Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Far-flung Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, guides what he proudly refers to as the winery “string of pearls” from an office in the French-style chateau that houses what may be the most visited winery in the world and reflects on the 50th anniversary of the brand.
Baseler, who joined Ste. Michelle as marketing director in 1984, marked 15 years as president and CEO last year with a couple of key accomplishments. One was the special award Ste. Michelle Wine Estates received in November in London when it was presented the trophy as 2016 “United States Wine Producer of the Year” in the International Wine & Spirits Competition.
The other was adding the first Sonoma winery, Patz & Hall, to what Baseler proudly refers to as the “string of pearls” to describe the collection of estate wineries that stretch across Washington and into Oregon and California. The string is the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates company that holds the “pearls.”
While Chateau Ste. Michelle, on its 87-acre estate, is the state’s largest winery and has revenues in 2015 of $692 million and profit of $152 million, the role Baseler and his company have played in helping build Washington’s wine industry to more than 850 wineries valued at more than $10 billion is noteworthy.
And he thinks the Ste. Michelle numbers will double in the next decade, adding that he is “bullish on Washington because of both quality and prices,” adding “it’s hard to find a quality wine in the Napa Valley for less than $100 a bottle.”
In additiom, he notes that “America os going from beer drinking to wine drinking, particularly true with millennials.
The birth of the Ste. Michelle brand provides an amusing tale of the value of competition. There was a time when only the wine produced in this state could legally be sold at retail outlets. It was possible to go to the state Liquor Control Board and order a case of wine from California, which would then arrive several days later.
Washington wines were produced by an all-but-forgotten winemaker called American Wine Growers, which produced almost entirely fortified sweet wines, sometimes affectionately referred to as “rot gut.”
Then in 1967, The California Wine Bill was introduced in the Legislature with the goal of permitting wines from California and elsewhere to be sold at retail outlets. Opponents lamented loudly that it would kill the Washington wine industry and proponents countered “let’s hope so.”
But there were others who understood that competition would benefit all and AWG, that same 1967 landmark year for the industry, began a new line of premium vinifera wines under the name Ste. Michelle and contracted with renowned wine expert Andre Tchelischeff to guide production. Within two years, the wines were receiving “good marks.”
In 1972, a group of investors headed by Wally Opdyke bought out AWG and formed a company under the name Ste. Michelle Vintners, which became successful, soon to be bought out by American Tobacco Co., which was acquired by Altria Group in 2009.
Baseler’s business strategy in guiding his company’s growth is to retain the legacy and reputation of acquired properties and allow them to continue to operate somewhat autonomously.
“We’ve observed other big wine companies that have grown and consolidated their operations, and basically destroyed what they’ve acquired as the wineries lose their flair, their personality and their legacy,” Baseler said.
Another part of Baseler’s strategy is to foster the growth of the industry in this state by viewing the hundreds of wineries as family rather than competitors, expressing at one point the conviction that Ste. Michelle Vineyards needs all the other wineries for the state to have an industry.
An example of that support was In 2004, when a rare arctic storm wiped out the grape harvest for a dozen Walla Walla wineries, Baseler stepped up to sell his grapes to keep the wineries from facing ruin. As Baseler was quoted in a profile in Seattle Business magazine a few years ago, “We could have used the grapes, but this was more important.”
It was a key example of his realizing that without the smaller players scattered across the state producing quality wines in a growing number of wine regions (known as AVAs), a Ste. Michelle standing alone would be diminished.
But Baseler’s focus has not merely been on supporting wineries in this state, but also on bringing quality wineries in other regions under the Ste. Michelle umbrella, or string.
I once remarked, somewhat apologetically, to Baseler at an event where we were discussing wines, naturally, that my favorite wine was Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from Erath Vineyard in Oregon. He smiled and replied “That’s ok, we own Erath.”
But the relationships extend beyond this country with partnerships with two quality European vintners. A partnership with Tuscany’s Piero antinori led to creation of Col Solare, which Baseler describes as “the most beautiful winery anywhere.” Eroica Reisling is the result of a partnership with Mosel’s Ernst Loosen, a logical relationship for Chateau Ste. Michelle’s role as the world’s leading producer of Reisling wine.
Baseler has demonstrated that his commitment as a business leader is not just to the industry but also to the state, though he laments when pressed that the state makes little financial effort to support the industry.
In 2002, Baseler was approached about establishing a scholarship fund to support high-achieving, under-represented minority undergraduates at University of Washington. The story goes that Baselder said “no.” Then after a pause, the WSU alum and Regen at the Pullman school said: “but I’ll do it for UW and WSU.”
The program expanded in 2009 to include students attending any college or university in the state. Since inception, more than 100 scholarships totaling more than $3 million have been awarded. Students in the program, which is administered by the College Success Foundation, have a graduation rate of 85-to-90 percent.
Among recent achievements, Baseler led fundraising efforts for a Wine Science Center, a 40,000-square foot, high-tech research and education facility that was opened in June of 2015. The Center, located next to the Washington State University Tri-Cities campus, was a $23 million project developed as a public-private partnership.
Baseler’s comment about the Woodinville winery being “the most visited winery in the world” is supported by the fact that visitors to the winery total more than 250,000 but when attendance at the array of concerts held on the grounds is added in, the total reach about half a million a year.
Ste. Michelle has several events planned throughout the year to celebrate the anniversary, with large public celebration at the Chateau over the Labor Day weekend, serving as a capstone of sorts as well as a grand re-opening of a major renovation that will be undertaken this year.