Washington Wine History Interviews: Alex and Paul Golitzin, Quilceda Creek Vintners

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 6/08/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22495

Alex Golitzin (b. 1939) and son Paul Golitzin (b. 1970) have been central figures in bringing national and international recognition to Washington wines as the owners and operators of Quilceda Creek Vintners, one of the state’s most acclaimed wineries. Alex was born to Russian emigres in France and came to the U.S. as a small boy. His uncle Andre Tchelistcheff (1901-1994) was already living in California and making a name for himself as a California wine pioneer. With his uncle's help and guidance, Alex started making wine in 1974, and by the early 1980s Quilceda Creek was being hailed for its sublime Cabernet Sauvignons. In this March 23, 2022, interview with HistoryLink's Jim Kershner, Alex and Paul reflect on the formative years of Quilceda Creek. 

Roots in Wine Country

Alex Golitzin was born Alex Galitzine in Paris in 1939. In 1946, when he was 7, his family, having Americanized its name to "Golitzin," moved to the United States. He was raised in California, earned a chemical-engineering degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and moved to Washington with his wife Jeanette in 1967. 

Alex Golitzin: Well, my early life was really basically World War II. I was born in December of '39 after Hitler attacked Poland in September of '39.

Jim Kershner: What was your exact birth date?

AG: 12/8/39.

AG: So my parents, realizing that the Germans might be coming through France fairly quickly, left Paris, where they were living, and went down south to the Loire Valley and I was born there in a Catholic hospital on December the 8th. And after that, we toured around, you could say, around France to various little places, and when I look at all this, what's going on right now in the Ukraine, I was one of those little kids.

Fortunately, however, France was not quite as deadly as Ukraine is right now, and Paris was an open city, eventually, and so they went back to Paris and we all spent the war in Paris. Came to the United States in '46.

The Washington wine industry was in its infancy when he and his family moved to Snohomish in 1967 so Alex could take a job at the Scott Paper Company in Everett.

AG: Well, the interest in wine was always there, and so when we moved to Washington in 1967, it was really hard to find any decent wine. You had to drive all the way to Portland to a wine store and then bring it into the state. And by that time, Andre was already starting to consult for what became Ste. Michelle, and he would come by and visit our house, and I complained to him about the fact that we couldn't find any decent wine here.

And he says, "Well," he says, "don't worry about it." He says, "I'll get you connected with a vineyard. I'll get you a barrel out of BV. I'll teach you how make wine." And so I did that for four years, '74, '75, '76 and '77. And it all came out nice and he approved of it, so I wanted to start my own business because I didn't want to be completely dependent on my corporate job. And so in '79, '78, we actually bonded the winery in '79, made our first crushes. Seven American oak barrels, which is about 140 cases.

Here, Alex and Paul talk about the uncertain early days of their winery and the tenuous position of the fledgling Washington wine industry. Paul cited “the pioneering spirit” that led the Golitzins and many of the state’s vineyards to experiment with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Several areas turned out to be particularly suited to the kind of red wines the Golitzins were beginning to produce.

AG: We stuck with Red Mountain to a certain degree and then also Horse Heaven Hills, which barely existed in ‘88.

JK: By this time, there were other wineries in Washington that were concentrating on Cabernet by this time, correct?

AG: Yeah.

JK: But it was still early …  the infancy. I mean you knew that you could make good Cabernet here. Did the rest of the country recognize that yet?

AG: I'm not sure they totally recognize it to this day. It took Bordeaux what, 150 years to get their classification? It took California a long time to achieve any kind of notoriety. And that trip that Andre took to pick us up, he stopped off in various places and tried to find wine and a lot of places it just didn't exist, so America was not a wine-drinking country in those days.

Paul Golitzin: Yeah, and post-prohibition, we were the 12th bonded winery. Just shows you the infancy.

JK: Yeah. You were true pioneers.

PG: Yeah. And in all honesty, it's kind of like throwing a dart at a dartboard. We didn't know it was going to stick. A lot of what has occurred to us has been luck. Seriously.

AG: That is true.

From Cedar Ridge to Quilceda Creek

The winery’s name was not originally Quilceda Creek Vintners. But there was a comical misunderstanding with the old name – and changing the name was necessary.

JK: So the original name of the winery was the Cedar Ridge Winery, correct?

AG: Yes.

JK: And when did you establish that?

AG: That was really a funny story. We were looking for some kind of a woodsy feel, so we called it Cedar Ridge and we had been making wine, not selling any, we'd been making it for three years or thereabouts and had not released anything at all. But we were using it in commercial dealings with people, for buying grapes, buying equipment and so forth.

