Betz Family Winery
The Betz Family Winery was founded by Bob Betz, his wife Kathy, their daughter Carmen, and two employees in 1998. In 2011 the winery was purchased by Steve and Bridgit Griesell, who moved from South Africa to Washington State to fulfill their dream of owning a winery. Bob has stepped back from day to day activities at the winery but continues as their winemaker with assistant winemaker Tyson Schiffner.
Deliberately low key, Betz Family Winery make a few thousand cases of wine each, selling much of it to a fully booked mailing list. The winery produces a short list of five beautifully crafted red wines: two Syrahs, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Grenache, and a blended red. Taken together they represent the apex of Washington wine. In 2005 Bob added the very limited "Patriarch" red and makes occasional highly sought after one-time reds.
More About Betz Family Winery
The winery uses careful, meticulously executed methods that they believe craft superior wine. They strive to create wines of individual character, incorporating a blend of richness, balance and pleasure. His winemaking focuses on the expression of the individual varieties' character, and the terroir of the vineyard.
The Winery - A Design Unique for Bob's Needs
In 2001, Bob designed a new winery, combining his knowledge of winemaking at a giant scale (Chateau Ste. Michelle,) his experience making his wine in a converted storage facility, and his technical skills to come up with his own perfect solution.
Bob describes his winery building: "Its purpose is simply to help us make better wine, the layout arranged to accommodate those things we hold sacred to winemaking. It's not a grand destination, there isn't a tasting room or tour, we aren't open to the public, but the tools are in place to ratchet up our commitment to the best wines Washington can produce. "
They designed the winery "to reinforce their winemaking priorities: barrels stored underground at a constant cool temperature, ceilings high to accommodate their gravity flow techniques, ".
The winery is "not a lot bigger, but a much smarter arrangement, about 5000 square feet, building in drains in the right places, insulation that is not exposed, a minimum of wood used, concrete that can be cleaned easily. We tried to use some gravity feed in our design, all of the barrel room is underground, to take advantage of natural cooling, but we’ll use a fork lift to gravity feed the juice from place to place," according to Bob.
Innovations in Winemaking at Betz
Bob says it’s important to use gravity feed: "we've got a lot of tannin in Washington red grapes, Cabernet especially, and every time you put those through a pump, you get opportunity to shear the seeds, open up the little packets of tannin in the skins. There's plenty of tannins already".
"We dump the grapes onto a table with the fork lift, sort out the grapes that you don't want to make wines out of, use gravity to dump those grapes into a bin. A forklift is then used to dump the grapes into the hopper and then from the hopper into the destemmer crusher, and then from the destemmer crusher, we use gravity to move it into into the fermenter. So we never pump our grapes and I think it makes a great difference in phenolic management. In many cases we don't even crush the berries but simply remove them from the stems, another technique "
“It's one of Washington's challenges,
and opportunities, controlling tannins, the whole phenolic picture
of its red grapes. To me, this is an important step - a lot of folks
pump the juice extracted from the grapes, in fact most everyone does.
Because we do not want to pump the juice, we designed a small funnel
that fits in the top of the fermenter and lets us use gravity to drop
the juice into the fermenter. I think it's [not pumping] a big deal,
for what we want to achieve with our wines.”
“Since everything here is punched down by hand, it’s very hard work. Fully forty percent of the volume in a fermenter ’s very hard work to punch it down.”
Bob is quite innovative in the processing of his grapes. He devised a device that uses a power jack, and pushing a couple of buttons, to plunge down through the cap and perform punchdown without having to use his own strength to do the work.
Bob says “A lot of the innovative tools we’ve created are because "I'm old". We designed our own press, and it was a huge step forward. When we first started making wine, we used a small basket press that could not accommodate much more than a home winemaker would press. Because we like the way it worked, when we needed a bigger press we simply built one that scaled it up, to capture those things we love so much about a basket press. In fact, the guy who built it for me sold the design to a company in CA.”
Bob deliberately chooses to use “low tech” equipment. His press requires that he continually monitor it, deciding when to stop pressing. (The more grapes are pressed, the more tannic and stemmy the juice coming from them becomes.)
