Ste. Michelle Wine Estates President and CEO Ted Baseler still marvels at the detour his career path took nearly three decades ago:“I went to grad school to become a marketing guy, but I had no idea how exciting it would be to get into the wine industry, especially coming back to my home state and getting involved in the Washington wine industry. It has been fantastic to be part of creating the story of growing from what was not even a regional wine district to an internationally acclaimed wine country.”
The seed for Baseler’s long-term relationship to wine was first planted in the basement of his grandfather’s house in Michigan. “He was an amateur winemaker and I remember as a kid going into his cellar and seeing all these oak barrels lined up. It looked like a lot of fun,” he said.
Since joining Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in 1984, Baseler has racked up a long list of accomplishments while still managing to have fun. “It’s not just a job, it’s a lifestyle,” he said.
Even when he’s enjoying some well-deserved down time, the subject of wine is bound to come up.
“I’ve been riding a chairlift with people from out of the area and we’ll end up talking about wine,” he said. “That’s what I love about wine. It’s such a social thing.”
After graduating from Washington State University and a masters degree in marketing from Northwestern University, Baseler worked in marketing in Chicago for a few years before he felt the tug of the Pacific Northwest. “I came home and worked for an advertising firm in Seattle and one of my accounts was Chateau Ste. Michelle. It was fun to go out to Woodinville, drink wine and philosophize.”
When Allen Shoup was promoted to president in 1984, he asked Baseler to step into his former role as director of marketing. He’s been a tireless ambassador for the company and for Washington state wines ever since.
Baseler’s first major marketing project in the mid-1980s was a big hit. Taste of Liberty was a New York Times bestseller, a cookbook Baseler hired Martha Stewart’s then-husband Andrew, to produce. It featured recipes from early immigrants and historic photographs from the Beckman Archives. At the end of each recipe was a suggested pairing with a wine from Chateau Ste. Michelle. Proceeds benefited a fund to restore the Statue of Liberty. “We raised lots of money. Everybody was happy,” he said.
It also dramatically raised the winery’s profile, but in a way that wasn’t in-your-face obvious.
“In our business, we’ve got this great product we want to present to consumers in a tasteful way,” Baseler said. “That’s why developing a sense of place is hugely important.”
Baseler is a big booster of wine tourism, preaching the gospel of getting out to the vineyards in Eastern Washington. “Woodinville is great, but I would love to see more people from Seattle visiting the Columbia Valley.”
Nurturing separate identities for the 19 wineries in the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates portfolio began with the creation of Columbia Crest in the 1990s.
“Columbia Crest wasn’t even a separate winery when I first started, it was a vineyard called River Ridge,” Baseler said. “We did some consumer research and developed an effective label. Then we brought in Doug Gore to head the winemaking team and Columbia Crest quickly became a million case brand, riding the chardonnay and merlot craze. It allowed us to reposition Chateau Ste. Michelle so we didn’t have to grow as fast.”
Columbia Crest became the first gem in achieving Baseler’s “string of pearls” vision of putting together a dazzling lineup that now includes Col Solare, Northstar, Spring Valley Vineyard, Erath and Stag’s Leap.
“I believe it changed the way we’re perceived,” he said. “We’re not just Riesling anymore, but a multi-branded company with a portfolio of world class wines.”
Among Baseler’s other accomplishments are being an enthusiastic supporter of the Auction of Washington Wines, as well as working to strengthen the partnership with the Antinori family, Tuscany’s winemaking royalty whose lineage dates back 26 generations. That fruitful relationship reached a major milestone in 2006 when Ste. Michelle Wine Estates became the exclusive importer of all Antinori wines in the U.S.
He’s also been a big booster of the Washington wine industry as a whole. “Ted deserves a lot of credit for working collaboratively with others,” said Marty Clubb, from L’Ecole No. 41. “The company is incredible for being inclusive of other brands, of helping the little guy, especially in its international sales and marketing efforts and that drive and energy comes from the top.”
Baseler still has a lengthy to-do list before he’s ready to spend his time focusing on fly fishing or skiing. He’s looking forward to seeing Washington State University’s Wine Science Center built and is gung-ho about expanding the state’s production.
“We’re going to see wine consumption double in the next decade. Consumers are more sophisticated and there’s greater access to wine than ever before. The number of outlets selling wine is up 18 percent since 2007, so we need to be planting more vineyards and making more wine,” Baseler said. “I’d also like to see more resources dedicated to opening up new markets. We’ve been a snow plow on that, leading the charge, but there’s still a long way to go.”