How Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Ted Baseler plans to put Washington wines on the world map.
AS TED BASELER winds along the snaking platform that passes through the center of Chateau Ste. Michelle, he expounds on the winery’s achievements over the last three decades. The accolades are hard to miss. Sports-arena style banners listing vintages’ top scores fall from the bottling room ceiling. Awards bestowed by judges from around the world cover 72 feet of the corridor wall. Down the hallway stands a shrine to the company’s Single Berry Select, which, up until two months ago, had been the highest rated Washington wine ever. All seems well in the wine empire of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates yet the president and CEO isn’t satisfied. “It’s my desire to see Washington unequivocally seen as one of the top three regions in the world and that there would be no debate about it. It would be Bordeaux, Tuscany, and Washington,” says the 52-year-old Bellevue native. “And we’re getting there.”
Washington is the second largest wine producer in the United States but it’s far from being an international heavyweight. “California is the big dog, and we’re the underdog. But we are growing much faster than California,” says Baseler. In the last quarter century, the state’s wine industry has exploded, growing from 19 to 425 wineries. The rapid growth is clearly illustrated on Red Mountain near Benton City, which earned federal recognition as an American Viticulture Area in 2001. Already six new wineries are under construction in the region, including a $6 million home for Col Solare, an ultrapremium red wine produced by Chateau Ste. Michelle and Marchesi Antinori, Italy’s leading wine family. Having Antinori set up shop in the desert of Eastern Washington is an enormous stamp of approval for the industry, says Tom Hedges, founder of Hedges Cellars, which has a winery and vineyards on Red Mountain. “It’s not enough to have great wine. You have to have image. And image comes with someone that has been in the business for 600 years like Piero Antinori and his family. Antinori gives us the history that we need to have,” he says.
The state’s wine history stretches back to 1871, when wine grapes were first planted in Yakima Valley. Washington’s wine industry didn’t take root until 1934 when Seattle’s Pommerelle Wine Company and the National Wine Company in Grandview were established. In the next 40 years, the two companies merged, underwent several name changes and a corporate buyout, and emerged as Chateau Ste. Michelle. The young wine company began constructing its Woodinville winery on an 87-acre dairy farm previously owned by Seattle lumber baron Frederick Spencer Stimson. “Back then establishing the chateau was a bold move for Ste. Michelle,” says Bob Betz, former vice president of winemaking research at Ste. Michelle and owner of the Betz Family Winery in Woodinville. “The wine industry and tourism in Napa Valley was really accelerating, and it was a bold move for Ste. Michelle to stay in Washington.” In 1976 Chateau Ste. Michelle’s winery opened, and by the early 1980s 18 more wineries had sprouted.
Around this time, Baseler returned to Washington from Chicago, where he had been working for advertising firm J. Walter Thompson. He took a job with Seattle advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather / Cole & Weber, where his client portfolio included a tiny account called Chateau Ste. Michelle. Baseler became close friends with the company’s executives, but it was still surprising when the former president asked him to join Chateau Ste. Michelle. “I really believed there was huge potential for the company and Washington wine industry,” he says. So at the age of 30, Baseler took a chance and joined the state’s first wine company.
Walking above the tank room, where Chateau Ste. Michelle produces its 600,000 cases of white wines, Baseler points out large sections of ice forming on the tanks’ exteriors and explains how the process, called cool fermenting, is designed to release flavors in certain white wine grapes. It’s clear that after more than two decades of working to advance Ste. Michelle and Washington’s wine industry Baseler cares more about producing great wine than the bottom line. “We’re not setting our sights on bigger. We want to be better,” he says.
Baseler turns to a wall map of Washington to explain why, as wine critic Pierre-Antoine Rovani wrote in the April 2006 edition of Wine Advocate, the state’s “future is as bright today as any viticultural region’s on earth.” The state is geographically blessed with the Cascade Mountains, which trap coastal rains on the western side, keeping Eastern Washington vineyards dry and sunny. The state also basks in two extra hours of sunlight during the grape-growing season thanks to its northern location. All good reasons why Ste. Michelle Estates stayed in Washington, invested in 3,400 acres of estate vineyards, and built six additional wineries, including three Baseler was influential in launching—Walla Walla’s Northstar, Snoqualmie in Prosser, and Columbia Crest of Paterson.
The company’s wine empire, which stretches beyond Washington and includes wineries and vineyards in Napa Valley, grew again in May with the purchase of Erath Vineyards, a producer of high-end pinot noir and one of Oregon’s oldest wineries. As Washington’s leading wine company, Ste. Michelle produces 3.7 million cases annually and is ranked ninth in the United States wine industry. “It’s very rewarding to help shape Washington’s wine industry. It’s not like being a custodian where you’re handed the keys to a wine legacy created 300 years ago and your job is to maintain it,” says Baseler.
Beyond Ste. Michelle, Baseler fueled Washington’s wine industry growth through side projects. He returned to his alma mater WSU, where he graduated with a communications degree in 1976, and ignited an effort to create a viticulture program. Baseler lobbied the state Legislature for funding, rallied industry professionals, and consulted on the program’s curriculum. Then three years ago, Baseler launched another project with Hedges and the late Dr. Walter Clore, a WSU horticulturist widely known as the father of the state wine industry, to create a culinary center to showcase Washington wines and tourism. In May 2007, the Dr. Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center is scheduled to open in Prosser. And recently, while serving as chair of the Washington Wine Commission, Baseler pushed for a new marketing campaign aimed at dispelling myths about state wines and increasing domestic sales. “Washington State: The Perfect Climate for Wine” is being tested in Florida, and is bearing fruit, he says: “This is just the beginning.”
In the coming decade, Baseler wants to make Ste. Michelle and Washington wines bigger players in the international market and he’s already gained a foothold in Italy. In the early 1990s Baseler was introduced to Piero Antinori by Russian wine consultant André Tchelistcheff, who worked for both companies. “We hit it off famously,” says Baseler. He cultivated a close friendship with the Italian winemaking superstar, known for combining sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon to create the wines known as Super Tuscans. The bridge between Washington and Italy led Ste. Michelle and Antinori in 1995 to begin producing Col Solare wine, made with Washington grapes and recently awarded a 94 from Wine Advocate for its 2002 vintage. The success with Col Solare has inspired more collaborations. This month Ste. Michelle assumes the role of North American distributor for Antinori, a deal that benefits the Woodinville company by opening up export channels in Italy. Then in September, the Italians move into Red Mountain with the opening of the Col Solare winery, which will provide an international tourism anchor in Washington. “It is a great statement not only about the company but really about the state of Washington that they would feel that Washington’s were of the class of these fabulous wines from Tuscany,” he says.
Back in Chateau Ste. Michelle’s barrel room, Baseler stops to describe how the winery’s French oak barrels are made from trees meticulously cultivated to produce barrels with extremely dense wood grains devoid of knots. “It helps the flavors tremendously to have this tight grain,” he says. There lies the foundation for Baseler’s plan to put Washington on equal footing with the wine empires of France and Italy: quality. “First you have to consistently produce higher quality wines that win blind tastings and competitions,” he says. Then the state has to grow its fan base through increased distribution and get wine drinkers into Washington wineries. “When people can see the heritage of the wine, where it’s harvested, made, stored, it increases their appreciation of the wine dramatically,” he says. “People come up to me at wine festivals (around the world) and say, ‘I visited Chateau Ste. Michelle ten years ago and I’ve been a loyal customer ever since.’ That’s really what it’s about.”