Washington Wine Trailblazer

Meet the patriarch behind Betz Family Winery
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Photo by Rachel Coward

It’s late morning, and Bob Betz is giddy. He just finished a tasting session with assistant winemaker Louis Skinner at Betz Family Winery in Woodinville. The pair had been sampling 2014 syrahs that had recently finished malolactic fermentation. Betz flips through an open notebook, demonstrating his findings of the cause-and-effect relationship between what’s going on in the barrels and what he tastes. He keeps a notebook like this for each vintage and each varietal of wine he makes, dating back to 1997.

Winemaking is an endeavor requiring patience and passion, and Betz has an abundance of both. Betz, who holds the Master of Wine designation from the Institute of Masters of Wine in London, has more than 40 years of experience in the Washington wine industry. Betz talked with 425 about sensory consequences, the evolution of Washington wine and why you should experiment.

“Until you get your fingers purple and your hands dirty with grapes, you won’t understand how the process works.”

“The thing about winemaking, and grape growing, is that there are thousands of decisions to make at every point along the year. The answer isn’t ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It is not a light switch, on or off. It’s a range of options that the winemaker faces in order to get to a certain sensory result. My last 40 years here in Washington has been about finding causes for sensory consequences. It sounds geeky, but I love it.”

“Washington was a dot on the viticultural map 40 years ago. We had a lot of minds to change from the perspective that Washington was just north, cold and wet. We’ve made quite a bit of progress, and we have more to do. The grapes we are growing today, I’d put up quality-wise, with anywhere in the world. Character-wise, we all vary. But in terms of quality, there is little difference.”

“Chateau Ste. Michelle’s leadership is largely responsible for much of the penetration into America’s knowledge of Washington wine. There’s a symbiosis there. Chateau Ste. Michelle is able to confirm its story because of the existence of small wineries like us.”

“Precision and a sensitivity to the site where the grapes come from are so important to us. We’ve been doing this all along, but every year we get more precise in our determination and our cellar protocols, and we get closer and closer to what individual vineyards have to offer in terms of fruit.”

“Experiment and try. Don’t get stuck in one single flavor profile. The span of flavor characteristics available from both Washington reds and whites is extraordinary. Keep on trying new things — the pleasure factor increases the more you try.”

Details: Betz Family Winery

The Woodinville winery is not open to the public, and there is no tasting room. Due to Betz’s limited production, the winery’s membership is currently closed to new members, but you can add yourself to the wait list on the website. Find Betz Family Winery wines at several restaurants on the Eastside and in Seattle, including Purple Café and Wine Bar, John Howie Steak, bin on the lake, Barking Frog and more.

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