Bob Betz was raised in two cultures—Italian
(his mother) and German (his father). Food and wine was part of the
family culture. Gatherings around the kitchen table were part of the
“The Betz family unit is the root and foundation
of why I love wine and food—it’s simply part of my culture,” Betz
said. “We are a close family and that includes the extended family
of volunteers who help us with the winery.”
Wine is Calling
Betz didn’t start out in the wine industry,
or even study it in college. His first career choice was medicine and
he was majoring in pre-med at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Cathy Betz was studying French at the UW, although
she didn’t meet Bob in school. The couple actually met when they
were hired to work at an ice cream parlor while attending classes.
“I was majoring
in French and lived a year in Lyon as an exchange student while in
high school,” Cathy recalled. “That’s where I first
learned about wine.”
Betz didn't enter medical school, but
he and Cathy married first in 1970, and then took a trip to Europe.
Fate stepped in and nudged Betz on the path to winemaking. He worked
in vineyards in France, Italy and Germany before returning home
to Seattle a year later.
Rather than medical school, Betz went to work
for Stimson-Lane, the parent company of the largest wineries in the
Northwest. In 1980, Betz was accepted to medical school, but again,
opportunities at Stimson were too good to pass up.
nearly 30 years, it’s been a pleasure to go to work,” Betz
said. “If I could have sat down to write my pathway, I wouldn’t
Juggling two jobs
can be taxing on many, but Betz thrives on activity, a thirst for
knowledge and a metabolism that
won’t quit. When he isn’t working for traveling for Stimson-Lane,
he’s working at the Betz Family Winery site, blending, tasting
or traveling to Eastern Washington’s Columbia Valley to check
“He doesn’t like standing still,” Cathy
said. “He is a great winemaker who is still learning and knows
his best wines are still coming.”
Master of Wine, Oldest in Class
Betz received a Master in Wine from the Institute
of Masters of Wine in London in 1998, at the age of 50-years-old. Very
few people receive this distinction and the only other holder of that
title in Washington State is David Lake, from Columbia Winery. There
are only about 250 people worldwide to hold the title since 1953.
It took him a few years of self-paced study taking
“I wanted to have the knowledge, and as
corny as it sounds, the prestige,” Betz. “It was something
to work for. It fit in well with what I was doing and I wanted to achieve.”
Betz did so well that he was given two awards
of distinction by the Institute: the Robert Mondavi Award for having
the highest overall scores on all theory exams and the Villa Maria
Award for the outstanding paper on viticulture. He wrote his graduate
thesis on barrel influence on wine character.
Promoter of the Columbia Valley
Stimson-Lane allowed Betz to make his family
wine, albeit a small production. The couple produces about 1,000 cases
per year and has no plans to drastically increase the amount.
“We want to stay small enough where we
know every barrel,” Cathy said. “We don’t want to
be forced to hire more people for marketing and sales and distribution.
This is our labor of love.”
For more than 10 years, Betz has been intimately
involved with the fruit of the Columbia Valley, first for Stimson Lane,
and now for Betz Family Winery. In 1989, Stimson changed its winemaking
philosophy to focus on the quality of wines.
“Our goal at Stimson Lane is to deliver
quality on all tiers of our wines, whether it is a $70 bottle or a
$15 bottle,” Betz said. “I’ve been thrilled to watch
as the scores on our wines increased during this time. The wines we
produce to day are exciting.”
The quality comes from the rich fruit of the
Columbia Valley, and Betz said it is his mission in life to promote
“The hero of our story is the Columbia
Valley,” he said. “We’ve worked hard to increase
the quality level. As a result, Washington wines are soaring.”
Betz said Columbia Valley fruit is full, ripe
and textured for food and wine pairing. He structures his wine for
More importantly, Betz said the grapes reflect
the growing region, the terroir of the Columbia Valley, including the
climate, soil, topography and other minute aspects that affect the
grape. The fruit intensity from the Columbia Valley like many California
districts, but structured more like those of Western Europe.
“Our winemaking challenge is to preserve
the stunning fruit expression the land provides us,” he added.
As the winemaker for
Betz Family Wines, Bob does most of the blending trials and ultimately
makes the decisions on the
wine. Cathy said her husband make it clear that when it came to matters
of the wine, the winery was “not a democracy.”
“Bob has a great nose, so that’s
an area where I don’t get too involved,” Cathy said. “I
think he is extremely talented in his tasting abilities. I like the
way a wine feels in my mouth. I don’t like it too high in acid
or too high in alcohol. He tries to accommodate me on that.”
The couple keeps a global household, with wines
from all over the world. Cathy said she likes Southern Rhone wines,
and her husband likes great wines that showcase the area where the
fruit is grown.
A passionate chef,
Betz developed two cookbooks for Chateau Ste. Michelle, “Tastes of Liberty” and “Star-Spangled
Cooking.” On the day of this interview, Betz was smothered in
garlic and herb smells from the kitchen, where he was preparing a luncheon
with his family.
“I love the culture of wine and food,” Betz
said. “This is a good living. I believe in working hard, and
pursuing your passion. Just passion alone, or work alone isn’t
always enough. You have to have both.”
Author Christina Kelly
worked as a newspaper reporter on the West Coast for more than
20 years covering education, public safety, government, business,
environmental issues, entertainment and minority affairs. During
the same time, the Washington native began her lifelong interest
in wine. After two decades in the news reporting business, Christina
decided it was time to concentrate on her passion – the