Northwest restaurateurs purchase Basel Cellars in Walla Walla

By on January 7, 2021
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Dan Thiessen, a graduate of the famed Culinary Institute of America and former director of Walla Walla Community College’s culinary arts, headlines an ownership group that recently purchased Basel Cellars Estate Winery. (Photo courtesy of Fire & Vine Hospitality)

WALLA WALLA, Wash. – The first full week of 2021 brought news of a second significant transaction in the Walla Walla Valley wine industry — the sale of showpiece Basel Cellars Estate Winery to a group of Northwest hospitality leaders with local roots.

Chef/educator Dan Thiessen and his business partners Paul Mackay and Philip Christofides were joined by two others in the purchase of Basel Cellars from longtime owners Steve and Jo Marie Hansen in a sale announced Wednesday, Jan. 6. According to a news release, it became official on Dec. 30, 2020. Terms were not disclosed.

“We want to thank Steve and Jo Marie Hansen for their contribution to our community as an exemplary employer and in the meticulous maintenance of an iconic and treasured estate,” Thiessen, the project’s managing partner, said in a news release. “The Basel Cellars Estate is an exceptional destination location for weddings, events and family getaways, and our team looks forward to continuing that tradition and expanding on the possibilities with an enhanced culinary program and events around the property.”

Thiessen, Mackay and Christofides also are partners in the Walla Walla Steak Co., and Crossbuck Brewing. Those joining Mackay, who founded El Gaucho Hospitality, and Christofides, an architect with five years of design work for Starbucks, are property developer Scott Clark and Chad Mackay, CEO of Fire & Vine Hospitality. The group, with headquarters in Seattle, also manages Eritage Resort, a destination surrounded by vineyards north of downtown Walla Walla.

The Basel Cellars transaction includes Double River Vineyard, the 28-acre planting that rings the estate on a bench overlooking the Old Milton Highway south of Walla Walla. In 2005, Sunset magazine selected Basel Cellars as the Wine Destination of the Year, with a production of 6,500 cases. In 2019, Eritage Resort was named a finalist for Sunset’s Travel Awards.

Thiessen, a graduate of the famed Culinary Institute of America, and his wife, Melissa, own/operate the ranch where he was raised in Asotin, Wash., as well as their eponymous farm in Walla Walla that includes Wagon Wrench Vineyard, an 8-acre site formerly known as Mission Hills Vineyard. (The couple purchased the farm from Michael Locati in 2015). Thiessen served as executive director of the Wine Country Culinary Institute at Walla Walla Community College from 2011 to 2017.

Basel Cellars to celebrate 20 years as winery

basel cellars estate winery grounds photo courtesy basel cellars - Northwest restaurateurs purchase Basel Cellars in Walla Walla
Basel Cellars, built in 1997 by Walla Walla hotelier Kyle Mussman, has been producing wine since 2001. (Photo courtesy of Basel Cellars Estate Winery)

Basel Cellars started off in 1997 as 83-acre Double River Ranch, between the Walla Walla River and Yellowhawk Creek, and the home of then-cellular network executive Kyle Mussman. He began to restore the historic Marcus Whitman Hotel in 1999, but a divorce led to the sale of his estate in 2002, first during an auction for $2.1 million, then again later that same year to Greg and Becky Basel and investors Henderson and Jolene Orchard. 

Their transformation of Basel Cellars Estate Winery included converting a 10,000-square-foot space — which once served as the home for the Mussman car collection — into a vinification facility with a production capacity of 20,000 cases. The Basel family hired Dunham Cellars assistant Trey Busch to make their first wines, starting with the 2001 vintage.

In 2004, the Hansens joined the ownership team, and by 2011, the couple from Vancouver, Wash., took full control of the property. The Basel’s son, Justin — a product of the WWCC winemaking program — served as head winemaker in 2005 until his family sold to the Hansens.

In addition to Double River, vineyard sources that have contributed award-winning bottlings by South African winemaker Dirk Brink include four acclaimed sites in the Horse Heaven Hills — Double Canyon, McKinley Springs, Phinny Hill and Wallula. According to the news release, there are no immediate plans to make changes to the winery team. General manager Ryan Sams began at Basel Cellars with the 2007 vintage. The Hansens brought on Brink in 2015.

In recent years, the Hansens opened but later closed Basel Cellars satellite tasting rooms in Woodinville and Leavenworth.

Fire & Vine grows its Revelers Club loyalty collection

eritage resort richard duval images 2018 - Northwest restaurateurs purchase Basel Cellars in Walla Walla
Eritage Resort is a young 300-acre project in the Walla Walla Valley near Bergevin Springs Road, operated by Fire & Vine Hospitaliy, that includes 10 guest rooms and a restaurant. (Richard Duval Images)

Considering their hospitality background, Fire & Vine appears positioned to promote and operate Basel Cellars’s eight-bedroom vacation rental, two-bedroom cabana and picturesque grounds for weddings and private events. It also becomes a part of the Revelers Club loyalty program under the Fire & Vine umbrella of properties.

The Hansens credited Walla Walla-based Metis NW for overseeing the transaction. “There were many moving pieces in a complex closing,” they noted. “We appreciated Metis’ deep knowledge of the niche wine and hospitality industry, as well as the integrity they showed working with us.”

Metis, and its predecessor, Exvere, have assisted with acquisitions involving Abeja, Betz Family Winery, Covey Run, Firesteed Cellars, O Wines, Owen Roe, Tamarack Cellars and Walla Walla Vintners as well as vineyards such as Conner Lee, Rockgarden and Sagemoor.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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