And one day we got a nasty letter from a California winery. It said, "This is one of our secondary labels that you're using here. Get out or we're going to sue you." Well, we had heard before from other people that said, "You know what. That's kind of a hokey name. Why don't you try for something a little different?" And so we had already decided that we're going to do Quilceda Creek because it's local and chances are nobody else would have that.

AG: So we did that, and we had cards printed saying that we were switching our name from Cedar Ridge to Quilceda Creek, and those cards arrived at our house about the same time as that letter. And so we turned around and sent them a card saying we've already done it.

PG: But didn't somebody call and say, "I don't like your Chardonnay"?

AG: Oh, that's right, too.

PG: But you weren't making Chardonnay and it's like, "Oh, what's going on here?"

JK: They were talking about the other Cedar Ridge?

PG: Yeah.

AG: I remember that letter very well. She said, "I just bought your Chardonnay," which was obviously from the other winery. She said, "I didn't like it, so I poured it down the sink and I want my $4.25 back."

Parker Weighs In

The turning point for Quilceda Creek Vintners came in 2005, courtesy of legendary wine writer Robert Parker and his Wine Advocate magazine. The Golitzins had been talked into entering their wine into a tasting at Ray’s Boathouse, featuring Parker himself. At first, it appeared that Parker was shaking his head over Quilceda Creek’s entries. Paul thought, "Oh my God, he doesn’t like them." It turned out, that’s not what Parker was thinking at all. Here, the Golitzins describe what happened when Parker published Quilceda Creek’s scores in the magazine:

PG: It really was in 2005 when we got really great, amazing acclaim from Parker's Wine Advocate, that totally put us on the map. I mean, all the publications, all the great press, is wonderful but that was the defining moment. That came out and on that one year ... We were at our beach house when we found out and that it was two wines that were rated 100. We're just like, "Oh." It's so emotional. We're just bawling.

JK: 100 is exceedingly rare, correct?

AG: It is, yes.

JK: And did you have any inkling that you were making a wine that would be in that tier?

PG: When I was drinking the '02, I was in my house in my theater area, and I was just casually drinking it. I had an epiphany on it. "I think that's pretty darn good."

JK: So did that 100-point score change your lives?

PG: Completely.

AG: Oh, sure.

JK: How did that develop? What happened right after that?

AG: Actually my reaction, I was very happy that we got the 100-point score, but the other portion of the reaction was, "Thank goodness," because now we'd be able to sell the wine.

PG: It created our mailing list. Everyone called us. It was a defining moment for us, and still a lot of those people are still our existing customers. They've been very loyal, and it's just been an incredible ride.

Today, Quilceda Creek owns its own vineyards and has full control over every aspect of growing and producing its wines. Here, Paul talks about his early hopes and dreams for the winery – and how they made many of those dreams come true.

JK: And, Paul, even when you started, the wine industry was still pretty close to its infancy. Did you have any confidence that this could be your life work at that time?

PG: Back in 1988, I wrote a logbook of what I thought it would take to kind of make it happen, which sounds really weird. And a lot of stuff that we're doing today, I actually wrote down back then.

JK: Oh, really?

PG: Yeah. And I have this weird ability to kind of innately look into that wine and kind of see where it's going to go and become by tasting it. And, I don't know, I've always had confidence in it. And then we just tried so hard. It's totally my passion and we do everything with the purpose and the intent of making a beautiful product at the end.

JK: What did you write down?

PG: It's all proprietary (laughs).

JK: Well, maybe, in general?

PG: One of the key things, really, though for me, is owning the vineyards and expressing that piece of land.

AG: Yeah. When you're a small winery, you really have limitations. For example, like with the grape supply, not just quantity. You're trying to get some wine so you're going to get some number of tons from this vineyard, some number of tons from that vineyard. You've got a small production, so you blend it all together and that's not how great wine is made.

PG: So we're, basically, we're wine growers now. In the past, it was, you had guys who grew grapes and wineries buying grapes, and the growers always want to grow a lot ... but if you grow a lot, quality is not so great, right?

JK: Okay.

PG: But I mean, we're talking about people who were at over 10 tons an acre on Cabernet Sauvignon, and currently what we're doing, it's like one and half to two tons an acre.

JK: I see. Okay. Now, do you spend time over there in the vineyards yourself?

PG: I talk to my vineyard manager basically every day (laughs). 

JK: Do you head over there every so often and check things out?

PG: Uh-huh (affirmative).

JK: And that's Horse Heaven Hills?

PG: Yeah. That's the one thing that I wish that we were over (there) ... Ideally the winery and the vineyards would be together, for me, because I just love being in the vineyard so much. It's just so calm and spiritual.

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