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Flynn's Harp:State wine industry's signal charitable event reaches 25 with memorable gathering slated

Bob Betz, who as one of the state's most respected winemakers is co-chairing the 25th Auction of Washington Wines, recalls with a smile the first auction. "I bought two bottles for $60, and it was the live auction. And they were bottles of Oregon wine." Much has transpired for both Betz, then already an established executive with Chateau Ste. Michelle winery, and the industry itself since that launch event. What was initially, and for the first 10 years, called the Auction of Northwest Wines because it was held in partnership with the equally young Oregon wine industry, now sees live-auction items bring in an average of $10,000.

Betz' co-chair for the 2012 event is Stein Kruse, president and CEO of Holland America Line, whose cruise ships take Washington wines to ports of call around the world. So as Betz has perhaps the longest-term perspective on the industry he became a part of in 1976 when he joined Chateau Ste. Michelle as director of marketing, it might well be said of Kruse that his company gives Washington wines their most far-flung exposure. Sherri Swingle, Auction of Washington Wines' executive director, says that first auction raised $20,000 and had 47 wineries participating. By last year, the auction raised $1.55 million, swelling the total the event has raised over the years to $26 million, with uncompensated care at Seattle Children's Hospital being the key beneficiary.

The auction organization came into existence in 1987, the same year as the Washington Wine Commission, the state agency created by the legislature to provide a voice for both wineries and grape growers in the state. The first wine auction was held the following year.

In a sense, the accomplishments of both the industry organization and the auction will be highlighted and honored at the August celebration when the three days of what is billed as the state's most prestigious charity wine event, for which Swingle is now finalizing details, unfold.

Swingle says more than 1,700 attendees are expected to be on hand for the auction gala on August 18 with about 500 at 10 winemaker dinners around the region the previous evening and about 1,000 at the picnic and barrel auction of limited-release wines on August 15.

But the role and contributions of what is now Chateau Ste. Michelle Wine Estates will be especially highlighted at what has traditionally been an annual award to a vintner and a grower each year. This year the awards are being combined, at the insistence of CEO Ted Baseler, who originally had been intended for an individual honor.

Baseler made it clear that the honor could not single him out, but needed to honor the Chateau Ste. Michelle team, both past and present.

Nevertheless, Baseler's role in not just the success of Chateau Ste. Michelle, but also the industry that he has made equal in importance to the success of his own company, are bound to be noted as the company he has presided over since 2001 is honored.

Baseler's involvement with the industry stretches back almost as far as Betz'. He joined Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1982 but had already spent several years as an account executive for the advertising agency that handled the winery's account.

Today the business, acclaimed twice in the past year as "Winery of the Year," has international relationships and is among the largest and fastest-growing wine companies in the country.

Betz spent 28 years with Chateau Ste. Michelle in a variety of positions in communications, sales and operations, eventually as vice president for winemaking research, remaining as Baseler's right-hand man until 2003, even though he and his wife, Cathy, had opened their own winery in 1997.

Betz, his wife and daughters had built the Betz Family Winery over 15 years, until its sale last year, into one of the state's most successful and respected wineries. He prefers to call it a partnership with the new owners, rather than a sale, since he remains as winemaker and he and his wife will remain as part of the management team while finally having "the one thing that has eluded us - time."

Event co-chair Kruse says he has "a small wine collection" but added "we buy wine in large quantities for our ships around the world and feature Washington wines in the Pinnacle Grill on 15 of our ships."

"The growth of the industry in this state, both in the quality and value of the wines, has been amazing to watch," he said.

That growth Kruse refers to was pointed up in the results of an economic impact study from the Washington Wine Commission this spring, which was described as "the most comprehensive such report ever produced," that showed dramatic growth in the value of the industry since 2007 despite the woes of the economy.

The report indicated the value of the industry to the state has leaped from $3 billion five years ago to $8.6 billion now and that the value nationally has gone from $4.7 billion to $14.9 billion.

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Mike Flynn is retired publisher of Puget Sound Business Journal who now has a consulting firm, Mike Flynn & Associates LLC, and writes a weekly column called Flynn’s Harp. Contact him at Mike@emikeflynn.com if you would like to be added to the list of those receiving it via email, or to see previous Flynn’s Harp columns, go to emikeflynn.com and click on blogs

 

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