give up my love of wine, beer, and spirits, perhaps it would be easier. Since I’m not going to (there’s that personal choice thing in action), the answer is obvious. If I don’t want to help fund Altria, then I shouldn’t buy any of its products. The company certainly won’t be hurting just because they aren’t getting my money. Plus, if I take a moral stand against buying from a company such as Wal-Mart (for several reasons, including these), which despite its juggernaut size typically doesn’t kill people, how can I buy a bottle of inexpensive, tasty Chateau Ste. Philip Morris and not come across as a hypocrite?

And yet…have you tasted the Eroica Riesling? I’m not claiming it’s the best Riesling in America (it isn’t), but for $20 it’s awfully good.

Please understand, I don’t look down anyone who buys these wines. I look down on people who buy wines I think are terrible — but that’s just me being snobby. I was going to wait until tomorrow to decide…

Damn it. I’m really going to miss that Riesling.

  1. I admire your conviction and resolve.
    On another note- have you read in this month’s Vanity Fair (Kristen Stewart on the cover) about the greatest wine fraud in history? Rare burgundys, tens of thousands of dollars and a whole lota guestionable bottles. Facinating read.

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