WOODINVILLE, Wash. – One of the finest gentlemen in the Washington wine industry also is one of its most talented winemakers.
Bob Betz of Betz Family Winery has been an integral part of the state wine industry for nearly 40 years, having started at Chateau Ste. Michelle before the chateau was built – when the winery was on East Marginal Way in Seattle.
We recently sat down with Betz in the cellar of Betz Family Winery not far from Chateau Ste. Michelle. Here’s the interview:
Betz grew up in a home where wine was not necessarily the focal point.
“But the table was always very important to the family,” he told Great Northwest Wine.
Bob Betz’s journey to wine
In the late 1960s, he became fascinated with wine. Instead of becoming a physician, Betz and his wife, Cathy, headed to Europe in the early 1970s to spend a year in the vineyards and wine regions of France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria.
“We learned the culture of wine,” he said.
He came back and ran a wine shop for about a year before being hired at Chateau Ste. Michelle. From 1976 to 2003 when he retired, Betz did just about everything for Ste. Michelle.
“It’s been such a fabulous pathway. The lessons learned at Ste. Michelle were so valuable,” he said. “I was able to apply what I learned on a much smaller scale.”
He added with chuckle: “They spill more wine than I make.”
In 1980, Betz was accepted to medical school, but he was well into his career path at Ste. Michelle and declined.
“I thought, ‘This could be an interesting life!’ ”
Master of Wine
In the mid-1990s, Betz got an itch to do something more. His degree from the University of Washington was not related to the wine industry, so he decided to pursue the difficult Master of Wine degree.
“I just thought it was the next logical step for me,” he said. “I wanted to do something academically within the industry.”
There are 31 Masters of Wine in the United States, and Betz is the only one who is a winemaker – the rest are retailers, wholesalers, educators and writers. Only about 12 percent of those who attempt to earn the degree actually pass it because of the rigorous set of tests that include knowledge on grape growing, winemaking, wine marketing and wine sales.
In 1997, Betz launched Betz Family Winery. He was among the first to make wine in the “Warehouse District” before building his winery not far from Ste. Michelle and DeLille. Six years later, he retired from Ste. Michelle to devote all of his attention on the winery.
Success came quickly, with consumers and critics alike providing rave reviews. As a result of his attention to detail, his long history in the business and the way he treats others, Betz has been able to work with many of the top grape growers in Washington, including Dick Boushey of Boushey Vineyards, Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval, Patricia and David Gelles of Klipsun Vineyards, Scott Williams of Kiona Vineyards, Mike Sauer of Red Willow Vineyards and Todd Newhouse of Upland Vineyard.
“We work with the greatest guys in the state,” he said, explaining the difference between a grape grower and a wine grower. “A grape grower looks at the grape as the end work. A wine grower looks at the grape as a transitional point between the land and the table.”
Betz Family Winery’s next chapter
Three years ago, the Betzes surprised the industry when they announced they were selling the winery to Steve and Bridgit Griessel of South Africa. Betz said it was the only logical move they could make. Their daughters had taken other paths in life and had no interest in taking over the winery, so the Betzes had no succession plan.
“We decided to look at what that next chapter would be,” he said.
The Griessels have been excellent partners and have taken to their new roles with enthusiasm.
Betz, meanwhile, still has two years – at least – as winemaker of the winery he built.
“I’m still the winemaker,” he said. “They and the team they’ve assembled are responsible for the day-to-day work. I’m doing the best part of the job. Now I don’t have to buy forklift fuel on Saturdays anymore.”