“2012 is a watershed vintage for us,” said Steve Griessel, co-owner of Betz Family Winery, about the winery’s latest releases. “We wanted to take quality to the next level.”

To do so, the Betz team took a new approach in evaluating its wines. In previous years, each barrel received an evaluative score that was used to assess quality. Starting with the 2012 vintage, Griessel, winemaker Bob Betz, and assistant winemaker Tyson Schiffner also subsequently rank ordered each barrel. Both numbers were subsequently used as quality cutoffs.

“We were much tougher on what went into the final blend,” Griessel explained. “Père de Famille we’ve made 30% less. It represents an evolution of thinking based on our geekiness. It also allows us to take quality to the next level with our core wines.”

Declassified barrels were subsequently used to craft a new wine, the Cuvée Frangin (pronounced ‘Frahn-JEN’), meaning ‘little brother’ – “In an affectionate way!” winemaker Bob Betz said of the name. This blend of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot comes in at a lower price point than the winery’s other offerings, making it particularly appealing on-premise. “You’ll have a Betz wine that will sell for $33 (retail) on a wine list,” said Griessel.

While made from barrels declassified from the winery’s other programs, Betz also noted that the wine was made with a specific intention. “The goal here was really a textural one with a Betz Family Winery thread,” he said. “Plump, supple, and interesting. We wanted it to deliver a mouthful that’s accessible early on.”

Griessel noted that making the same amount of wine but selling some of it for less money was not without risks. “There’s no question financially it’s a bit of a gamble,” he said, noting that the winery did not increase production. Griessel said, however, that the winery’s new scoring system had other potential benefits. “By delineating the barrels more exactly, it also gives us a possibility to make a reserve wine in the future,” he said. “Really what it represents is a raising of the bar.”

The results are immediately apparent in both the 2012 Rhone wines reviewed below as well as an early look during my visit at the 2012 Bordeaux wines, which will be reviewed upon release. Both sets of wines were stunning, a tribute to both the new approach and the strength of the vintage in Washington.

In addition to the 2012 Rhone-style wines, the releases reviewed below also include the winery’s 2011 Bordeaux-style offerings. Betz said of the vintage, “It’s a lot like 1999 in Washington, reticent in their youth.” He noted however that much has changed at the winery since then. “We farm specifically for the Clos de Betz,” he said. “That’s the difference between ten years ago.”

In other news, assistant winemaker Tyson Schiffner will be leaving the winery at the end of this month. Schiffner, who made beer at Red Hook for close to seven years before turning his attention to wine, will return to his roots to help start Sumerian Brewing Company in Woodinville.

“Tyson leaving is a huge loss for us but what an unbelievable opportunity for him,” Griessel said. “When these things come along in life you grab them with both hands. We’ll go support him big time in his new venture.”

In his stead, the winery has hired Louis Skinner. Skinner was previously part of the DeLille Cellars winemaking team and also interned at Betz several years ago. “He’s one of the most knowledgeable people I know in Washington about global wine,” Griessel said. “His palate is fantastic but he’s equally at home driving a forklift or topping barrels. We’re really excited to have him as part of the team.”

All wines sampled at 62 degrees.

Betz Family Winery Clos de Betz Red Wine Columbia Valley 2011 $55
 (Excellent) The aromatics bring you immediately to Bordeaux where it might pass in a blind tasting for Saint-Émilion Grand Cru. There are complex notes of thyme, cedar, green herbs, blueberry, char, savory notes, tilled soil, and barrel spices. The palate is tart but with richness to the fruit flavors and a long finish. 67% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot. 35% Red Mountain, 35% Horse Heaven Hills, 30% Yakima Valley. 14.1% alcohol.

Betz Family Winery Père de Famille Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley 2011 $68
 (Excellent/Exceptional) Locked up aromatically with mocha, dark cherries, ground herbs, tar, anise, and dark cherries. The palate has a sense of viscosity and richness with beautifully balanced acidity. A very pretty wine with a high Yum Factor. 87.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9.4% Petit Verdot, and 3.1% Merlot. 69% Red Mountain, 20% Horse Heaven Hills, and 11% Yakima Valley.

Betz Family Winery Cuvée Frangin Red Wine Columbia Valley 2012 $33
 (Excellent/Exceptional) An aromatically appealing wine that is simultaneously complex and direct with a potpourri of fruit – black cherry, black currant, and plum – along with floral notes, smoke, sweet spices, and herbs. It’s fruit filled, rich, and direct with a supple feel and soft tannins. 36% Merlot, 26% Syrah, 23% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 15% Petit Verdot. 48% Red Mountain, 40% Yakima Valley, and 12% Horse Heaven Hills. 14.3% alcohol.

Betz Family Winery Bésoleil Red Wine Columbia Valley 2012 $45
 (Excellent/Exceptional) Dark in color. Pops aromatically with plum, white pepper, garrigue, a light meatiness, and dark raspberries on a profile that at first blush you might almost mistake for a wine from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It’s a rich, mouthful of a wine with great depth of fruit flavors and a textured feel. 50% Grenache, 20% Cinsault, 15% Mourvèdre, and 15% Syrah. 14.7% alcohol.

Betz Family Winery La Serenne Syrah Yakima Valley 2012 $55
 (Exceptional) An aromatically alluring wine with chocolate, smoke, tar, graphite, blackberry, and gravel. The palate is dense, textured, and richly flavored, absolutely shimmering with intensity. As good if not better than any La Serenne the winery has made to date. Still drinking young, Give some additional time in the bottle or decant. 14.3% alcohol.

Betz La Côte Rousse Syrah Red Mountain 2012 $55
 (Exceptional) Pops aromatically with dark plum, blackberry, dried earth, anise, roasted coffee bean, and mineral. It’s full bodied, ripe, and luscious. A ‘wow’ wine with surprisingly supple tannins. Just a baby now, put this one deep in the cellar. 56% Ciel du Cheval, 44% Kiona. 14.2% alcohol. 14.2% alcohol.

Betz La Côte Patriarche Syrah Yakima Valley 2012 $55
 (Exceptional) Dark in color. A brooding wine with notes of blueberry, plum, earth, and mineral. The palate is densely packed with rich fruit flavors supported by fine grained tannins and a supple feel that carries into the distance. 14.3% alcohol.