John Sarich, pioneer of NW food and wine
John Sarich, the longtime culinary director at Chateau Ste. Michelle, died Sunday. He was 67.
Special to The Seattle Times
John Sarich will be remembered as Washington’s first and most prolific wine-and-food ambassador.
The longtime culinary director at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville died Sunday after a brief battle with a rare and aggressive form of thyroid cancer. He was 67.
“He epitomized the Northwest spirit,” said Ted Baseler, CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, who visited Sarich on Thursday at his home. “I am just so saddened by his passing.”
Mr. Sarich, who grew up in Seattle and graduated from Ballard High School, began working at Chateau Ste. Michelle in the fall of 1976, soon after the winery opened in Woodinville. Bob Betz of Betz Family Winery, who was an executive with Ste. Michelle from 1976 to 2002, remembered the day he met Mr. Sarich.
“He came into the office a month after we opened the chateau and said, ‘I can do this,’ ” Betz said. “We hired him as a tour guide, and he immediately became a star.”
Mr. Sarich soon moved into the winery’s sales department and helped bring early success to the burgeoning national brand.
“The sales force loved John because he was the complete package,” Betz said. “He was just a great personality, very charming and very endearing. Sales people loved having John come to their market.”
In 1980, Mr. Sarich followed his culinary passions by leaving Ste. Michelle to open Adriatica Restaurant in Seattle and later Dalmacija Ristoran in the Pike Place Market. It was at Adriatica that Mr. Sarich introduced his soon-to-be-famous, much-imitated fried calamari served with garlicky skordalia for dipping.
David LeClaire, a Seattle wine and food professional who works at Esquin Wine & Spirits, said Mr. Sarich was always proud of his Croatian roots, and that played into his flair for Mediterranean cuisine.
In 1990 Mr. Sarich wanted to come back to Ste. Michelle, and when Baseler and Betz found out, “We hired him on the spot,” Baseler said. “He’s been here for the past quarter-century and has been an integral part of our organization.”
Mr. Sarich set a precedent by becoming the first full-time chef at a Northwest winery. As the company’s culinary director, he excelled — creating luncheons and dinners for special events at the winery, orchestrating elaborate feasts around festivals, giving demonstrations, and generally helping define Northwest cuisine with wine.
Baseler remembers KIRO-TV approaching him, wanting the winery to sponsor a cooking show — years before celebrity chefs ruled cable television. Baseler didn’t want to do it, so he made what he thought were ridiculous demands.
“I said, ‘Well, you’ll have to film it here in our kitchen, have John Sarich be the star, tie in with local grocers and provide recipe cards, and you’ll have to have our wine in almost every camera shot.’ I figured there was no way they’d do it. A week later, they said it was a deal.”
That’s how the Emmy-nominated “Taste of the Northwest” was born.
“John was just so good on camera,” Baseler said. “They were blown away by his gift, not only for his cooking skills but also his on-camera presence.”
The show lasted four years and was a hit with viewers — leading to further opportunities for Mr. Sarich and his infectious personality.
“The TV show was such a smash hit, someone said we ought to do a cookbook,” Baseler said.
Mr. Sarich wrote five books: “John Sarich’s Food & Wine of the Pacific Northwest,” “John Sarich at Chateau Ste. Michelle,” “Best of Taste,” “Entertaining Simply — Celebrate the Season,” and “Chef in the Vineyard,” which was published in 2011.
“It’s hard to calculate what John did for the Washington wine industry,” Baseler said. “He taught the joy of food and wine, and that really increased the enjoyment of wine to a high level in our local markets.”
Mr. Sarich is survived by his two sons, Biagio and Dominic. Chateau Ste. Michelle is planning a celebration of his life, for which a date has not yet been announced. The company plans to create a culinary scholarship in Sarich’s name, and Baseler said it also will prominently honor his memory on the winery grounds in Woodinville.
Andy Perdue is The Seattle Times wine columnist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.