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Bob Betz, Wine After Retirement

Some 40 years ago, Bob and Cathy Betz stood on a country lane in Burgundy's Côte de Nuits, looking at a low, unremarkable hillside topped with pine trees whose vineyards, over the centuries, had produced wines of astonishing quality. The monks whose abbey owned the land in the 7th century, and who kept written records, had given the vineyard a name, the first-ever named vineyard in history: Clos De Bèze.

Bèze, Betz, the similarity struck home. "At some point in my life," Bob recalls telling his wife, "one of my own wines will be called Clos de Betz."

It would take three decades, but he did it. One of the top wines from the Betz Family Winery is indeed named Clos de Betz. But this story is about what came in between.

Betz is a Seattle native (Blanchett), UW Grad (zoology), outgoing yet reflective, a gifted communicator who became the official spokesman for Chateau Ste. Michelle and the unofficial public face of Washington's wine industry. He was a sort of politburo ideologue at Ste. Michelle, with the grandiose title of Vice President for Enology and Research, the one who kept the winery's focus on wine, wine, wine. And when he left Ste. Michelle (where he had hired me), it was to start his own 1,200-case operation, Betz Family Winery.

It's been two decades since we worked together and his beard has more salt than pepper now, but Betz has lost none of his enthusiasm for wine. In recent years, after grueling exams, he earned the prestigious Master of Wine certification. "Seamless syrahs and cabernets," cooed Wine & Spirits magazine, naming Betz one of the best small wineries in America.

Still, Betz and Cathy are in their 60s now and thinking about retirement. Their daughters Carmen and Carla had both worked in the business but have careers of their own. The exit strategy was to sell, though only to the right buyer. And so, when the South African owners of a Phoenix private equity firm, InSync, Steve and Bridget Griessel came along, promising to keep his baby a family-owned company, Betz said yes. An offer he couldn't refuse.

Betz will spend a couple more years under contract as winemaker, but, as he told Wine Spectator, "Now we can just concentrate on the fun stuff, making wine, instead of talking to insurance agents and finding parts for the coffee machine."

Crafting wine, a locution that implies some mechanical wizardry, is a misleading term much favored by non-winemakers who try to dumb down the process. It's really a series of incremental decisions, small steps taken every day in the vineyards, every day in the cellar, that affect how the wine will taste and mature.

As for his uncanny ability to read a wine the way some people can critique a work of literature, he credits his breadth of experience with classic wines, much of it gained as a Master of Wine. Not just a German Riesling, but one from the Pfalz. How a chardonnay from Meursault differs from a Chablis. "A wider lens," he calls this perspective. And he tastes constantly, so he knows where his syrah, whether sourced from Ciel du Cheval vineyards on Red Mountain or Boushey Vineyards near Grandview, fits into the continuum of syrah samples from the Rhône valley in France, from California, from Spain.

So back to the Clos de Betz. It's not a Burgundian pinot noir, like its Clos de Bèze "namesake," but a Bordeaux blend based on merlot. For all that, it's a splendid wine, with rich flavors of black cherries and overtones of dark chocolate. Would it ever be mistaken for French? The question isn't relevant; Betz wasn't out to make a French wine. Clos de Betz is the expression of its own terroir, of the unique combination of grape varieties, soil, climate, the entire season's growing conditions, and only then the human intervention that turns the grapes into wine.

"I love every minute of the process," Betz told the Wine Spectator last year. "From walking the vineyards to the manual labor, getting out of a tie and cleaning tanks, all of it." No compromises. Betz says he learned one overriding lesson at Ste. Michelle. "There's no substitute for quality."

Josh Schroeter and Edmond Sanctis, Sahale Snackers

Ten years ago, two friends were climbing Mount Rainier. They would usually load up with gourmet food, but they'd packed for efficiency on this climb so all they had to sustain themselves was ordinary trail mix. Yuck! When they got off the mountain, they headed straight for the kitchen, determined to create something better. No less nutritious, but tastier.

By this time, the two pals, Josh Schroeter and Edmond Sanctis, had known one another for 25 years, ever since attending Columbia School of Journalism and working at the same company, NBC. Josh had already run digital media ventures for NBC and launched his own internet company, Blockbuy.com; Edmond had become president of NBC Internet as well as Acclaim Entertainment, a video game business. Their kitchen experiments eventually produced several combinations of nuts and fruit glazings (cashews with pomegranate, almonds with cranberries among others) that would form the basis for their company, which they named for Sahale Peak, one of their favorite climbs.

Then came the hard part for the two entrepreneurs: producing their recipes in commercial quantities, and recruiting executives who knew how to manage a food company. Well, we wouldn't be writing this if they hadn't succeeded. Erik Eddings and Erika Cottrell had both worked at Tully's Coffee and Monterey Gourmet Foods, and knew their way around branding and food production; they signed on as CEO and VP Marketing, respectively. And as testimony to their savvy, Sahale Snacks was named Food Processor of the Year by Seattle Business Magazine in April 2014. The Sahale Snacks line has expanded with "to-go" packaging; they're sold in 10,000 Starbucks stores, hundreds of Whole Foods and Costco locations.

Even though their creations are sold around the world, success hasn't gone to the founders' heads. Edmond and Josh still live in Seattle with their families; they still climb mountains together. A very Seattle story, and it even has a happier ending than that: Sahale Snacks has grown into a $50 million company with 150 employees. It's now owned (not surprisingly) by a private equity fund, Palladium Partners. And it was announced in August 2014 that food giant JM Smucker (annual revenues about $5.5 billion) is buying Sahale Snacks as part of an expansion into "lifestyle brands." A happy ending indeed.

August-September 2014


Ronald Holden is a Seattle-based journalist who specializes in food, wine and travel. He has worked for KING TV, Seattle Weekly, and Chateau Ste. Michelle; his blog is www.Cornichon.org.

 


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