Betz Family Winery has New Winery, Wines
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".
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."
“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
Betz's Custom made Wine
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
Below, Bob shows us the plans for
the new winery:
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.
Syrah "La Cote Rousse"
2003 $42.26/$46.95 and
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
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.
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
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
Making the Wine
When it comes to the processing of the precious
grapes and their juice, Bob's attention to detail is apparent.
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
Wine Quality and Contamination
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.
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,
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 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 using Graduated Cylinder
to Pour Barrel Samples