Ted Baseler (b. 1954) grew up in Bellevue, graduated from Washington State University (WSU), and studied journalism at Northwestern University in Illinois. From there he worked at a series of advertising agencies. His interest in wine led him to friendships with people at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, and in 1984 the winery hired him as its marketing director. He rose through the ranks to become President and CEO in 2001. Under his watch, Ste. Michelle improved its winemaking practices, partnered with several of the world’s top foreign winemakers, and added additional top-tier wineries to its portfolio. Baseler served on the boards of the Washington Wine Commission and the Washington Wine Institute, and was admired for his kind and helpful demeanor, and energetic role in supporting the Northwest Wine Benefit Foundation’s annual Auction of Washington Wines. He helped establish a college scholarship program for minority youth, and was instrumental in the development of the WSU Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center in Richland. He retired in September 2018 after 34 years at the winery.
Son of a Minister
Theodor "Ted" Baseler was born in Oregon City, Oregon, in 1954. His family’s home was located in nearby Gladstone – a pleasant town of 2,500 whose charming nickname amongst locals was "Happy Rock." It was there that his Lutheran minister father, Rev. Edward R. Baseler, built a congregation of 1,001 baptized members. In 1965 the Baseler family moved to Bellevue, where Rev. Baseler had taken a new calling at the Cross of Christ Lutheran Church on Lake Hills Boulevard. Under his leadership the congregation purchased 6.6 acres at 411 156th Avenue NE, and in 1969 began construction of a new church. Ted Baseler recalled that his father "was very successful at creating the largest Lutheran church in the Pacific Northwest – and he could do that because there were a lot of Scandinavian Americans here. He was also a very good storyteller" (Baseler interview with author). Like father, like son: Ted would eventually become a professional communicator and stellar raconteur.
Baseler attended Washington State University in Pullman, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication in 1976. While there, "I had a great professor who said, 'Every year I send some person to Northwestern University in Chicago, and you should be the guy.' So, I said 'Why not?'" (Baseler interview). At Northwestern, he completed a master's degree at the Medill School of Journalism and then hired on at the J. Walter Thompson Advertising agency in Chicago. For the next few years, he was in the thick of the action as a creative marketer of consumer packaged goods: "[I] learned a lot about business and personalities in a creative advertising setting. And I’ll just never forget some of the characters that were in the big-time ad biz back then. It was a great learning experience. But my wife (JoAnne) and I were both from Western Washington, and so we wanted to get back. So after four years we returned home to Seattle" (Baseler interview). The couple later welcomed a daughter, who like them attended WSU.
With his impressive work background, Baseler got his next job with one of Seattle’s top ad agencies – Chiat/Day Advertising – where in May 1982 he was named account supervisor. From there he moved to the venerable Cole & Webber Advertising firm, which was founded in 1931 and was based in the Times Square Building at 414 Olive Way. Hired as an ad rep, Baseler was assigned a list of client companies that included the rather new Chateau Ste. Michelle winery in Woodinville.
Wine Happenings in Woodinville
Chateau Ste. Michelle was the promising result of the recent merger of two of Washington's oldest surviving wineries, each dating back to the early 1930s: the Pommerelle Co. (at 617 Dearborn Street in Seattle), and the National Wine Company (at 319 Nickerson Street in Seattle). Recast in 1954 as the American Wine Growers (AWG), by the early 1960s it controlled 500 vineyard acres in Eastern Washington as well as NAWICO’s old grape-processing plant and fermenting cellar at 205 W 5th Street in the town of Grandview.
In 1969 AWG launched a bevy of new wine products under the brand name of Ste. Michelle. In 1972 a former Safeco insurance account manager named Wallace Opdyke, together with a few other investors, bought out AWG and in 1973 it was incorporated as Ste. Michelle Vintners. Two years later they bought an 87-acre property along the Sammamish River that had once been the country manor, and dairy and poultry farm of Seattle’s timber baron Frederick Stimson (1868-1921). An elegant new Chateau Ste. Michelle winery was built, and its Grand Opening was held there on September 21, 1976.
