Bob Betz (b. 1948) is a leader and pioneer in the Washington wine industry. After growing up in Seattle, he took several trips to Europe and fell in love with the culture of winemaking. He abandoned his childhood dream of becoming a physician and in 1976 Chateau Ste. Michelle hired him as director of public relations communications. He became part of the team that built the winery into one of the largest wine producers in the U.S. In 1998, he became one of the few people in the Northwest to earn a degree from London’s Institute of Masters of Wine. He had the title of vice president of winemaking research when he retired from Chateau Ste. Michelle in 2003. From then on, he devoted all of his time to his own small winery, Betz Family Winery in Woodinville. His premium red wines went on to earn stunning accolades. Betz was recognized as one the state’s wine industry groundbreakers and received numerous honors. He sold Betz Family Winery in 2011 but stayed on as the winemaking consultant.
“I Was on My Way to Medical School”
Bob Betz was born Robert Paul Betz in Chicago on August 8, 1948, to Mary Sarno and Don Betz, and the family moved to Seattle when he was a first-grader. They lived in the Wallingford neighborhood and he attended St. Benedict School and Blanchet High School. His mother was of Neapolitan heritage, so wine accompanied holiday and celebratory dinners. Betz remembers being given “7-Up with a little bit of red wine” on Christmas and Easter (Bob Betz interview with author). However, as in most American families of the era, wine was reserved for special occasions, and mostly came from a jug. “I remember on their 25th wedding anniversary in 1968, I went to Frederick & Nelson and bought them a crock bottle of Lancer’s Rose,” Betz said of his parents. “They thought that was very fine – and that bottle stuck around the house for decades, holding candles” (Betz interview).
The wine boom was still decades away in Washington — and Betz himself was destined to play a key role in it. Yet a wine career was not on his horizon when he graduated from Blanchet in 1966 and enrolled in the University of Washington. He majored in zoology because he was absolutely certain of his career path: He wanted to be a medical doctor. In 1961, The Seattle Times described the eighth-grader as “an amateur student of anatomy and biology” (Parietti). Recalled Betz: “From the time I was 8 years old I thought I was on my way to medical school. I loved everything about it. My birthday gifts and Christmas gifts were always models and books on the human body. When I was 12 years old one of my gifts was from Pike Place Market. I got a beef heart to dissect!” (Betz interview).
His undergraduate work was geared almost entirely toward medical school. But then, in a twist that would alter the trajectory of his life, he was not accepted into medical school upon graduating in 1970. “I was pretty surprised,” he said. “I applied to four different schools and got on their alternate lists” (Betz interview). He considered this a temporary setback. Meanwhile, another change was taking place in his life.
Two years earlier, he had met the woman he was destined to marry, Cathy Corfman, a UW student, who worked with him part time at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour in Seattle. She had spent a year living in France on an exchange program. He was head over heels in love, and under her inspiration, he had become more interested in European history and culture – and that culture included wine. “I realized there was something more to life than the pure sciences,” he said (Betz interview). A 1968 summer vacation to Europe had only whetted his appetite.
They married in June 1970, right after he graduated. Since he would not be entering medical school in the fall, they faced a choice. He could re-apply to medical school and continue working as a waiter at the Old Spaghetti Factory in Seattle, in the expectation of being accepted the following year. Cathy suggested a second option. “We need to go back to Europe,” she told him (Betz interview). He found that option intriguing, and he didn’t require much convincing. They saved their money and took off on a six-month trip to Europe in March 1971.
Two for the Road
Betz’s interest in wine had already been kindled by his work at the Old Spaghetti Factory. That restaurant happened to have one of the better wine lists in Seattle — from inexpensive Chiantis up to high-end bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Latour. He was allowed to taste some of them, though not the more rarified bottles. He would write down the names of those, go home, read up on them, and imagine how they would taste.
During that European odyssey, he was determined to go directly to the source. They bought a car after arriving in Paris and hit the road. After visiting various European relatives, they began to trek through wine country “We began dipping deep into Tuscan wine, Piedmont wine, Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Loire, and a little bit into Champagne,” he said. “So all of the sudden this wine thing had captured my heart, my desires. And I realized that wine was part of my future. That trip was truly the foundation of what was to come” (Betz interview). Half of that trip was devoted exclusively to vineyards. They would simply show up at a winery, full of curiosity. In most cases the winemakers were happy to show them around and share both their knowledge and their samples.
