Washington Wine History Interviews: Bob Betz, Betz Family Winery

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 3/25/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22420

Bob Betz (b. 1948) grew up in Seattle's Wallingford neighborhood with designs on becoming a doctor. When that didn't work out, he transitioned quickly to find his calling in the wine industry. He and his wife Cathy traveled extensively in Europe, where Betz broadened his wine knowledge, and in 1998 he earned the prestigious Master of Wine degree from the Institute of Masters of Wine in London. After a 28-year career at Chateau Ste. Michelle, he and Cathy built their own winery, Betz Family Winery, which quickly gained a reputation for its world-class red wines. In this September 2021 interview with HistoryLink's Jim Kershner, Betz talks about his wine education, a magical trip to Chateau Petrus, and his role in helping grow Washington's wine industry from the ground up. 

Off to Europe

Jim Kershner: Bob, tell us about your upbringing and your memories of wine in your family when you were a kid. 

Bob Betz: It was pretty fun. I was raised in a family that was culturally Italian-based; my mother is southern Italian, Neapolitan, and my dad is German, therefore the last name, but the culture influence was at the table, and I can recall as a kid that the table was pretty darn important. Dinner time is here, we are a family together here. And not frequently, but special occasions, my dad would serve some wine, and the kids all had a touch of wine with a lot of 7-Up mixed with it. That was part of the upbringing. But I think more importantly, was the cultural influence of that Italian heritage that really turned my direction ultimately toward the pleasures of the table, and wine of course was a part of it.

My upbringing was certainly not wine-centric; dad didn't have a wine cellar and mom didn't drink a lot of wine ... but what it was, was that cultural influence of knowing that the table was important. From there it took off once I reached an age where I could drink, and I could study, and I could travel, and the combination led to this life in wine. I never envisioned a career in wine, but I certainly jumped on it once I had the chance. 

Betz's childhood career ambition was to be a doctor. He was fascinated by physiology and anatomy and kept a fetal pig in a jar in his bedroom. He attended Blanchet High School and the University of Washington, where he studied zoology. But after applying to medical school in 1970, he was turned down. By then he had met his future wife, Cathy, at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor, where she was a hostess and he was a waiter. Soon they were traveling in Europe, and Betz was enchanted by the culture and the wine. 

JK: Tell me about those trips to Europe and how they affected your wine life. 

BB: Dramatically. It dramatically affected my wine life because the trips were oriented to family, art history, and vineyards and winemaking. The first six months we spent in 1971, I visited my roots in southern Italy, cousins and aunts and uncles, and then her family in France ... during that time we had spent time in Tuscany vineyards, in Bordeaux vineyards, and in Burgundy and Champagne. And then when we got back we said, "This is pretty exciting stuff." And the next year and a half I spent studying, writing, interviewing, tasting, and so the second six-month trip was in 1973 and we spent that really dedicated to vineyards and winemaking, mostly France and Italy. Third would have been Germany, then Spain and Austria. So we made our way through every major vineyard region in those countries. We visited every major cellar in Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Loire, Alsace. We harvested grapes in Alsace in 1973. We then went to Germany and did the Moselle, the Rhine and the Nahe, and then went to Tuscany as we got into the fall. We did Tuscany, then Veneto and the northern district.

Epiphanies at Chateau Petrus

JK: They [Europeans] were enthusiastic about teaching you what they knew? 

BB: Very much so. They all had a story to tell, and it's where we cemented ... it was the practical exam, if you will, because we had spent the two years prior to that studying, reading, tasting, going to events, and when we got there, it became reality -- understanding what this chateau was doing and that domaine was doing to optimize fruit quality, to optimize their cellar practices.

It's interesting that at the time, the Old World was really the dominant influence in grape growing and winemaking. If you remember, Robert Mondavi didn't start his winery here in America until, 1966 I believe was his first vintage. So this was five or six years later and wine tourism was just beginning. We were learning lessons from the Europeans. What was happening though is there was a little cross-fertilization ... that some of the European winemakers were spending time at educational institutes here in America, i.e. [University of California at] Davis, as well as doing a temporary work assignment in cellars in America. So when we got there, there was this excitement about sharing both ways. 

One of the real peak experiences is, we called the proprietor of Chateau Petrus, one of the greatest red wines in the world, and he said, "Certainly. I just got back from Davis," and he said "I'd love to meet with you," and my wife and I spent four hours with this fellow named Christian Moueix, who is one of the great wine personalities of the world today, in 1973, and we were on our hands and knees digging in the dirt at Chateau Petrus, understanding soil composition, soil influence, and then we went to the cellar and tasted through a series of things. Until today, that is one of the real peak experiences of my life. 

Catching on with Ste. Michelle

Bob and Cathy had decided their future was in the wine industry. In 1974, he went to work managing the La Cantina wine shop in Seattle. There he was able to taste a wide range of wines and further his education. More than a year later he received a job offer as public-relations manager for Chateau Ste. Michelle, an early player in Washington's infant wine industry. He started on January 1, 1976. 

JK: Were you confident if the Washington wine industry as a whole was going to take off in a way they were hoping for?

