What follows is a Focus report on Betz Family Winery. Read a .pdf version of this report here. See previous Focus reports here.

Betz Family Winery was founded by Bob and Cathy Betz in 1997. The winery is a family-run business with Cathy serving as the winery’s president, Bob as its winemaker, and their daughter Carmen as the head of sales.

Bob Betz spent twenty-eight years at Stimson Lane – now Ste. Michelle Wine Estates – before retiring in 2003 to focus on the winery full-time. During his time at Stimson Lane, Betz held a variety of positions, including Vice President of Winemaking Research at the time of his retirement. While Betz never served as winemaker, he was fully integrated into the winemaking and vineyard operations of the business. Of the decision to start making wine Betz says, “It was inevitable… (Wine) has been part of our lives since we spent a year in the vineyards of Europe in the early 70s.”

While Ste. Michelle Wine Estates encompasses some of Washington’s largest wineries, including Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest, Betz Family Winery is small operation with an annual production of about 3,500 cases. Although being small might seem to be preferable, Betz believes there are very few benefits of being a small winery, saying, “You pay more for your barrels, your grapes, and your glass.” Despite this, he says there is one advantage to being a small winery and that is “the ability to focus and to be precise in your decision making.” It is in this focus and precision where Betz Family Winery excels.

Attention to Detail

Bob Betz, who holds a Master of Wine degree, gives meticulous attention to detail from grape to glass. Throughout the entire process, everything is done systematically. Everything is recorded, and everything is followed. Betz brings to the winery a strong background in science. He is a firm believer in “database decision making” although he believes in the artistry of winemaking as well saying, “Trust your tongue and nose but use the data too.”

Fruit for the Betz wines comes from some of Washington’s best vineyards including Boushey, Ciel du Cheval, Kiona, and Red Willow. Betz has long-standing relationships with most of the growers he sources from, using the same blocks for his wines each year. He visits the vineyards frequently during the growing season to talk to the growers and to check on the fruit. At harvest, grapes are hand picked and brought from eastern Washington to the winery in Woodinville, Washington.

Once at the winery, Betz believes gentle handling of the fruit results in better wine. Grapes are hand sorted and moved through a gravity driven system. To convert the juice to alcohol, Betz seeks a “vigorous, vibrant fermentation.” He says, “I would rather build character out of the quality of the site we choose for grapes, out of the grapes themselves, and how we handle and mature them” than deal with the potential contamination issues and reductive aromas that can be a consequence of a slower fermentation.

Several pieces of equipment used during the fermentation process were custom designed for the winery. For punch downs – the process of mixing the mass of grape skins or ‘cap’ that floats to the top of the fermentation container – Betz uses both a manual process as well as a mechanical system with a hydraulic-driven platen. Betz says the hydraulic system does a better job than he can manually as “the old guy of the group.” Betz also uses a device called the “magic wand” for pump overs, the process of moving the juice from the bottom of the fermentation tank back to the top. The device has a sieve to prevent skins and seeds from going through a pump where they might be damaged and cause bitterness in the wine. Betz believes aerating and mixing the juice via this device gives increased color saturation compared to punch downs alone.

A Winery Rooted in Experimentation

Betz is constantly experimenting, looking at variables such as cooperage, yeast strain, vineyard sources, and other components that comprise the winemaking process. Last fall he fermented a small amount of fruit in oak barrels, looking to see if there was a difference in integration and aeration compared to plastic fermenters. Such experiments are always going on at the winery. A true scientist, every experiment always has an accompanying control. Among the many results of these experiments, Betz says he racks his wine – the process of removing the wine from the barrel and cleaning out the lees – less frequently now than he did in the past. He believes this results in a more vibrant wine.

Betz’ attention to detail was something that immediately impressed new assistant winemaker Tyson Schiffner. Schiffner joined the Betz Family Winery team in December of 2009. He had previously served as cellarmaster at Chateau Ste. Michelle and brewmaster at Red Hook Brewery. Schiffner says he was also struck by the difference in focusing on several hundred barrels instead of thinking about tens of thousands. He describes working at Betz Family Winery as a “dream job.”

Quality and Character

The question for wine consumers, of course, is whether all of this attention to detail results in better wine. Betz says, “You hope that it contributes to quality, but it certainly contributes to character.” Most who have sampled Betz’ wines would unequivocally say that it contributes to both. The Betz wines show both depth and complexity. They delicately straddle the Old World and the New and are among the best wines being produced in Washington State.

The results of Bob Betz’ attention to detail are never more apparent than in the 2007 vintage. The 2007 Rhone-style reds, reviewed previously, are among the best the winery has ever produced. The 2007 Merlot-dominant Clos de Betz is an exemplary showing of what Merlot-based wines can achieve in Washington State. The 2007 Pere de Famille is, quite simply, a wine apart.

The impressive quality of the recent releases is not just due to Betz’ continuous focus on details. It also reflects the exceptional 2007 growing season in Washington State. Betz says that in his thirty odd years in the industry, the 2007 vintage is among the best he has seen. Of the 2007 wines he says, “They are pure, penetrating examples of type, with a plumpness yet elegance that puts them alongside my top vintages.”

While Betz continues to hold some wine back for retailers, the winery moved to selling predominantly through a mailing list in 2008. The list has since closed.

Betz Family Winery Pere de Famille Columbia Valley 2007 $55
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Dark and brilliant in color. An alluring nose with high-toned toasty oak, sweet spices, and dark, penetrating fruit. On the palate, a tight core of black fruit along with silky oak wrapped around elegantly structured tannins. A perfect mixture of power and elegance. A long, evolving finish. 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot. Fruit is 74% Red Mountain, 17% Horse Heaven Hills, and 9% Yakima Valley (Ciel du Cheval, Kiona, Klipsun, Alder Ridge, and Red Willow vineyards). Aged 17 months in French barriques (70% new). 14.7% alcohol. Give 3-4 years.

Betz Family Winery Clos de Betz Columbia Valley 2007 $44
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Brilliantly colored. Aromatic with toast, smoke, and oak spices along with an underlayer of black fruit. Shows a little bit of heat at times on the nose. On the taste, pure, rich black cherry fruit along with silky tannins. 62% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec, 5% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot. Fruit is 39% Red Mountain, 33% Horse Heaven Hills, and 28% Yakima Valley (Ciel du Cheval, Kiona vineyards, Alder Ridge, and Red Willow vineyards). Aged 17 months in French barriques (65% new). 14.7% alcohol. Give 2-3 years.