When they came back to Washington, Betz was offered the chance to manage new locations of the Old Spaghetti Factory in Portland and Tacoma. He worked at both locations for a short time, but the call of the European vineyards remained strong. Now he was certain that wine – not medicine, and not restaurant management – was his calling.
In June 1973, they took off for Europe for another six months. This time, they were focused almost entirely on the grape. They arrived at wineries and if there was work to be done, they volunteered. They slept in cheap rooms, and sometimes in tents. “We harvested grapes in Alsace, we ‘worked’ in the cellars, we went to the auction in Burgundy — the Hospices de Beaune — and visited every major cellar in Bordeaux. I’m talking Lafite and Latour and d’Yquem. Just all down the line. We visited every one we could” (Betz interview).
This approach might not have worked in later decades, but in 1972, the concept of wine tourism in Europe was still in its infancy. Wineries were not exactly deluged with curious visitors. The winemakers seemed genuinely pleased when this young American couple showed so much interest in their work. “We didn’t have a single door closed to us,” said Betz. “We were respectful of their time. We hit a couple of festivals in Germany, and the producers could tell we were really interested, so they said, ‘Come see us tomorrow and we’ll see the cellar together.’ They were crazy generous” (Betz interview). The entire trip was the equivalent, he later said, “to my first graduate degree in wine” (Betz interview).
When he got back to Seattle, he landed his first wine-industry job — a retail job at La Cantina Wine Merchants, one of Seattle’s pioneering wine shops. “It was such a treat for me at the time, because I had been to Burgundy and Champagne and Tuscany,” he said (Betz interview). When he recommended a wine, it was based on direct personal knowledge. He soon developed a following of savvy customers. However, he had been there only about a year when he got a call from Ste. Michelle Vintners, a Washington winery planning a massive expansion. Charles Finkel, the vice-president of sales, asked Betz if he wanted to be Ste. Michelle’s director of public relations communications. Betz jumped at it. “That was the turning point of my career,” said Betz. “It gave me an opportunity to dive deep into this industry at the production level” (Betz interview). He landed the job, he said, “because I could speak wine” (Kelly).
Forefront of the Wine Boom
It was a propitious time to take that job, because Ste. Michelle was poised in 1974 to ride what would be a massive wave of growth for the entire Washington wine industry. The company’s history was an almost perfect microcosm of the of state’s modest wine history to that point. The company traced its roots to two small Washington producers making mostly fruit and berry wines for the post-Prohibition market. They later merged under the name American Wine Growers. Not until 1969 did the company release a line of true vinifera grape wines, under the name Ste. Michelle Vintners. In 1974, the Los Angeles Times staged a blind tasting of more than 20 rieslings from all around the world. Only one was from Washington, a 1972 Ste. Michelle riesling. It was the least expensive riesling in the competition, and it won.
That year, a large conglomerate recognized the potential and purchased the Ste. Michelle winery and brand. When Betz took that job at the beginning of 1976, Ste. Michelle had broken ground on a gigantic new winery in Woodinville, and was in the process of changing its name. The new winery building was designed in the image of a French chateau, so the entire label would now be called Chateau Ste. Michelle.
One of Betz’s first jobs was to plan and direct the visitor experience at the new Chateau Ste. Michelle. The company was making an audacious bet that people would not only buy fine Washington wine, but would also flock to the chateau for winery tours and wine tastings. Betz, who had toured all of the grand wineries in Europe, was an ideal choice for the job. “That occupied the next nine months,” said Betz. “When we opened in September 1976, it was a great celebration to kick off wine tourism as we know it today in Washington. There had been other tasting rooms, in Eastern Washington and a couple around South Seattle or Tacoma, but this was critical mass. This brought the whole visitor experience on a bigger scale to Washington” (Betz interview).
The company’s bet paid off almost immediately. The crowd on opening day was staggering. “It was like a flood, it was like Niagara Falls,” said Betz (Betz interview). He had hired 10 people to handle the demand, but on opening day everyone in the offices, even the executives, were called down to the tasting room floor to give tours and sell wine. Demand stayed strong long after the grand opening. In its first year of operation, Betz estimated that 200,000 people visited the winery.
Betz would later tell The Seattle Times that Woodinville had great advantages as a wine tourism destination because “it’s somewhat of a country setting, but close to the population base – it’s even closer to Seattle than the Napa Valley is to San Francisco” (Broom). It was one of many factors that steadily increased Chateau Ste. Michelle’s visibility. In the early days, Betz said when he traveled to the East Coast “they’d ask me which side of the Potomac River we grew our grapes” (Godden). Yet by 1986, Chateau Ste. Michelle was available in all 50 states, the first Washington wine to attain such a wide market reach.
