NEWBERG, Ore. — Fans of Riesling around the world came to know Bob Bertheau and German icon Ernst Loosen as the remarkable team of “Bert & Erni” as they worked the market to promote Eroica Riesling for the better part of two decades.
Their run ended in February when Chateau Ste. Michelle parted ways with Bertheau, but now they’ve joined forces in Oregon’s Willamette Valley at Loosen’s J. Christopher Wines project.
“I think of Erni as my German brother,” Bertheau said in a news release sent out Monday night. “Beyond the fun of winemaking, it is sheer friendship. So I’m thrilled that we can continue working together.”
Bertheau, a Seattle native, now lives in Oregon and is working closely with Tim Malone, who heads up Loosen’s winemaking at J. Christopher in Newberg.
“Bob has brought a youthful curiosity to the winery,” Malone said. “He is challenging all assumptions and has us trying some fun new ideas that we would not have tried before. His years of experience have already been a great asset in dealing with various winemaking issues, as well as the big challenges facing us, such as climate change.”
While J. Christopher produces some Riesling, Loosen and Bertheau both noted their collaboration will likely extend to red wines beyond Pinot Noir and include a return to the Evergreen State.
“I’ve long wanted to do a red wine project in Washington,” Loosen said. “And to be able to dive into that with a great guy like Bob, who is so well-organized, so highly skilled and so open to new ideas, will be a lot of fun and very rewarding.”
‘A lot to learn about Oregon and Pinot Noir’
Bertheau graduated from Boise State with a chemistry degree prior to earning a master’s in viticulture and enology at University of California-Davis, but he had very little experience with Riesling when he arrived at Chateau Ste. Michelle in 2003 from Sonoma. The Woodinville giant would become the world’s largest producer of Riesling, and Bertheau helped turn the Eroica project — which Loosen launched with Ste. Michelle in 1999 — into the standard by which American Rieslings came to be judged.
“I’ve been making wine for 35 years, but I have a lot to learn about Oregon and Pinot Noir,” Bertheau said. “It’s been very humbling and eye-opening to walk vineyards and taste wines with Tim Malone. This valley is so different from eastern Washington!”
In 2003, Loosen launched an import business in Portland and brought on industry insider Kirk Wille as President of Loosen Bros., USA. Seven years later, Loosen joined forces with J. Christopher and founding winemaker Jay Christopher Somers. Loosen’s holdings include Appassionata Vineyard, a 20-acre site in the Chehalem Mountains.
Somers sold his interest in J. Christopher in 2019, launched J.C. Somers in nearby Carlton with his wife, Ronda, and is a winemaking consultant. Malone served as Somers’s assistant winemaker from 2008 to 2015 before returning last year as head winemaker.
And while he spent a few months away from the industry, it seems natural for Bertheau to pick up J. Christopher as one of his first clients.
“Bob is truly a great winemaker with a wonderful sense of humor, and he has a real talent for bringing people together,” said Loosen, adding, “He is a worthy companion in the beer hall.”
The depth of their relationship was apparent at the Riesling Rendezvous conventions that Ste. Michelle orchestrated.
“During the Eroica years, it was always Riesling by day and hefeweizen by night,” Bertheau says. “I guess now it will be Pinot by day – but still, of course, a palate-cleansing ale at night!”
The market for Riesling has grown soft in the past decade, and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates last staged the Riesling Rendezvous in Seattle during the summer of 2016. Ste. Michelle promoted Bertheau to director of winemaking in April 2018. Six months later, Ted Baseler, who first brought on Bertheau to head up Chateau Ste. Michelle’s white wine team, was out as CEO.
Bertheau has hinted that his plans for Bertheau Winemaking Consulting LLC go beyond his work with Loosen, but this first announced gig — Bert & Erni, Part II — certainly will find a thirsty audience.
“Who knows where it will lead, but we share the same fundamental curiosity and we both love to experiment – like a couple of mad scientists,” Bertheau said. “What could go wrong?”