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Ste. Michelle Wine Estates CEO gives winemakers freedom to practice their passions

When Ted Baseler took the reins at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates in 2001, intent on growing it rapidly, he looked around at other big wine empires and decided not to follow their example.

“Frankly, they were growing big and mediocre,” said Baseler, the company’s president and CEO. “They would buy wineries and consolidate production into one huge wine factory. You lose the passion of the individual winemaker.”

Instead, Baseler created a “string of pearls” growth strategy as he acquired additional wineries, giving the individual winemakers almost total autonomy in making their wines. He turned his headquarters into a “back of the house” operation for the wineries, handling sales and marketing.

For that concept, for his multimillion-dollar investments in the wine industry and for his charitable works, Baseler was honored last week with the Southern Wine & Spirits of America Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 Tribute Dinner at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami Beach.

Today Ste. Michelle Wine Estates is the third-largest premium wine company in the U.S., with more than a dozen wineries, from the flagship Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington state to Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars in Napa, Calif. It has 3,700 acres and 1,100 employees, shipping 7.9 million cases of wine a year, exporting to 75 countries.

For a big company, giving winemakers such freedom is increasingly rare in an American wine market growing more consolidated every year.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ portfolio includes Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, 14 Hands, Northstar, Spring Valley and Col Solare in Washington; Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars and Conn Creek in California and Erath Winery in Oregon. It is the exclusive North American importer of wines from the Antinori family of Tuscany, the Torres Family of Spain and Chile, Nicolas Feuillatte of Champagne and Villa Maria Estate of New Zealand.

Baseler, now 60, didn’t start out in wine.

“I always wanted to be an ad man,” he said. He earned a communications degree from Washington State University and a graduate degree in marketing from Northwestern University, and went to work in product promotions for the ad firm J. Walter Thompson in Chicago.

Later he and his wife, JoAnne, moved back to Seattle, where he joined a smaller local ad agency.

“I had this little account called Chateau Ste. Michelle. They didn’t advertise much,” Baseler says.

But in 1984, he had become so enthusiastic about the winery that he went to work there as marketing director.

“The first year we had a $2 million loss. I thought, ‘This might not last too long.’ But then things turned around.”

By 2001 he had risen to president and CEO. As he built his winery empire, Baseler made sure his individual winemakers retained control over the style of the wines they were making. And had the talent to do it.

“We don’t use focus groups. We don’t use surveys. There is no overall company style. Each winery has its own. They take the best fruit and turn it into great wine.”

As big as the Ste. Michelle Wine Estates has grown, Baseler plans to continue its acquisitions.

“We’re on track to expand. The string of pearls is elastic. But we will be particular as we grow. We don’t need to be everywhere.”

Highly recommended

• 2010 Col Solare Red Wine, Columbia Valley (90 percent cabernet sauvignon, 4 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet franc, 2 percent malbec): powerful and smooth, with aromas and flavors of black plums and espresso, long finish; $75.

• 2013 Chateau Ste. Michelle & Dr. Loosen “Eroica,” Columbia Valley (100 percent riesling): crisp, lightly sweet, intense citrus and apricot flavors, mineral-scented finish; $20.

• 2011 Chateau Ste. Michelle Cabernet Sauvignon, “Cold Creek Vineyard,” Columbia Valley (97 percent cabernet sauvignon, 3 percent merlot): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black plums and bittersweet chocolate, heady and rich, long finish; $30.

• 2011 Chateau Ste. Michelle Artist Series Meritage Red Wine, Columbia Valley (72 percent cabernet sauvignon, 25 percent merlot, 2 percent cabernet franc, 1 percent malbec): hint of oak, medium body, aromas and flavors of black cherries and cloves, hearty, smooth, long finish; $57.

Recommended

• 2013 Chateau Ste. Michelle Dry Riesling, Columbia Valley (100 percent riesling): light and dry, with citrus blossom aromas and ripe peach flavors; $10.

• 2013 Chateau Ste. Michelle Sauvignon Blanc, “Horse Heaven Vineyard,” Horse Heaven Hills (100 percent sauvignon blanc): light and lively, crisp and steely, white grapefruit and lemon peel aromas and flavors; $15.

• 2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay, “Cold Creek Vineyard,” Columbia Valley (100 percent chardonnay): lush and rich, with aromas and flavors of ripe tropical fruit and brioche; $25.

• 2012 Chateau Ste. Michelle Merlot, “Canoe Ridge Estate,” Horse Heaven Hills (90 percent merlot, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and black pepper, smooth; $26.

• 2011 Northstar Merlot, Columbia Valley (78 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, 2 percent petit verdot): aromas and flavors of black raspberries, bittersweet chocolate and spice, concentrate fruit; $40.

• 2011 Stags’ Leap Wine Cellars “S.L.V.” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley (100 percent cabernet sauvignon): toasty oak, aromas and flavors of red raspberries, cassis and cloves, big, ripe tannins, smooth finish; $125.

• 2012 Columbia Crest H3 Merlot, Horse Heaven Hills (96 percent merlot, 4 percent cabernet sauvignon): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black raspberries and cinnamon, rich and smooth; $15.

• 2011 Columbia Crest Walter Clore Private Reserve Red Wine, Columbia Valley (68 percent merlot, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent cabernet franc): hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black plums and anise, full body, youthful tannins; $35.