WOODINVILLE, Wash. – Bob Bertheau makes Riesling.
A lot of Riesling.
More Riesling than anyone in the world.
It wasn’t always that way. In fact, when he applied to become the white winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, he was asked if he’d made Riesling. Of course, he replied.
“I’d made one or two tanks of Riesling in 16 years,” Bertheau told Great Northwest wine with a laugh.
Now he’s the flag-waving standard bearer for American Riesling, producing well over 1 million cases of the noble white variety each year.
We recently caught up with Bertheau while he was out prowling vineyards during harvest. Here’s the interview.
From Seattle to Boise to California wine country
Bertheau was born in Seattle and went to college at Boise State University. That’s where he caught the wine bug. He got a job pouring wine at Ste. Chapelle‘s tasting room in Caldwell – back when the drinking age in the Gem State was 19.
“After two years of that, I really got into wine,” he said.
From there, he headed to California and enrolled at the University of California-Davis, where he earned his master’s degree in the vaunted winemaking program.
After graduation, Bertheau went to work at Hanzell Vineyards, a small winery in Sonoma. From there, he worked at Chalk Hill Winery in Healdsburg, then finally went to Gallo Sonoma in the Dry Creek Valley.
All told, Bertheau worked for 16 years in Sonoma County and had a well-earned reputation for many wines, including Chardonnay.
Bob Bertheau comes home to Washington
In 2003, Chateau Ste. Michelle brought Bertheau home, hiring him as the white winemaker. Within a year, he was elevated to head winemaker, overseeing teams on both sides of the state.
By 2004, Riesling had become an important wine, thanks to the launch of Eroica five years earlier. Fortunately for Bertheau, he found a mentor in Ernst Loosen, the famed German winemaker who partners with Ste. Michelle in Eroica.
“He put it all into focus,” Bertheau said. “I have him to thank.”
He also can thank another international winemaker who has raised Ste. Michelle’s Riesling program to another level. In 2007, Wendy Stuckey attended the Riesling Rendezvous, a Riesling celebration that takes place every three years at Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Stuckey and Bertheau got to know each other when she was an intern at Chalk Hill. From there, she went back to her native Australia and became renowned for her white wines – especially Riesling – at Wolf Blass in the Barossa Valley.
It just so happened that Bertheau had an opening for a white winemaker.
“We hadn’t seen each other in 10 years,” Bertheau said. “I joked with her about making Riesling in Washington state. The next morning before the seminars all started, Wendy came to me and said, ‘I’d like to apply for your job.’ ”
By the end of the harvest, Stuckey was on the team.
Learning to make red wine all over again
A tasting of Bertheau’s wines through the years shows an evolution in his winemaking, particularly with the reds. For Bertheau, he had to rethink how he made wine.
“When I came up after making wine for 16 years in California, you think you know everything,” Bertheau said. “The first year or two … I made the most tannic wines I’d made in my career. I found the Washington tannins can be like this wild thoroughbred. You don’t want to lose the power and ageability but package it in more of a velvet fashion for the consumer.”
While Bertheau’s ability to adjust how he worked with Washington grapes evolved, so too did the equipment, techniques and even the viticulture changed at Chateau Ste. Michelle.
In 2009, the company installed what is called the MOG Monster, a three-story device that separates grapes from MOG – material other than grapes. Leaves, stems and underripe berries are removed, helping Ste. Michelle’s red winemaking crew receive fruit that is nearly as clean as a small operation that handsorts its grapes.
“It’s one of the first steps in trying to keep the wines velvety and soft,” Bertheau said.
Now Chateau Ste. Michelle has added an optical grape sorter for reserve-level lots that gives him even cleaner fruit and an added advantage.
“Everything we’ve done has been how to harness these beautiful Washington tannins and yet retain some of the softness at the same time.”