Bob Betz thought he had a lock on med school. The Chicago native, who moved to the Northwest in 1954, was in the honors program of his class at the University of Washington. He participated in physiology research projects.
But he didn’t make the cut.
Which is lucky for fans of Washington wine because that disappointment set Betz along another path, one that led to a distinguished career touching on every aspect of the industry, from sales and training to making highly sought-after wines for Betz Family Winery.
“After I didn’t get into med school, Cathy and I spent a year in Europe and that really sparked my interest in wine,” he said.
When the couple returned from a second trip, exploring vineyards in Italy, Spain, Austria and France, he managed a wine shop for a year before putting in a blind call to the still-fledgling Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1974.
Charles Finkel, best known for launching Pike Brewing Company, but then vice president of sales for the winery, eventually hired Betz in 1975 when there were just eight wineries in the state.
“I started in communications because I could speak wine,” he said.
That was a year before the Chateau opened and Betz trained the staff after he and Finkel made exploratory trips to Napa Valley.
“We saw what they were doing and we knew where we wanted to go, but we were so naïve,” said Betz while taking a break from the 2011 harvest, his hands stained deep purple.
Twenty eight years later, Betz had a lot of accomplishments under his belt, including earning the illustrious title of Master of Wine. During his nearly three decades with the state’s biggest winery, Betz said he enjoyed the time spent with then up-and-coming winemakers, Mike Janiuk, Cheryl Barber, Eric Olsen, Charles Hoppes, Kay Simon and Joy Anderson, as well as working with the viticulture team. Still, he especially treasured learning from the man some people view as the father of the New World wine movement, André Tchelistcheff.
“He was the consummate gentleman. He had no ego, no baggage,” said Betz of the man who Joe Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini and others called their mentor. Tchelistcheff was a consultant for Chateau Ste. Michelle, starting in the late 1960s while he was still working for BV. “He was always so instructive and so giving. He was a powerful influence,” Betz said.
Another important force was DeLille Cellars’ Greg Lill, “the enzyme who got things rolling for my move into winemaking.”
“In 1997, knowing my desire to craft wine under our own label, Greg said, ‘It’s time,’ and he carved out space at the winery for me to make six barrels.”
That first vintage, which included grapes from Harrison Hill, Portteus and Klipsun vineyards, produced a wine so dark, it was nicknamed “Bob Black”.
From the start, Betz has recorded every tiny detail in spiral notebooks. Stacks of them sit on a bookshelf in his office, filled with tasting notes from every single barrel he has ever made.
“In the beginning, we played around a lot with fruit from different vineyards. After seven or eight years, we found the character and quality we were looking for,” he said.
Photographs of the vineyard sites, taken by amateur shutterbug Betz, are posted around the winery.
“We’re really looking for predictability. We get fruit from the same rows every year so we know what to expect,” he said.
He also knows that in five years, he may step away from a role he so loves, turning the winery over to the family who began buying the business in the summer of 2011. And he’s fine with that.
“I’ve still got things left to do with my life,” Betz said.
Spending time with his family and sitting down to read a novel are on the top of the list.
In the meantime, Betz is excited to take on a new challenge this year, serving as chairman of the 2012 Auction of Washington Wine. “Cathy and I have been to every one of the 24 prior auctions,” he said.