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

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.”

Synchronicity

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

Tasting through Betz Family Winery’s new Rhone-style releases from the 2009 vintage, it is, once again, immediately clear why the winery has gained such a sterling reputation.

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.

Wine Reviews

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.

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10 comments

  1. Clive Says:
  2. Again I ask the question how does anyone in Washington charge more than Bob Betz?

     
  3. Anonymous Says:
  4. Sean: After reading your reviews I am now completely convinced that the wine critics (unfortunately this appears to include you) have been brainwashed by Betz(who is an amazingly nice guy and whose wines I really want to love just based on that). Or perhaps they are pouring the critics different wines than I've been getting in my shipments (ahhh! A conspiracy theory!). I've been ordering these wines, both the syrahs and the bordeaux based blends, for the past 4 years now based on the amazing reviews from yourself, Paul G (who I normally completely agree with), Miller, and Tanzer. I very rarely agree with wine spectator but I think they are the only critics that I have read who are in the ballpark on these wines. I can say that for us unsophisticated types I am NOT seeing the hype or the prices on either the Syrahs or the Bordeaux blends. The 2005 pere de famile has become a flat, boring, and worst of all, expensive, disaster over the last couple of years and I have seen nothing in the 05-08 releases to suggest that things are getting any better. As I write this I am drinking a bottle of 2007 clos de betz getting increasingly annoyed with how much I overpaid for this wine. I'm happily giving up my spot on the mailing list and hope that someone with considerably more wine intelligence and insight than myself will enjoy paying these prices for these wines.

     
  5. Romain Says:
  6. I love Betz wines and have been a buyer for 7 years. I have attended complete verticals of all wines made since 1997, and can without hesitation say that the wines are getting better and better each year. The 2004 La Cote Rousse is at such a fantastic spot right now. CellarTracker says I paid $45 for it, and it is definately delivering for the price I paid. No brainwashing going on here - just excellent wine!

     
  7. Anonymous Says:
  8. ANon. I hope your taste buds are otherwise in good shape? I mean from a medical point of view it pays to get a check up if a number of foods and wines don't taste very good . At least a dental check up . Of course I find the number one reason I don't seem to taste things as well these days might be too much coffee, wrong food with the wine, pipe smoking and getting older .

     
  9. Bob Betz Says:
  10. Dear Anonymous,

    Thanks for your comments, and for reminding us of the French axiom: Chaque a son goût, or “everyone has his own taste”. I like to take it even a step farther, “It’s your palate and your pocketbook”. I’d never suggest that your palate underestimates the Betz Family wines; your wine preference is your own and you should absolutely be enjoying only those wines which meet your expectations.

    For us, we have to take comfort in the consistent and ubiquitous high acclaim that our wines receive from critics of different publications/geographic areas/circles of influence, as well as from thousands of consumers that we see at release and other events through the year. We taste openly with some critics, while others taste privately and blindly in their offices; some buy the wines off the shelf while others accept donations. We religiously present our wines to the critics without comment or arm-twisting: they respond only to their own palates. At no time in our history have we ever poured critics anything other than what we sell to our customers. The only thing I’ll leave behind as I exit this world is my reputation, and I have never considered deceit.

    We make wine following principles I hold sacred: start with great vineyard sites managed by smart grower-partners, focus on preserving fruit and site character in our cellar techniques, minimize oxygen and barrel time, blend to the best of my ability and a focus on fruit purity through sound sanitation practices. I regret our wines can’t please everyone.

    If you wish, feel free to contact me personally; my goal is not to change your mind but to enjoy an exchange of ideas. 425-861-9823, bob@betzfamilywinery.com.

    Best regards,

    Bob Betz

     
  11. Anonymous Says:
  12. First of all I would like to thank Mr. Betz for his polite and well thought out response. I would have expected no less from him based on our very brief previous interactions. In addition, the conspiracy comment was meant to be a joke and nothing more. My fault for not making that clearer.

    To the others who have responded to my comments I want to ensure you that I have taken my medications this morning (JOKE #2!!) and am in good health. I am just frustrated with the considerable expense of the quantities of these wines that I have purchased only to find myself repeatedly disappointed. It is my fault for continuing to think I was missing something and trying again. I should have cut and run sooner but kept waiting for the bottles to improve in the cellar. Also, I loved the 2005 pere on release but really do not enjoy it in the least currently as I sit here and stare at my 2 remaining $65.00 bottles.

    In hindsight Mr. Betz puts it best: "its your palate and your pocketbook". I got swept up in the reviews and my usual agreement with Paul G on the vast majority of his reviews. I even agree with Sean most of the time and I rarely agree with Wine Spectator, but I still think they got it right on these. And yes, food still tastes good, my favorite wines still taste good, and I tend to drink most of my favorite reds without food to avoid unpleasant interactions.

    I'm sure that, as is seen by several of the responses above, that there are a ton of people waiting to take my spot on the mailing list. I just hope they dont make the same mistakes that I have.

     
  13. Customer Says:
  14. Dear Bob,

    That post, right there, is why you're an absolute icon. You're never arrogant, even though a person with your credentials and record would be tempted to be so, and you're always caring about your customers, even the ones who aren't always happy. You're a true inspiration to all Washington Wine lovers, and one hell of a nice guy. Keep up the great work!

    Sincerely,

    One of your many customers

     
  15. Anon,

    I think your comment raises an important point about wine. Everyone has his or her own palate. I always say that I can tell you if I believe a wine is of high quality or not, but I cannot tell you whether that means you're going to like it. This is where understanding a reviewer's palate and using the tasting notes to infer information about the style of the wine becomes necessary. And that's why I personally believe that it is important to find critics whom you agree with to assist you in selecting wines you will enjoy.

    However, as you have noted here, even then, you won't find a 100% overlap and will occasionally find wines that you do not agree on. It sounds like, for you, this is the Betz wines which is unfortunate for a number of reasons - 1) they are high quality wines and 2) they are not inexpensive!

    I will say that I believe that the Betz wines are of extremely high quality and that the new releases continue to raise the bar. I will also say that if there is one person that I respect in this industry, it is Bob Betz. He is an inspiration. However, I can’t say that this has influenced my reviews in any way. I've scored the wines blind on several occasions and my impressions have been the same. No one’s pulling a fast one here. We just all have unique palates.

    I will also say that it sounds like, unfortunately, you won’t enjoy the new releases! Not to fear, I’m sure you can easily find these wines a good home.

    Thanks for the comment.

     
  16. Rand Sealey Says:
  17. I am another one of those wine critics that supposedly has been brainwashed by Bob Betz. I usually purchase wines from the winery or a retailer and taste them objectively, taking extensive notes to indicate the wines' characteristics and styles. So I do not think this is a case of Betz Family winery pouring wines that are not the same as those being shipped. I have found Betz wines to be of consistently high quality. Whether they agree with one's personal tastes is a different matter.

     
  18. Anonymous Says:
  19. Those of us on the Betz mailing list got the 2009 Bordeaux offer a week or two ago. The prices have indeed gone up, although not a lot. The Clos de Betz and the Pere de Famille both had the same 8.33% increase in price from last year. It should be noted however that the prices of the Rhone blends stayed the same for the 2008 and 2009 vintages.

    Wine prices can vary year to year, so this is not too surprising. I will say though, if prices go up by more than 5% next year I'm going to have to stop buying Betz wines. Too many great wines out there well under $50.

     

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