While some wineries press grapes until the “must” that is left over is almost dry to the touch, fine winemakers don’t want the lower quality juice that comes from pressing to dryness. Most presses today are setup with automatic controls. You just set the computer controls to press at a certain level, and to stop at a certain point, and then leave it to run. Bob’s philosophy is quite different. His equipment is deliberately low-tech.
“It's [The basket press] an extremely gentle treatment for red grapes, and it has no computer program, exactly as I wanted. I want something that forces me to make the decisions about when to stop pressing. We built it so that the outflow from the press can be tasted, and when the fraction we are into becomes lower quality than I’d like, we stop. We could get a lot more volume out of it, but it's a great tool that makes the winemaker decide what he or she should do, to decide when to stop pressing. I don’t want to depend on a computer program but to taste to make the decision on when to stop", says Bob.
Attention to Detail Makes the Best Wine
When it comes to the processing of the precious grapes and their juice, Bob's attention to detail is clear.
"We know each lot and its particular
character, measuring sugar, alcohol and temperature, and tasting each
of them twice a day during fermentation. We use different yeast strains,
specific to the variety and vineyard. Each is selected for a particular
Bob is particularly concerned about yeast and bacterial contamination of the wine while under production. He's articulate on the problem of bretanomyces contamination, a common yeast infection present at some levels in many Washington wines. Bretanomyces (Brett) is a common spoilage organism in winemaking. While low levels of Brett are sometimes considered by some to be a good thing, adding complexity to some wines, others consider
The common words describing the effect of Brett on wine are "barnyard, sweaty stables, rancidly horsey, animal shed, cheesy, and animal-like". Brett appears much more often in red than in white wines, and in Washington, is often present in high end "big reds". Not necesarily a bad thing, Brett does, however, change the flavor of the grape varietal, offering added flavors in the same way that barrel toast or pollen and oils from nearby plants change a wine. While interesting, controversy swirls over whether these alien influences should be in the flavor.
The more extracted in style a wine is, made from super-ripe grapes with a higher PH, the less effective SO2 is at preventing it. Old barrels, or barrels left in a warm place without adequate treatment, are also prime sources of Brett. Bob stores his barrels at 45 degrees -- higher temperatures can encourage the growth of contaminants.
At this time, Bob has not had to filter his wines (to remove bacteria), but if the wine shows signs of contamination, he would not hesitate to filter. He sends out his wines for extensive testing, and the last test showed that Bret was below testing levels (in effect, not present).
Barrels at Betz Family Winery
Bob uses 100% French oak barrels for his wines. He did a lot of trials with American, Hungarian, and Russian barrels, but finds them too coarse. He has taken the wine aged in them out of his blends when he has used them.
In 1997 they used 100% new oak, but he's using less and less new oak as time goes on. For the Cabernet Sauvignon "Pere de Famille". he's using 65% new oak, while for the southern Rhone-style wines, he'll use all neutral barrels.
Bob says "The older I get, the less woody impresssion I want."
Bob uses a mix of four coopers- "Sylvain is the sweetest, it delivers a very gentle sense of oakiness- more vanilla directed than the others. Alain Fouquet is very similar to Seguin Moreau- creamy, vanilla, slightly nutty. Alain used to work at Seguin Moreau."
He uses barrels from Soree, and finds them "more profound, without being coarse, it makes more of a statement, contributes more of a particular tannin that comes out of oak" He really likes it, but uses it cautiously.
Bob and the "Master of Wine" Title
Betz Family Winery is the realization of a life-long passion. Since the early 1970's, Bob wandered the vineyards in Europe and the US to better understand the why and how of crafting fine wine. His philosophy is pretty simple: don't mess up what the vineyards have provided. Start with the highest quality fruit you can, treat it vigorously when necessary, gently most of the time, and stay out of its way but watch it closely. Allow the wines to develop slowly, and make sure they provide pleasure. His worldwide fame and the many awards he continues to receive are proof that his formula is a success.