Bob Betz is a Master of Wine, but he’s achieved much more than that. Over the last 40 years he has played a leading role in Washington State's wine industry, and he’s been through it all — from the modest beginnings of the region to its current, dynamic nature.
Mr. Betz is without a doubt part of Washington wine history, and his journey has allowed him to work side-by-side with other greats of American wine history. André Tchelistcheff, a consultant for Chateau St. Michelle, where Mr. Betz worked for 28 years, described by Mr. Betz as “the single most seminal figure in American wine production.” Now Mr. Betz is a consultant himself.
After 45 harvests in Washington, Mr. Betz effusively declares his fondness for all wine. “The world is my oyster when it comes to wine,” he affirms. He adds, “I love wines that are well made regardless of origin,” but he’s definitely in love with The Evergreen State.
Over the past five decades, Washington has marched steadily towards grandeur, and now it makes world-class examples of any grape and color. Here, they grow some of the best Riesling, Cabernet, and Merlot in the country.
But getting people to appreciate them hasn’t always been easy. Washington is far north, and it’s cold and wet — at least that is people’s perception. “How can you possibly grow grapes in Washington?” Mr. Betz gets asked regularly. Actually, Washington is perfect for grape-growing.
The state is part of America’s Pacific region, along with California and Oregon, where the classic vinifera varieties thrive. The climatic conditions are just right — mountain ranges run north-to-south and the Pacific Ocean rain systems give balance, providing a climate that is more than comfortable for vines.
Sure, Seattle is rainy, but the state’s biggest city lies on the western side of the Cascades, the tall mountain range that runs from the southern border with Oregon all the way up to Canada. The winegrowers, however, plant grapes on the east side of the mountains, where conditions are different.
“We had to prove to people that we have a viticultural region that is blessed by abundant sunshine, warm temperatures, very low rainfall, high light intensity, and the kind of soils which give themselves generously to classic varieties,” states the MW.
The wine region is not uniform, however. “There are these pockets, some are cooler, some are warmer,” explains Mr. Betz. “Some have greater exposure to the sun, some are flattened out.”
Today, dedicated producers grow over 40 varieties, including Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon, and Chenin Blanc, and they’re all well made.
There are lots of great producers in the state, but we can single out one as the most influential and critical for the region’s success: Chateau Ste. Michelle. The winery picked their first vintage in 1967. “Ste. Michelle has been our flag bearer”, says Mr. Betz. It’s consistent quality, marketing efforts and steady growth have put Washington wines on the map. Today, Washington is the second largest growing state with 160 wineries.
So, how do Washington wines compare to other American wines?
The wines have structure and restrained fruit compared to Californian examples, but Washington wines have the same ripeness, alcohol levels, acidity, and tannin. While still rich, there's a feeling of elegance and balance; the wines are closer to the classic Bordeaux profile.
Washington is an excellent source for wine at all price points; if they’re good enough to excite a Master of Wine, they’re good enough for us.
Learn all about Mr. Betz’s own winery and his new exciting project with the Italian Antinori family, only on this episode of Bottled in China.