An Interview with Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Bob Bertheau
Some of the greatest artistic works in the world are the result of collaboration among masters. That is what makes the Artist Series of wines from Chateau Ste. Michelle so exciting. The wine is designed by Bob Bertheau, the head winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle, and the labels are created by renowned artists. In fact, the series was launched in 1993 with art by Dale Chihuly and the artist again created a label for the most recent vintage, which marks the 20th anniversary of the series.
When it comes to wine making, Bertheau is focused on crafting attention grabbing chardonnay, riesling, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon that speak to his tastes as a wine maker. He has a degree in chemistry from Boise State University and an MS in food science and enology from University of California at Davis.
Before coming home to Chateau Ste. Michelle, (Bertheau is originally from Seattle) he worked with the Hambrecht Vineyards and Wineries on their Belvedere and Bradford Mountain labels. He is grateful to be able to call Bob Sessions at Hanzell Vineyards and David Ramey at Chalk Hill early mentors and to have had the chance to bring “a smaller winery mentality to the larger facility” while working with Gallo of Sonoma for five years.
Here’s Bertheau on making wine, the importance of art, and the magic of bringing the two together.
The Daily Meal: What was the inspiration for the Artist Series?
Bob Bertheau: Two decades ago, Chateau Ste. Michelle was a young and growing Washington winery with big goals and vision. We set out to create a luxury red wine that celebrated Northwest traditions of world class art and wine. We were fortunate that internationally-renowned artist and Pacific Northwest native Dale Chihuly agreed to partner with us and contribute his stunning art on our 1993 Artist Series label, launching the Artist Series wine collection.
What do you see as the connection between art and wine?
I see art as a vision of elements coming together to make something special and personal to the artist. Winemaking and blending fit this definition perfectly in my estimation. My "media" is Washington state grapes and my most personal vision is Artist Series.
How do you choose the artists for the series?
For the first nine years of the Artist Series collection, we featured glass artists. During the next decade, Artist Series evolved to feature artist with other mediums from bronze sculptures to paint on canvas. We work with Foster White Gallery of Seattle to select the artist.
What has been the public’s response to the series?
Like any piece of art and artists, once you learn about how something is created and their spirit and ethos, the art means more. Same with this wine. Once people hear the story about the wine and each individual artist, it makes it more special and personal. They just "get it" more when I explain my vision for the blend.
What comes first — the wine or the art? Why is that? And how does that affect the final product?
We actually make the blend first... unique for each vintage. Then we look at the candidates presented to us by Foster White Gallery in Seattle to see if there is a better fit for the series in general and that particular wine for the vintage.
I understand the work of renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly is on the most recent Artist Series bottle and his work was on the very first in the series as well. Can you tell readers a little bit about that recurring partnership?
We partnered with Dale Chihuly to launch the first Artist Series vintage with the 1993. Dale, Ted Baseler, our president and CEO, and I all thought what better way to celebrate the 20th vintage of Artist Series than to come full circle and feature Dale’s work on the 20th vintage label. To honor this special partnership, Chateau Ste. Michelle is funding an Artist in Residency Scholarship for the Pilchuck Glass School, an international center for glass art education co-founded by Chihuly, located in Stanwood, Washington.
Where did your love of wine originate?
I actually started in college as a Pre-Med student with a Chemistry degree. But while in school, I got a job part time in a wine tasting room and fell in love. From more the "technical marveling" in the beginning to the amazing confluence of art and science once I got to Grad School at UC Davis and even more so over the 27 ensuing vintages of making wine. Every year is different and fascinating both from the grapes but also all the fantastic people that are involved with every facet.
And what about your love of art?
I love life and feel art around all of us every day, both the obvious forms but also just the beauty of a fall day in the vineyard... Mother Nature hard at work with her palette.
Can you tell readers unfamiliar with the label a bit about Chateau Ste. Michelle and its offerings?
Chateau Ste. Michelle was founded in 1934 and is the oldest winery in Washington State. The winery combines an ongoing dedication to research with a commitment to classic winemaking traditions and is best known for award-winning riesling, chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. We offer a wide range of wines, from the Columbia Valley wines that are widely available to more limited estate vineyard bottlings as well as our Ethos Reserve tier and Artist Series wines.
What do you think would surprise people to know about this Washington State winery?
I think if people saw the extreme passion and dedication to our wines and our state, they would be blown away. I love to go to "work" and see our entire team still so enthralled with our industry and our wines. We love to make tasty, interesting, well-priced wines for our broad reaching consumers.
The winery offers a concert series in the summer. Can you tell readers a bit about the history of the series and about the series itself?
Chateau Ste. Michelle has been hosting summer concerts since 1984. They started out small. Today, Chateau Ste. Michelle is one of the most popular outdoor summer concert venues in the Northwest with top artists. It’s such a great experience to enjoy amazing music and wine on a beautiful summer night with friends. One thing we are proud of is that the net proceeds from our summer concert series help funds our charitable giving program.
Does the winery do any other kind of activities or events open to the public?
In addition to our Summer Concert Series, we host many events throughout the year, including monthly Chef dinners, our annual Staycation event with a luxury car show and food trucks, art, wine, and music events, and wine tasting classes. And of course we offer winery tours and tastings daily.
Anything else you might want to share with readers about the Artist Series or about Chateau Ste. Michelle in general?
The number one comment I hear when I am traveling for our brand is how much they trust our wines with any variety at all our price points. That means so much to us and we work very hard to earn and keep that trust. The Artist Series typifies the very top of the pyramid and is the first red blend we put together every year and is my own very personal style.