The Washington wine world was stunned last spring when industry icon Bob Betz announced the sale of Betz Family Winery. Some foresaw the winery’s demise in a storyline that went like this – quality would go way down, production would go way up, and prices would soar.
New owner Steve Griessel, who purchased the winery with his wife Bridgit, acknowledges hearing those concerns. “I think there’s a lot of fear,” Griessel says. “People think, ’Who are these people? Are they going to screw this thing up?’” The answer to the first question is Steve and Bridgit Griessel. The answer to the second question is no.
Meet the Griessels!
The first thing one notices about the Griessels is that they are warm and immediately likeable. They have a palpable passion about maintaining not just the quality but also the nature of Betz Family Winery. Not because it is now their winery but because it was the Betzes winery. The Griessels have a clear sense of what that means and exactly what they’ve got.
Steve and Bridgit Griessel are natives of South Africa with the accents to prove it. They met through a mutual friend and have been married for ten years. The couple has a nine-year old son, and Steve has two children, ages 19 and 21, from a previous marriage.
The Griessels moved to the U.S. nine years ago, living in Phoenix prior to relocating to Woodinville in June of this year. They now live in the residence next to the winery.
At age 52, Steve Griessel is a businessman through and through. He started his first business, a sports marketing firm, when he was 25 years old. “I had absolutely nothing,” Griessel says of starting out. Over the last three decades he has built and invested in businesses in the tourism, logistics, retail, and real estate industries. Most recently, he was CEO of American Community Properties Trust and a partner in InSync Equity Partners.
Bridgit Griessel grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. She also leapt into the business world at a young age, starting an Internet services company called Live Technology at age 19. Today she owns a high-end tour operator business in South Africa called Live Africa.
A Passion for Wine
Steve Griessel first became interested in wine in his late teens. With the drinking age eighteen in South Africa, a friend took him to visit a winery. He was captivated.
Of course, being a 20-something wine drinker made Griessel somewhat of an anomaly with his friends, especially when it came time to turn on the TV. “All my friends used to give me a lot of crap. ‘Come on man. How you can drink wine watching rugby?!?’” Griessel says they would ask. “And I would say, ‘I just love wine.’”
Bridgit Griessel’s passion for wine also started early. Growing up, her father and grandfather made wine and brandy in the garage. The couple plays the games many wine lovers play. “Every time I open a bottle I won’t tell Bridgit what it is, and I’ll get her to guess or she does the same,” Griessel says.
The Griessels, who will become U.S. citizens in a year, drink wines from all around the world, including wines from Washington. “Ten years ago I tasted my first Washington wine. I’ll never forget it,” Griessel says. “It was a Woodward Canyon. I was just totally blown away.”
Steve Griessel’s passion for wine intersects with his meticulous nature. It is clear that when he sets his mind to something, he bores in deep. “I create mind maps about wine. My wife thinks I’m mad,” Griessel says with a laugh. “Thank goodness both of us are just as passionate about it.”
In terms of purchasing a winery Griessel says, “We’ve always had the dream – I think it started out as a fantasy – that we would be involved in the wine business.” One day, he decided it was time to turn that dream into a reality.
Griessel looked up and down the west coast for the right winery to purchase. Most of what he saw, however, was not that interesting – until he came across Betz Family Winery.
“I saw a lot of distressed companies,” Griessel says. “But then by total sheer luck – I call it synchronicity – we came upon Betz Family Winery. It was like this needle in a haystack, completely different in every respect – exceptionally well run, zero financial stress, highly profitable, and wine of exceptional quality.”
Early on, of course, the winery’s identity was kept secret. Potential buyers were given limited information at first and were kept under a strict non-disclosure agreement. Bob Betz kept word of the potential sale between his wife and his legal team, not even telling his family members until it was late in the process. “My mother didn’t know. If she did, everyone would know,” Betz says with a laugh.
While the Griessels were immediately excited about the possibility of purchasing the winery, they thought it was more than a long shot. “I didn’t think we had a snowball’s chance,” Griessel says. “I said to my wife, ‘This is exciting but we’re never going to get it. We’re going to get beaten to the punch by ten different people.’”
The Griessels, however, had one significant advantage most of the other suitors did not have. They wanted to run the business as a small family winery as the Betzes had done. “I think Bob and Cathy valued that enormously,” Griessel says.
In Betz Family Winery, the Griessels had found the perfect winery; in the Griessels, the Betzes had not only found a buyer, they had found a partner.
Documenting the DNA and Allaying Fears
A critical piece to the Griessels’ purchasing the winery was Bob Betz remaining as winemaker for at least the next five years. With that determined and the sale finalized, Steve Griessel spent the earliest days documenting what he calls the “DNA” of the business, the things that makes the winery what it is. What does Griessel feel is the most important aspect?
“Quality. Not ever skipping one single step,” he says. Griessel says that the culture of the winery is also paramount. “It’s not just about the wine. It’s about the way the Betzes treat other people.”
Griessel says the couple’s goal is to be true to the winery that the Betz family created. “What we’ve committed to doing is to absolutely live by that DNA. That authenticity that Bob has and quality without exception,” he says. “We are one hundred percent dedicated to making sure that we continue the Betzes’ legacy. We absolutely love and respect what they’ve done, and we want to continue it. We feel like their succession plan.”