Branching Out at Ste. Michelle
Chateau Ste. Michelle made its name with its excellent riesling, with grapes mostly from the Columbia Valley. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that the Washington climate was best suited to relatively cool-climate white varietals. “It was a double-edged sword for us,” said Betz. “It was so good to get that national notoriety for riesling. But it cast Washington as a cool-climate viticulture” (Betz interview).
However, in a harbinger, Chateau Ste. Michelle had already started growing and bottling red wines — cabernet sauvignon and merlot. By the 1990s, Washington red wine was gaining some national recognition, but it was a tough sell. “We not only had to sell a brand at Chateau Ste. Michelle, we had to sell a viticultural region. The world is a tough market out there. But over the course of 20 years, we were able to take the story and tell it to the world” (Betz interview). They did that by, among other things, holding blind tastings in which Ste. Michelle reds could be compared directly with fine Bordeaux reds. Ste. Michelle reds didn’t win all the time, but they won often enough to get the attention of the wine world.
Betz was “over-the-top” happy with his job as director of public relations communications. It allowed him to “stick my nose” into all aspects of the winemaking business, and also to use the valuable experience he had accumulated on those European trips (Betz interview). He participated in sensory reviews and blending sessions and learned the art, along with the business, of winemaking. Ste. Michelle was at the forefront of what was now a booming Washington wine industry.
“We went from a dot on the viticultural map to a real force,” said Betz. “I think what happened in those first couple of decades was that we realized this is a great viticultural region. The hero of a story is, ultimately, the Columbia Valley. Because people were going to come and go. Programs would come and go. Winemakers would come and go. But the constant is the Columbia Valley. [Those vineyards] took us to the point where we can really stand on the world stage now” (Betz interview). He credited Ste. Michelle for investing in research that helped identify the best methods and varietals for the Columbia Valley’s growers – and those varietals included classic red grapes such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and syrah.
As the state’s industry evolved, so did Betz’s career at Ste. Michelle. He worked at various times in sales, marketing and quality assurance. Before long, his job title became vice president of winemaking research, as he became increasingly involved in production.
He was part of the team that launched two innovative and prestigious European collaborations, Eroica and Col Solare. The Eroica collaboration began in 1999, when the company brought in one of the most famous names in German riesling — Ernst Loosen (known as Dr. Loosen) — to help produce a world-class “luxury” riesling from grapes grown in Washington. Betz met with Dr. Loosen in Germany before the first grapes were even harvested and many times thereafter. Betz later said he loved the time he spent learning the art of fine German winemaking. Riesling was already a huge Ste. Michelle success story — it was, in fact, the biggest producer of riesling in the world. Yet Eroica took Washington riesling to a new level of prestige. More than two decades later, Eroica remains one of the Ste. Michelle’s premier labels.
Col Solare began in 1992 as a collaboration with Tuscan winemaker Marchese Piero Antinori, an Italian winemaking legend. “I went back and forth to Italy, collaborating with the Antinori family, helping to get Col Solare put together,” said Betz (Betz interview). By 1995 Col Solare was producing a spectacular cabernet sauvignon with Washington grapes and a Tuscan flair. When Betz looked back on his 28 years with Ste. Michelle, he had no trouble identifying Col Solare as project that he loved the most. “Because of my Italian heritage and my linguistic ability in Italian, this project really captured my heart,” said Betz. “If I could make red wine anywhere other than Washington, it would be in Tuscany” (Betz interview). Col Solare turned out to be so successful that in 2007, the company opened a separate Col Solare winery and estate vineyard on Red Mountain near Benton City.
Master of Wine
By the time he began the Col Solare project, he was acquiring a different kind of winemaking credential: an advanced academic degree. London’s Institute of Masters of Wine is among the most rigorous comprehensive degree programs in the wine industry. It encompasses all aspects of wine, from grape-growing and winemaking to marketing, sales, and global wine issues. The program is so difficult, in fact, that few Americans had ever earned it. In 1994, Betz decided he would become one of the few.
He was still working long hours at Ste. Michelle, but the institute allowed him to do a great deal of the work and research on his own. He wrote papers on theory, and spent his free time traveling to wineries to improve his sensory wine-tasting skills. “With the grueling study demands, I realized I had to give up something,” he said. “So I gave up sleep” (Betz interview). A few times a year, he would fly to Boston to do bursts of intensive study with Masters of Wine teachers, who would give lectures and conduct tastings. Later, he would return to Boston to undergo rigorous tests – three days of written sensory tastings, four days of written theory exams, and a defense of his graduate dissertation, which was about the interaction of wine and barrels during maturation. In 1998, he went to London and was awarded his degree. As of 2021, Betz was one of only 52 Masters of Wine in the U.S. and one of 408 in the world.
