Bob Betz - Betz Family Winery
Betz Gets It
by Christina Kelly
If Tony Bennett is the sweetest guy in show business, and James Brown was considered the hardest working man in the entertainment world, Bob Betz, winemaker/owner of Betz Family Winery in Woodinville is the Bennett and Brown of the Washington state wine industry, with a little Mister Rogers thrown in for good measure.
Betz is an unabashed positive guy, somewhat soft-spoken, who has been on the Northwest wine scene since the beginning of Washington's modern wine industry--28 years with Chateau Ste Michelle alone. He never misses an opportunity to teach, albeit in a gentle, whiz-kid, wide-eyed manner, as though he sees something extraordinary, and if you just look hard enough, you'll see it too. At almost 60-years-old, Betz still speaks with passion, eloquence and pride, with tireless advocacy and expertise that convinces others outside of the industry to listen.
"I loved being a part of the modern birth of our industry," says Betz, who runs his family winery with wife Cathy, daughter Carmen, and winemaker Kathryn House. "I love teaching and by doing so, hope it helps to give rise to the next generation of winemakers. We are coming into our own as winemakers, but this is still the beginning for us."
It is common to see interns at Betz Family Winery. He is a frequent guest speaker at wine seminars and fundraisers. You'll even see him answering questions at the local grocery store.
"He is extremely caring," said Cathy, who met Bob at an ice cream parlor in the late 1960s while attending the University of Washington. "He has a hard time saying no to people. I doubt there are very few people who have ever heard Bob say anything negative towards anyone."
After nearly 30 years at Chateau Ste Michelle (CSM), some were surprised to learn that Betz was retiring from one of the most prestigious wine jobs in the industry to focus on his small boutique winery. But over the years at CSM, Betz was pulled into more administrative duties and spent less time working with wine.
"I wanted to get my hands dirty again," he recalled. "I wanted those purple stains."
Quietly, and on the side, Betz began producing small lots of wine in 1997, making Rhone blends, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. He steered away from white wines, noting that there were plenty of winemakers producing great white wines, and he wanted to focus on what he enjoyed drinking. Washington state produces very good red grapes, and Betz said his philosophy is to use the best ingredients to start with, focusing on the purity of the varieties, and be meticulous in the winery, from cleanliness to careful attention to even the smallest details.
It is his attention to detail that score big with national wine critics. He was recently named "Winemaker of the Year," by Sunset Magazine who cited the intense fruit and structure of all his wines, reflecting Betz's artisan passion. He has been named "Artisan Winery of the Year" by Wine & Spirits Magazine. The Wine Spectator recently dubbed his 2005 Syrah offerings as "stunning."
For years, winemakers in California have dominated the American wine market, but Washington has really leapt forward," Betz says. "They told me the award was not just for the good wines we make, but kind of for the overall contribution--very exciting and a great honor."
When a winery like Betz receives national attention, it is good for all Washington wineries, says the affable winemaker. While Betz Family Winery may have its 15 minutes in the spotlight, Betz believes it will create more interest in Washington wines in general.
The couple says they are thrilled by all the accolades and attention, and then quietly go about their business in their relatively new (2005), but modest winery, located about 200 feet from their house. Bob and Cathy have been in the industry long enough to know that no two years are the same in the vineyard and consistency year-after-year is full-time work.
"I don't think we expected this much attention," says Cathy. "We produce a certain style of wine because we like it. There is plenty of room for different styles, but we are thrilled that so many people seem to enjoy it."
Betz says he makes wine for drinking pleasure. He doesn't worry about whether the wines should age or can age for 10 years. In fact, in a recent wine blog, Betz says the only reason to age wines is if it takes the wine to another dimension of complexity.
"I prefer wines aged to where vigor and complexity intersect: old enough to be harmonious, young enough to excite," Betz wrote. "Some drinking windows are short, some are long. A lot of wines need to shed their baby fat, integrate components and gain complexity, but I've also tasted way too many wines that are dried out, tannic, fruitless and 'dead' in the hope that they will 'age for a long time'. I find great pleasure in vibrancy and complexity, balanced by suppleness, and I strive to make wines like that."
"Longevity, in and of itself, is not a benefit for me. It is beneficial only if it takes a wine to another dimension of complexity, fullness or richness. If a wine reaches its pleasure peak earlier, then, all the better."
Betz says he looks at "drinking windows" as a "plateau" reached after birth and adolescence, each wine having its own plateau length where it delivers maximum pleasure, with the character changing over the plateau. For Betz, Cabernet has the longest plateau in Washington, lasting maybe 10 to 15 years, and in some cases longer. The wines may live longer, but Betz says it won't be as pleasurable for him at 20 to 25 years. "Optimum drinking is a moving target that is so personal," said Betz.
If there is pressure on Betz to make great wines, considering he is one of few people in the country with a Master of Wine degree, he doesn't show it or feel it, he says. His goal is to continue to define the Betz wine style, so that is has distinction and character, and people will know it when they taste it. He spends months in blending trials, more than twice the amount of time as other winemakers. The other goal is to continue educating the world about the top qualities of Washington state wines.
"Ten years ago, I don't think you would see a Washington winemaker selected as winemaker of the year--and I don't even know if you would have seen it five years ago," Betz said. "We are taking our place, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best producers in the world because we are changing the perceptions of consumers and wine producers elsewhere."
Betz released his 2005 Rhone-inspired wines in September and immediately sold out at the winery. He is expected to release his Bordeaux blends in early 2008, and even the modest Betz proclaims them "the best I ever made so far." The wines reflect the perfect balance of flavor with enough backbone to showcase the finesse and elegance of gently handled fruit. Expect to see big scores on those blends when released, and more industry hugs for Betz, the "Le Parrin"--Italian for Godfather and the name of his latest wine blend. Betz has made a wine offer you can't refuse.
Betz Family wines generally sell out quickly, so it is best to think ahead for the next crop of wines.
Bésoleil: A lush, juicy wine featuring Grenache, Mourvedre and a small pinch of Syrah in a blend that offers black pepper and spice, and lingering black fruits. The Grenache adds raspberry notes and the Syrah gives it a bit of smokiness, making this a wonderful wine to drink alone or with beef stroganoff.
Syrah La Côte Rousse: This is black velvet and silk, with intense blueberry and blackberry notes cutting through spice and smoke. Although tight when first opened, it blossomed into a wine with a finished that lingered long after the taste. This went well with pasta carbonara, bringing out the bacon in the dish.
Syrah La Serenne: Aromas from this wine included grilled meat, black pepper, coffee bean and loads of black fruit. The mouthfeel is silky with plum and blackberries and a very long finish. It is the perfect wine for grilled duck breasts with a huckleberry salsa.
Cabernet Sauvignon Pere de Famille: Betz starts with Cabernet Sauvignon and blends small amounts of Malbec, Merlot, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc to enhance the complexity and smoothness of this wine. The tannin is present but not obtrusive and the black cherry, spice and deep currant flavors go on forever. A cheese plate with blue-veined cheeses melts in your mouth with this wine.
Clos de Betz: The foundation of this wine is Merlot, mingled with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. It is a mouthful of berry fruit with layers of complexity and will only get better as it ages. This promises to be one of the best wines produced by Betz. Try it with a grilled filet with reduced Merlot sauce.
Le Parrain: No longer made, this wine was a blend of 50 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with 33 percent Merlot and 17 percent Cabernet Franc--it is a wine you can't refuse (the name means Godfather in French). Beautiful elegance with notes of chocolate, plum and baking spice in the nose and mouth, this wine works with pork dishes due to the friendliness of Merlot.