So let’s get back to those fears and concerns. Will the wines change? Griessel says, “When it comes to the fundamentals of how we make wine, where we get our grapes from, none of that is going to change.”
Will the Griessels radically expand the winery’s production? Unequivocally no Griessel says, although he does say production will expand by a few hundred cases in the near term. “I don’t believe you can stagnate,” Griessel says. “Bob and Cathy have always had this very patient growth and I want to continue that.”
Of course, as the Griessels well know, the quality of the wine is paramount. That will never be in question as long as Bob Betz is making the wine, but who will replace Bob when he decides to retire?
“I don’t believe one person can replace Bob,” Griessel says. “He’s one of those unbelievably unique human beings.”
But Griessel does believe that by having consistency in fruit sourcing, documenting the DNA of the business, and understanding Betz’ winemaking methodology, he can continue to build on the winery’s reputation.
Of Betz’ winemaking process Griessel says, “It’s not Bob coming in in the middle of the night and sprinkling pixie dust. That would be terrifying! There’s no question that the artistic element is there, but the science and the methodology is there too.”
While Griessel has immersed himself in that science and methodology, he does have a trump card. Assistant winemaker Tyson Schiffner will continue to work with Betz for the remainder of his five-year contract with the winery. Griessel plans to have Schiffner assume the winemaker position once Betz retires.
So what changes do the Griessels have in store? Steve Griessel says, “I think we want to put in systems to know our customers better. We want people to be able to touch the brand a little more than they have in the past.” Sounds like pretty scary stuff.
A Look to the Future
The 2009 Besoleil is a Grenache dominant blend that, for the first time, contains ten percent Cinsault, giving the wine added spice and heft. The wine is aged in one-year old French oak, and the lack of new oak influence gives the wine incredible freshness and vibrancy. It is everything a Grenache blend should be and sets the bar for Washington.
For his Syrahs, as in past years, Betz uses three distinctive and iconic Washington sources – Red Mountain (Kiona, Ciel du Cheval), Boushey Vineyard, and Red Willow Vineyard. Each of the 2009 Syrahs are as good as any the winery has produced; each shows why Syrah in Washington has the capability to be as good as it is anywhere in the world; and each shows why the Griessels feel so fortunate to be the new owners. And no, the prices have not gone up!
The Griessels spent this last weekend, when the 2009 wines were officially released, introducing themselves to the extended Betz family – the winery’s many loyal customers. Visitors were treated to a few small changes – a vintage chart for the Betz wines; soil samples from the winery’s vineyard sources; and several picture displays.
In addition to getting to know their customers, the Griessels have spent time meeting people throughout Washington’s tight knit wine industry. Steve Griessel has been impressed by what he’s seen so far. “What I love about Washington is the pioneering spirit of the wine community. People are excited and they’re so passionate about it,” Griessel says. He also notes the special interaction Washington wineries have, saying that the community has embraced the couple and eased their transition.
Griessel, for one, believes that this aspect of the industry positions it for success. “If we all work together, ten, twenty years from now, where will we be? The sky is the limit,” he says.
And where does Griessel see Betz Family Winery ten years from now?
“I’ve promised Bob, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, ten years from now when he looks at this business, he will be able to touch his DNA everywhere,” Griessel says. “Bob today is very much our patriarch. Sure we may own the company but that’s meaningless. He is our guiding light, and he will remain that forever. We’re doing this because we want to make Bob and Cathy proud and make damn sure that Betz continues to be the shining light that it is forever.” Amen.
Betz Family Winery Besoleil Red Wine Columbia Valley 2009 $45
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Leaps up from the glass with fresh raspberries and cranberries dusted with earth, chocolate, and peppery spice. The palate is silky and fruit filled with a distinct spice component and a vibrant energy. A tart, lingering finish. 66% Grenache, 14% Syrah, 10% Cinsault, and 10% Mourvedre. Aged in one-year-old French oak. 14.8% alcohol. 475 cases produced.
Betz Family Winery La Côte Patriarche Syrah Yakima Valley 2009 $55
Rating: ** (Exceptional) An aromatically intoxicating wine full of smoke, earth, blueberries, dark fruit, high toned floral notes, and smoked meat. The palate is lithe with plush tannins and soft fruit flavors with a dense inner core. A long, lingering finish. 100% Syrah. Red Willow Vineyard. Aged 12 months in French oak (50% new). 14.7% alcohol. 190 cases produced.
Betz Family Winery La Serenne Syrah Yakima Valley 2009 $55
Rating: ** (Exceptional) True to form, this is the most reticent of the new releases, full of mineral, earth, dark fruit, and smoked meat. The palate is plush and seamless, drawing out to a long finish. Give time in the cellar to show its finest. 100% Syrah. Boushey Vineyard. Aged 12 months in French oak (50% new). 14.8% alcohol.
Betz Family Winery La Côte Rousse Syrah Red Mountain 2009 $55
Rating: ** (Exceptional) Perhaps the most compelling of the stellar set of new releases, this 100% Syrah is full of floral notes, mineral notes, smoke, and dark fruit. The palate is taut and full while retaining an incredible freshness and vibrancy. A tart, fruit-filled finish. 51% Kiona Ranch at the End of the Road, 49% Ciel du Cheval vineyards. Aged 12 months in French oak (50% new). 14.8% alcohol.
Photo of the Griessels and Betzes courtesy of Betz Family Winery.