"Wally Opdyke," Baseler recalled, "was either brilliant or lucky or maybe both, but he decided to build the Chateau in Woodinville. Which was very unusual. Most great wineries are in the wine region. So, it would have been much easier to build it in Yakima or Prosser or Walla Walla or somewhere in Eastern Washington. Yet, he decided that it would make more sense to build it here in Woodinville" (Baseler interview). In 1980 Opdyke made another savvy move by hiring a former marketing manager with Ernest and Julio Gallo's California wine empire named Allen Shoup (1943-2022) to serve as their vice president of marketing and corporate development.
That’s about when Baseler, the ad man, made a critical connection. "I was an account guy," he recalled, "and I had a real passion for wine, and so I would come out here – even though there was very little ad revenue. I loved comin’ out to the Chateau and chatting with the marketing staff, and talking to the winemakers. And so, I did that for a couple of years and when the VP of marketing [Shoup] was promoted to President he said, 'How would you like my old job?' And I said 'Why not? That could be fun!'" [laughter] (Baseler interview).
Baseler took on the role as marketing director in October 1984. "So, he got promoted, I got his job, and we were really eager that year because we were supposed to turn the company’s first profit. And we were all excited that, you know, we’d make some money, and all the books were closed that year. And [then], four months after I arrived, it was announced that we were going to lose three million dollars. Unexpectedly. And I thought, 'This is going to be a short-term gig! I’m not going to be around here very long [laughter] (Baseler interview).
Wrong. Chateau Ste. Michelle was destined to become Washington's largest and most successful wine enterprise. And that, in no small measure, was due to the leadership attributes Baseler brought to the table. He’d led the marketing department, and then moved up to the Chief Operating Officer (COO) position, until 2001 when he succeeded Shoup once again.
"One of the advantages I had was, I had been here for almost 16 years – and then I became CEO and one of the great aspects is, you really know all of the inner workings" (Baseler interview). Asked decades later if there were any structural weaknesses or notable problems at the winery when he first arrived. Baseler laughed: "Well, first off, we hardly had any salespeople. You can’t build a national market [that way]. And so most of our market was in Washington state. And there was very little around the world. So, we had to build a sales force that could take us to fifty states – and now we’re in a hundred countries. So that was one significant issue. The other kind of dilemma we had was, we had kind of fine-wine people who loved to just wax on about great wines of the world – European wines and everything – and then we had the reality of, well, 'We’ve gotta make a profit.' So that was kind of a timeframe when we had these culture clashes. And, I come from more of a pure business background – an analytical approach to business. And so there were times when the people would be going on these long expressions of wine beauty and so, 'Okay, but we’ve gotta sell some boxes!'[laughter]. So ... promoting, advertising, and developing a national footprint for our wines really helped.”
A Growth Industry
In the 1970s and 1980s few people could have foreseen the phenomenal rise of the state’s wine industry. Through it all, Chateau Ste. Michelle played a strong leadership role. The winery’s bold moves impacted all realms of the business. The winery nurtured the careers of scores of budding winemakers, grape growers, vineyard managers, sales staffers, and others. Its very presence – a chateau surrounded by beautiful grounds that have for decades been the home of a popular annual outdoor concert series – has made a mark on the region’s culture, and Woodinville’s identity as "wine country."
And some of all this was rather unexpected: "At the time the winery opened," Baseler recalled in a 2017 interview, "the expectation was that maybe we’d get 40, 50 thousand tourists a year. You know, they would come out here and enjoy the grounds and everything. Well, in the last 10 years we’ve averaged over 300,000. This is most likely the most-toured winery in the world. And you think in hindsight: what a smart decision. I mean obviously there were no other wineries out here in Woodinville, and now there’s what – 120 wineries and tasting rooms? It’s a hub of tourist activity, and great lodges and restaurants. It's been remarkable that one winery could have such a role of really dragging a region [into the future]. And any objective person could look at this and say, 'It’s true.' There are many wineries [in Washington] now, and I mean, when I started in the business there were 20, and now there’s almost a thousand. And we’ve gone from a few thousand acres of vineyard grapes to 60,000 – and the potential is to go to 200,000 ... so it’s a pretty remarkable story that a lot of people were involved with ... So a lot has happened over that time that has been fortuitous, and some people would say it’s been an overnight success – that just took 50 years" (Baseler interview).
