Back in the early wine-making days, a small group of wineries made a huge impact on American wines. Most were from California, others were from New York, Oregon and Washington State.

One of the oldest wineries to make an impact in Washington State is Columbia Crest –a name most wine lovers recognize. They started as a small winery, opening in 1983, and have since become one of the most important wineries in the Northwest, while helping Washington elevate as a premier wine region. Today the winery is responsible for more than half the wine produced in the state.

Columbia Crest is dedicated to honoring its heritage of winemaking through a steadfast obligation of making the finest wines in the Northwest; ones that are approachable and affordable.

Columbia Crest overlooks the Columbia River in the eastern part of Washington, in the heart of Horse Heaven Hills, with 2,500 acres of estate vineyards planted. The winery and its parent company, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, led a consortium of grape growers to petition the government for a Horse Heaven Hills AVA and the area was designated in its own right as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 2005, distinguishing itself from the massive Columbia Valley AVA. The Horse Heaven Hills AVA encompasses 570,000 acres (approximately 12,000 in production) on a piece of land that starts on the 1,800-foot ridges of the hills and slopes south to the Columbia River. The majority of grapes are Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.

Columbia Crest has received many awards. In 1997, Wine Spectator named Columbia Crest one of the "Top 100 Wines of the Year" for the 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1995 Estate Series Chardonnay – and they are the only Washington winery to win the number one slot on Wine Spectators “Top 100 Wines of the Year” for its 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley Reserve - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with 5 percent Merlot and 4 percent Cabernet Franc.

Last summer, the head wine-making baton was passed to Katie Nelson. Nelson is one of the most accomplished and respected female winemakers in Washington State. She first joined Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in 1999 and now returned to become the senior director for wine-making. She is thrilled to be part of an experiential and intuitive operation. Her wine-making approach is bold and explores variety, with a gentle hand, aiming to create wines that are elegant, but very exciting.

Nelson grew up in Illinois then moved to Southern California with her family before heading to Sonoma to attend college. While she was in wine country studying business, she started working at Kenwood and fell madly in love with the wine industry. She immediately switched her major to chemistry. Katie’s first full-time job was at Lytton Springs (Ridge Vineyards) where she did everything. A few years later, she moved to Washington State with her sister.

In 1999, Katie began working at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. She left in 2015 to become associate winemaker for K Vintners, Charles Smith Wines and Wines of Substance, and now she’s back. I asked her how she feels about wine-making in Washington. Her reply was “the wines are really waking up (and so are wine consumers), they over deliver especially for the price. Vintages are consistent year after year. We have the perfect climate, warm sunny days, cool nights with little rainfall. Our wines provide the full expression of fruit."

Since Katie’s return, she spent the 2018 harvest observing how it all comes together, tasting each and every varietal, looking at the oak program and how the wines are made. In her new role, she makes all wine-making decisions across the entire range of Columbia Crest wines, including the Reserve, H3 and Grand Estate tiers. Additionally, she manages other innovation projects produced at Columbia Crest and plans on making more field blends. Columbia Crest produces over 1 million cases of wine annually.

Katie is married to another successful wine-maker, Flint Nelson. Their wine-making styles are different and so are their palates but they understand each other. Known as “a power couple,” they love to travel to wine regions, entertain, and spend time with their two young children.

For the holidays, Nelson recommends the Reserve Blanc Noir for casual nights, the Grand Estate Chardonnay for fish dinners, and the Reserve Grenache, which is versatile. In addition, I recently tasted the following wines that will pair nicely with the holiday season. Look for them at your favorite wine retailer or online at

Columbia Crest H3 Sauvignon Blanc

Tropical aromas followed by melon and pear flavors that give way to a crisp, clean finish. $12

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Cabernet Sauvignon

A bold and structured wine with aromas of dark berries and plum, finishing with notes of chocolate and vanilla. $15

Columbia Crest Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

Big and beautiful with earthy aromas and ripe dark fruit flavors. $35


JoAnn Actis-Grande travels to many great wine regions all over the world writing about wine, travel, and curious lifestyles. She lives in Portsmouth and can be reached by email at Find more of her Let’s Talk Wine columns online at