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Chateau Ste. Michelle, by far the largest winery in Washington State, not only acts as standard-bearer for the rest of the state's nascent wine industry; it also serves as a seedbed for many of the owners and winemakers who are driving the area's emergence as one of America's finest wine regions.
One such alum who is now making his own mark is the amiable Bob Betz. Betz worked for Ste. Michelle for 26 years before retiring in 2003—"If this is retirement, I'm in trouble …"—and devoting himself full-time to the Betz Family Winery, a small winery in Redmond, Wash., which produces about 3,500 cases a year.
He's a meticulous winemaker with a delightful sense of whimsy and a love for European-style wines, especially those of the Rhône. The whimsy shows up in the names of his wines, which are often puns on Frenchified versions of his name along with wine references thrown into the mix for added fun. Thus you have Betz/Bés and Soleil becoming Bésoleil, a wine inspired by the sun-drenched vineyards of the southern Rhône Valley.
You won't mistake the charming and approachable Bésoleil 2007 ($45) for a Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the French wine it's modeled after, but then it's not your standard issue, jam-pot California Rhône imitation either.
It doesn't have the weight or substance of a CNP, but what it does have is fabulously silky tannins and an appealing accessibility, absolutely seductive in its charm. It's all gorgeous red berry summer fruits. If it doesn't make you shout "strawberries," you don't deserve to be drinking it.
The wine spent 12 months in French oak barrels, 25% new, 75% second-fill, but you would never know it from its lively vivacity. I admire how Betz achieves this, integrating the weight and complexity that oak can give to a wine without it overwhelming the fruit, and his response was telling. "That's the goal for Bésoleil, absolute fruit dominance. Perhaps it's more a reflection of how much wood character most wineries try to achieve in their wines. That's not our style. I love when Grenache vibrancy rules."
When to Drink: Now
Breathing/Decanting: Half an hour breathing helps
Food Pairing: Pork, chicken, lighter pastas
Grapes: 80% grenache, 15% mourvedre, 5% syrah.
Appellation: Columbia Valley
Region: Washington State
Web Site: www.betzfamilywinery.com