Awareness of Washington wine has evolved since Ted Baseler was warned by a server not to drink any wine from the District of Columbia.
When he joined Ste. Michelle Wine Estates as a marketing director in 1984, the state’s wine industry was a fledgling with only three dozen wineries. Now, there are more than a thousand, with 350 growers cultivating 60,000 acres of vines.
Baseler’s ceaseless promotion of the state’s wine reputation and its wineries is, he says, just good business sense. “It seems obvious that if you grow the category, we’ll get our fair share.”
Taking the helm at Ste. Michelle in 2001, he crafted an earnings turnaround and developed a “String of Pearls” strategy of brands to span the market. The set of labels that includes Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, 14 Hands, Col Solare and Snoqualmie has made Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, a member of the Altria Group of companies, into the third-largest premium wine company in the United States, earning projected revenue of $746 million in 2017, its 50th anniversary year.
Baseler also led the raising of $23 million to build a world-class enology and viticulture program at Washington State University, which opened in 2015 in Richland. Training future winemakers as scientists, he notes, will help protect future vineyards from calamity. He sees plenty of room for the industry’s continued growth.
“We’re still quite small compared to California,” Baseler notes, forecasting that vineyard land in Washington could someday grow to 200,000 acres, supporting three times as many wineries as exist today. Such size would encourage more wine tourism, which is, as wine production once was, relatively untapped.
“Compared to other great wine regions,” Baseler observes, “we’re not even close.”