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Champion Wine Cellars

Aging to perfection

Things come and go in this world, but wine will always be with us. And so, it seems, will Champion Wine Cellars, whose owners Emile and Stephanie Ninaud celebrated its 45th anniversary in October 2014.

45 is something to celebrate, but especially with the same owner. Emile and six partners started the wine store in October of 1969 in a small location at 3 rd and Marion. "It was a third of the size of the current location," recalls Emile. "It had no parking, no storage, and the area was rowdy. We have much more room now, but it's still too small!" Over time, Emile bought out the other partners. The shop moved to its current quarters in 1976.

Photo courtesy of Champion Wine Cellars: Emile next to a photo of young Emile

"When we opened, I was the manager and around 30 years old. When I graduated from the University of Washington, I needed a career. We were pioneers. We got the second retail wine license in Washington state. Burien Vintage Cellars got the first, but didn't last long. We opened two weeks later, so we're the oldest wine shop in Washington. The California Wine Law was passed here which allowed individuals to open private wine shops. We slowly built up a collection of wine. From 1969 to 1976, it was tough to make a living, especially with seven partners. There were few wines to sell and the public was not very wine conscious. I started wine tastings and opened a chapter of a national wine club, Les Amis du Vin."

Needing to make a better living, Emile and Chef Jacques Boiroux opened a wine-oriented restaurant, Le Tastevin, on lower Queen Anne in 1976 (in a corner of what is now the Uptown Theatres, formerly Tony's Italian Restaurant). "Our only competition on Queen Anne was Dick's!" That location was working until the theatre owners wanted to expand; the restaurant then had six months to move. Fortunately, they found a spot at 19 West Harrison (where Kaspars Special Events & Catering is now). "We moved in 1982; it could seat 250 people. It was a great move. At the time, Seattle Center was busy with the symphony, Sonics, opera, ACT Theatre, and residences. We were famous for our wine list, and received Wine Spectator's Grand Award for seven years. Business was great until 1993 when a problem developed between the partners. It got complicated and I decided to just let it go. My French step-father, Jean, had been running the wine shop while we opened and moved the restaurant." Le Tastevin had a long run of 17 years.

In the meantime, one of the people trying to sell wine to the restaurant was Stephanie of Varietal Ventures. "They specialized in Australian wines. I had a French restaurant. I still may have a few of those Australian wines," Emile laughs. Stephanie began working at Champion in 1986 and they were married in 1988. "We are still together. We have the same palate for wine (unless it's during a blind tasting!) and the same interest. But I'm a better cook," he laughs.

Interest in wine was growing. "Chateau Ste. Michelle appeared, and a group of UW professors started Associated Vintners which later became Columbia Winery. Eastern Washington was developing viticulture and wine production. The Enological Society of the Pacific Northwest had started as well as other wine shops. In the beginning, the only people interested in wine were those who had traveled abroad, had some wine knowledge, and good dining experience, so we catered to them. But later, more people were traveling, more wines available, and there was more interest. Plus there were more restaurants in Seattle, 7-8 French alone. The restaurateurs were improving the quality of food and pushing the envelope in pairing food and wine. As Washington wineries emerged, they were looking for outlets, as were other states. Prices were pretty affordable for great wines."

Emile's focus is service; education is very important. "I respect wine and my customers. I want people to understand good food and the role of pairing with reasonably-priced wine. Wine is so amazing. I want to be true to the various regions and countries so people have choices in what they taste and buy. Like people, wine can get better or worse with time. Every bottle in the shop has been tasted by one of us to ensure quality. You can't trust labels; you have to taste. People are curious about wine and shouldn't be intimidated. Our Saturday wine tastings draw all kinds of people. When I first came to Seattle, there weren't many foreigners here. Now there are many and they want to learn about wine. It's interesting that 60% of our clientele is women. They are less afraid to ask questions and I think they are driving the wine trade right now."

Part of the service aspect is getting back to people. "People call with special orders or want to find the wine they had in Acapulco 20 years ago. We get back to everyone." Emile also helps with pairing questions. "People bring their wedding or party menu in and ask us to recommend wines. We look for the right pairing at prices that are affordable. Value is very important. I don't mind paying for a wine if it is worth it, but some wines are marked up to great excess and not worth the high price. I've seen an over-valuation of wines during the past ten years. Washington wines have gotten expensive and we tend to sell more foreign wines. I don't mind ordering expensive wines for people, but I don't stock them. Some people buy wine like a stock, they want it to age and hope it will be worth more. I don't do that, I say enjoy it now."

Emile Ninaud, January 2015

Although the wine industry continually grows, Emile wants to remain small. "If you grow too much, you lose control of quality and service. You don't need a huge place to do a good job. I'm proud of what I've done. It's allowed me to live well and have lots of fun. It's a fascinating field and only getting better."

Champion Wine Cellars
108 Denny Way
Seattle, WA 98109

Click here to read Emile's history.

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