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Betz Family Winery has New Winery, Wines

Syrah Releases
for Fall, 2005

It's a big month for Bob Betz and his Betz Family Winery, with a new building and two new, highly anticipated Syrahs. We visited with Bob to taste wine and hear about his philosophy of winemaking.

He has two new Syrahs out, and both show the complexity and robust Southern French style that gained 94 point ratings from Wine Spectator for the last vintage (2002).

Making Wine, Betz Style

The new 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.

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".

Betz Winery
Sorting Grapes, Kathy Betz in Foreground

Gravity feed is used throughout grape processing- "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 to increase the wine's mouthfeel."

Betz Syrah  

“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.”

"We ferment each lot separately in small tanks, and punch them down by hand twice each day throughout the 6 to 10 day fermentation. (By the end of harvest we're in better shape than when we started!)"

 “Since everything here is punched down by hand, it’s very hard work.  Fully forty percent  of the volume in a fermenter is cap- stems and seeds. It’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.)

  Betz Wine Press
Betz's Custom made Wine Press

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.

Betz's New Winery

Bob and family have just moved into their new winery, planned and under construction for the last two years.

"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. And starting with this 2005 harvest, all our winemaking is in the new winery."

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, concrete and metal materials used for efficient sanitation, floor drains set in the right place, and plenty of space to move equipment around."

Below, Bob shows us the plans for the new winery:

Bob Betz

The New Wines

Bob makes two Syrahs, one made from the grapes of Boushey Vineyard, one from the Red Mountain grapes of Kiona and Ciel du Cheval Vineyards.

The Betz Syrah "La Cote Rousse" 2003 $42.26/$46.95 and the Betz Syrah "La Serenne" 2003 $42.26/$46.95 are made in under 200 case quantitites and received 94 and 93 point ratings respectively, from Wine Spectator for the previous vintage.

The "La Cote Rousse" Syrah 03 unites the Syrah grapes of the two founders of the Red Mountain Apellation, Scott Williams of Kiona Vineyard and Jim Holmes of Ciel du Cheval Vineyard. These two, along with Scott's dad, John Williams, made an uncommon commitment to the untested sagebrush slopes of Red Mountain back in the early '70s. In a short 30 years this area has become one of America's most respected appellations.

Ciel du Cheval Vineyard, Summer 2004

And justifiably so. The red wines made from the Red Mountain fruit are dense blockbusters, jammed with fruit essence and richness, and capable of some of the longest cellaring of any Washington reds.

The Betz Syrah La Côte Rousse has always been made from Scott's stunning Syrah, but, like all good things, it's limited. Jim Holmes' grapes have been used to craft some of the headiest Syrahs in Washington, but have never been available to Betz. Until now. The 2003 vintage is 60% from Scott's vineyard and 40% from Jim's.

And the blend met Bob's expectations. It has the deepest black red color Bob has yet achieved with Syrah. There are profound blackberry, black cherry aromas, pure and penetrating. Syrah flavors emerge as a roasted meat, violet, and spce concerto that carries across to the flavor. Despite classic Red Mountain tannin levels everything is in remarkable harmony, with a fleshy, plump richness balanced by a notable spine of structure. With its concentration, verve and structure this one should do well in the cellar for many years. You can order this wine here.

The Betz Syrah "La Serenne" shows the influence of a hot 2003 vintage, despite it being from one of Bob's cooler vineyards. Midseason temperatures at the Boushey Vineyard (where 100% of this fruit is grown) were among the highest of the previous five years creating a depth and ripeness not seen before in this wine. "Thick" is the word Bob used in the cellar right from the start to describe it. Throughout fermentation and barrel/bottle aging it never lost its density and black color.

The 2003 is true to its predecessors: this is the wild child in the cellar. Boushey Vineyard always seems to produce the most "Rhone-like" qualities for Syrah — meaty and smoky and a hint of wild spice. Bob picked it a full month later than the grapes for La Côte Rousse, and the cooler ripening month most likely generates these more undisciplined notes. Bob loves them. He aged this vintage only 12 months in French barrels, about half new, and the wine acquired all the tannin suppleness and flavor development it needed. He wanted to make sure the fruit essence wasn't overshadowed by oak.

The flavor foundation is blackberry/black cherry with roasted coffee bean, smoke and minerals. A whiff of violets surfaced in the 2003, a note Bob often finds in Northern Rhone Syrah. And then there's its silky mouthfeel, the result of very low yields (less than 2.5 tons/acre), concentration, high alcohol and seamless tannin. Yet it still is powerful and amply built for 3-6 years of additional cellaring.

Making the Wine

When it comes to the processing of the precious grapes and their juice, Bob's attention to detail is apparent.

"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 result."

"In our effort to produce wines that are full and supple at the same time, wines are pressed off when they achieve the right extraction of character, fruit and tannin, even if the wine is not "sugar dry", that is, before all the sugar is converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide. We then complete this primary (alcoholic) fermentation in barrel. Rather than a pre-programmed "press cycle", we constantly taste at the wine being pressed out of the skins and stop the process when the wine coming out loses its sweet/supple character. We get less wine, but it supports our goal of richness without a hard mouthfeel."

Wine Quality and Contamination

Bob Betz  

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 its presence a flaw, and rate wines down if it is present.

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 highend "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.

  Bob Betz

In 1997 they used 100% new oak, but he's using less and less new oak as time goes on. For theCabernet 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 Betz
Bob using Graduated Cylinder
to Pour Barrel Samples





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