BB: It was mixed. I didn't have great vision of where Washington could go, but I saw the investment that Ste. Michelle was making in the vineyards and in the cellar and at the chateau, and I thought, they're not taking this thing lightly. It cost us $6 million in 1972, '74, '75 to purchase the land, build the chateau and open it, and do the winemaking here. I saw the investment that they were very serious in making this work.

We didn't know what we had. We had this huge investment -- nobody else had made the investment in Washington; very few had made it in California -- but there was a spark; it was this energy of activation. It was striking the matchhead and letting it flare. It was this opportunity that all of us were willing to do something we hadn't done, had never done before, on a daily basis, on a seasonal and annual basis, to see if this things would work. That first year that we were open to the public, there were like 200,000 people that came through the chateau as visitors.

Betz spent a lot of time on the road for the next few years promoting Ste. Michelle and the Washington wine industry. The 1972 Ste. Michelle Riesling won a prestigious Los Angeles Times wine competition in 1974 to help drive the winery's growth. Meanwhile, the state began to gain notice for its red wines, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon.  

JK: When did that [Washington red wines] really start?

BB: Merlot started in the mid '70s to gain traction. Grenache was always relegated off to the side. In 1986 the first Syrah was planted in Washington. It was pretty incredible. And then you had these other grape varieties. It was during the '70s and '80s, and then in the '90s, there was a big explosion of planting, and then into the early part of this century a lot more planting. We've slowed down in our planting now, but what we have done is the really important step of trying to match grape variety with vineyard site. Not every grape variety will do well here, but it will do better [there], and that's the chapter than we're writing right now, is the site/variety marriage in Washington. I think it's such a healthy thing. In the process we're establishing individual appellations -- I think there are 19 appellations in Washington right now. What it is is a communicator to the consumer that Cabernet grown here is going to taste different than Cabernet grown there.

Gradually, Betz's job morphed away from communications to more involvement with the vineyards and the cellar. He was involved in sales, marketing, and other departments -- everything but finance. He was heavily involved in the Col Solare joint venture with Italy's Antinori family. The experience gave him a leg up when he started making his own wines in 1997.  In 1998, Betz earned the prestigious Master of Wine degree from the Institute of Masters of Wine in London. 

JK: That's a very rigorous program, correct?

BB: Yes. BMW, or Master of Wine, is looked at as the toughest exam, the toughest educational program in the industry. I know that it was hard for me. It was three or four years of study, and the test-taking process is all structured according to the English way -- passing it is three days of written theory exams and three days of written tasting exams, and once you've passed those two parts, you can take a year to write your dissertation. And it's a lengthy dissertation on a topic; mine happened to be something I was working on at Ste. Michelle at the time, the interaction of barrel maturation and red wines. So it was timely, and it was appropriate, and so I ended up passing the dissertation in 1998. 

Betz Family Winery

Betz retired from Ste. Michelle in 2003 after 28 years. He and Cathy dedicated all of their efforts to building their own winery. In 1997, in borrowed space at DeLille Cellars, they crushed their first gapes and made Alpha, the first Betz Family Wine. The Betz's winery opened in Woodinville in 1999. 

JK: When you started it, which wines were you concentrating on?

BB: From the very beginning, Cabernet Sauvignon, which to me is Washington's greatest red grape. Not to take anything away from any of the others, but I think we have more potential with Cabernet. And we played with the big dogs, okay? When you're making Cabernet Sauvignon, you're with Bordeaux, and the greatest expressions of Napa and Australia, and Italy and South America. My goal was to make great Cabernet. It's different from all of those, but it's still great Cabernet, and as we see today, Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington is at the peak. So we started with Cabernet Sauvignon and a second label called Clos du Betz, which was a Bordeaux blend. 

The Betz Family wines met with widespread acclaim. Robert Parker's influential Wine Advocate assigned 99 points to the 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon Le Parrain. In 2007, Betz was named American Winemaker of the Year by Sunset magazine. In about 2010, he and Cathy began thinking about a succession plan, and in 2011 they sold the winery, the inventory, and their home on the property to a family from Napa. Betz stayed on as winemaker for five years. In 2015, he became consulting winemaker to Louis Skinner. 

JK: When you look back over your life and your career and where Washington wine was when you started and where it is now, what is your assessment of how things have gone? 

BB: The numbers themselves are extraordinarily exciting, going from eight, maybe 10 wineries when I first started, now well over a thousand wineries. Going from, I don't know, there had to be maybe a thousand acres of vines planted back then, maybe, to over 50,000 acres planted today. Those numbers in and of themselves are exciting. The distribution of Washington wine globally. But it's the mentality, the philosophy in-state, and the response out of state, which are particularly exciting. Growers and winemakers in Washington get it. There's no surprise, there's no doubt. They're eager about winemaking research, they're eager about planting new sites, adding to the appellations, the site specificity. But it's this acceptance outside of Washington that is fabulous. And Ste. Michelle, give them credit. They have been the flag-bearer of Washington globally. 

Further reading: HistoryLink's biography of Bob Betz by Jim Kershner.

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