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“Betz Family Wines
Truly a Family Affair”

By Christina Kelly
Avalon Editor/Writer

He holds the rare designation of Master of Wine, works for the largest winery corporation in the Northwest, and is generally adored by most who meet him.

Bob Betz, a vice president of winemaking research at Stimson-Lane (the parent company of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Col Solare, Northstar and Snoqualmie wineries to name a few) is at the top of the pinnacle, where few can match his feats. He has been part of a team that has helped raise the wine scores to new highs.

Like most winemakers, Betz wanted his own personal and unique wine. His work at Stimson-Lane removed him from the day-to-day practices of winemaking.

“I wanted to make sure my fingers stayed purple,” Betz said. “I didn’t want to get away from the fundamentals of winemaking. I love the actual act of making and blending wines and I missed it.”

Thus began Betz Family Winery in 1997, a company with family connections. Cathy Betz, Bob’s wife, is president of the winery, and his daughter, Carmen Severns, heads up sales and customer service, among other duties. The couple's other daughter Carla is an aspiring LA actor/rock musician who
returns frequently to help with winery activities. Assistant winemaker Ross Mickel, although not officially related, is like a son, says Cathy Betz.

 

 

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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 family structure.

“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.”

Dr. Betz, 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.

“For 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 change anything.”

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 on grapes.

“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 the test.

“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 that appellation.

“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 longevity.

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 wine industry.

 

 

 

Betz Family Winery's
Bob and Kathy Betz

 

 

 

 

 

Ciel du Cheval Vineyard


Bob with Ciel du Cheval vineyard manager
Jim Holmes, at the base of Red Mountain

 

 

 

 

 

Kathy and helpers sorting Grapes

 

 

 





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