Meanwhile, beginning in 1997, Cathy and Bob Betz decided it was time to make their own wine on the side. A friend, Greg Lill of DeLille Cellars, offered them the opportunity to make a few barrels in his Woodinville winery. They jumped at the chance. They rounded up some cabernet sauvignon grapes from his favorite vineyards and made a modest six barrels. The wine itself was far from modest. “That first vintage was pretty spectacular,” said Betz. “We called it ‘Bob Black’ in the cellar, because it was dark as night. And that became the first vintage of Betz Family Winery” (Betz interview).
For the next six years, he continued to work long hours for Chateau Ste. Michelle, but on nights and weekends, he worked on perfecting his own Betz Family Winery and ramping up a modest production in a rented Woodinville warehouse. Cathy ran the business side of the winery. In 2003, it was time to make a decision. “We knew it was our future,” he said. “The wine was too good not to go with it” (Betz interview). He retired from Ste. Michelle after 28 years and began a new chapter as the proprietor Betz Family Winery. He and Cathy also made a decision to move out of their rented warehouse space and build their own winery.
“It was a major commitment, as you can imagine,” he said. “I wanted to build a winery that would allow me to make wine the way I wanted. We found a piece of property that allowed us to dig into the hill, so both barrel rooms and the case storage room were entirely underground. It was such a different world from that warehouse, where we were just trying to make it fit” (Betz interview). The property was also in a convenient location — in the Woodinville winery district, only about a mile and a quarter from Chateau Ste. Michelle. There was also a house on the property, so the Betzes moved into it.
Betz Family Winery
The new Betz Family Winery opened in 2005 and was an immediate success. Betz made a number of Rhone style red wines, but the main focus was on Bordeaux style wines. “To me, cabernet sauvignon is Washington’s greatest red grape, and that was the wine we set out to make at the very beginning,” said Betz (Betz interview). Before long, he was achieving spectacular results. Sunset magazine named Betz the American Winemaker of the Year in 2007. In 2008, Washington wine writer Paul Gregutt chose the Betz Family Winery’s Pere de Famille 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon as the state’s No. 1 wine in his annual top 100 list. In 2015, Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate awarded the winery’s 2012 Le Parrain an eye-popping rating of 99 points out of 100 and declared it to be the equivalent of a “first-growth Bordeaux from a great vintage” (The Wine Advocate). The winery’s other red wines consistently received scores in the mid- to high-90s in The Wine Advocate and Wine Enthusiast.
“We did things only a small winery could do,” he said (Betz interview). He evaluated each individual barrel through the entire maturation process and was able to detect subtle differences from barrel to barrel – information which he later used in bottling decisions. He was also able to get the exact fruit he wanted. “We didn’t plant any of our own vineyards, but we contracted for a geographic area with specific growers in specific areas. I would meet with a grower and I would say, ‘We would like to carve out a section of your vineyard, and farm it with you, and we would get grapes from that area, and only we would get grapes from that area.’ We found very willing partners … some of the greatest growers in the state” (Betz interview).
In 2011, Cathy and Bob were ready to retire. Their two grown daughters had interests other than wine, so the Betzes sold the Betz Family Winery to Steve and Bridgit Griessel, a couple from South Africa. Betz continued to preside over the wine and hold the title of winemaker for the next five years. Betz still serves a consultant for the winemaking operation. Today, the Betz Family Winery still produces high-end Bordeaux and Rhone style wines. Betz also continues to work as a consultant for other wineries.
His peers in the wine industry have given him a number of accolades. In 2009, he was named honorary vintner of the annual Auction of Washington Wines, the most prestigious event on the state’s wine calendar, and in 2012, he was named one of the event’s co-chairs. In 2012, he was selected by the Washington Wine Commission as one of 25 industry groundbreakers. In 2014, he was awarded the top prize at the Washington State Wine Awards, the Walter Clore Honorarium. In 2017, he was presented the first-ever Grand Vin Award from the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, now known as the Washington Winegrowers. Washington wine writer Andy Perdue called him “one of the finest gentlemen in the Washington wine industry and also one of its most talented winemakers” (Perdue).
The medical profession’s loss turned out to be the wine drinker’s gain. As Bob Betz once said, he helped make people “healthy in a different way” (Harman).