Tastes of Liberty
Baseler’s leadership style included lots of creative moments and projects. One of his favorites was managing the creation of a book intended to salute the Statue of Liberty. The core concept behind 1985’s Tastes of Liberty: A Celebration of our Great Ethnic Cooking was to highlight excellent food and wine pairings from various sources of America’s immigrants including: the British, Eastern Europeans, French, Spanish, Germans, Greeks, Irish, Italians, Jews, and Scandinavians. Admittedly not inclusive of all of the country’s citizenry, but well intended nevertheless. "I had to figure out how the sponsorship of the Statue of Liberty had something to do with Chateau Ste. Michelle, and we came up with this idea ... It was an interesting project – I’d never designed a book before. So, I thought, 'Well, this could be kinda fun.' And, we interviewed four or five firms to come in and talk to us about a book. And most of them were local Seattle designers. And they had zero book experience. I ended up interviewing a guy from New York City that ran an outfit called Stewart, Tabori & Chang, and his name was Andy Stewart" (Baseler interview). Stewart flew to Seattle, came to the winery, and listened to Baseler describe the goal. "[And] he sat and drew out pages of what this book called Tastes of Liberty should be about. And he said, 'We’ll get historic photos, we will have beautiful photography that will reveal these recipes and we’ll talk about how these immigrants came through Ellis Island by the Statue of Liberty, and they brought their most precious family assets: their family recipes.' It was brilliant. And this book became a New York Times bestseller. We reprinted five times. Quarter million copies" (Baseler interview).
It didn’t hurt that Stewart’s wife happened to launch her own television show, Martha Stewart Living. And that she had become intrigued by the graphic that Chateau Ste. Michelle’s wine labels bore on their backside: a map. As she would tell Baseler: "'I keep looking at that latitude map on the back label ... and about [Washington] being at the same latitude as Bordeaux. And I really believe that there is something to that. Because, your wines taste much more European than California.' So, she was very inspirational. At various times on her TV show she would bring out Chateau Ste. Michelle and talk about how good it was. So, that was kinda my first project!" (Baseler interview).
River Ridge to Columbia Crest
Another potential problem Baseler’s intuition helped correct involved the launch of the Chateau Ste. Michelle River Ridge Winery. "I went to the Grand Opening. I remember driving over there through endless wheat fields to get there. And at the time it was the largest building in Eastern Washington. And it was great. But I was thinking it made no sense to have two or three Chateau Ste. Michelle wineries when you’ve [already] got a distinct and very successful brand. Why don’t we rename this Columbia Crest? And so, finally I came in and had that proposal. And it happened. We renamed it. So, the other project when I first got here was creating the Columbia Crest Winery and brand. The original graphic for it was a map of Washington state, and it said Columbia Crest by Ste. Michelle and it had a relief map. And so, I thought that was kind of odd. So, I went to my boss and said, 'You know, do you mind if I do some consumer research, because I’m thinking maybe we need to learn something, and see how people react to this.' So, we did these focus groups and the people from Washington said 'Oh, that’s great!' You know, 'That’s our state map.' Everybody from out-of-state said, 'I would never buy that [laughter], that’s a terrible idea.' So, we changed it to the iconic crest that really became very famous. We put 'Columbia Crest by Columbia Crest Winery' [on the labels]. And, we converted the winery to Columbia Crest. We eventually came out with a full line of varietals, and rode the merlot wave, and it was wildly successful. It was our first million-case [per year] winery, and that really allowed us to reposition Chateau Ste. Michelle to a little higher level. And we had this fighting varietal Columbia Crest, high quality at fair prices, and it transformed our company dramatically" (Baseler interview).
Now Chateau Ste. Michelle could be positioned as the more traditional line and Columbia Crest would be the more contemporary line. "What it allowed us to do was have this very modern brand that was new on the scene, and it just exploded. I had a distributor once say, 'Columbia Crest is selling so well – why don’t you just kill Chateau Ste. Michelle?' Well, that would have been stupid. It’s now the second largest-selling premium brand in America [laughs]. I’m glad that, some advice you don’t listen to. That would have been a bad move" (Baseler interview).
In time, Baseler developed the understanding that the health of the wine industry depended on creating a regional identity. In Europe, this is a given. In America it was not an established concept yet. But Chateau Ste. Michelle began pushing the idea. Baseler, along with the winery’s director of public relations communications, Bob Betz (b. 1948), began training their sales force to emphasize "Washington wine" as a central theme. And on numerous occasions, when feasible, the winery pitched in to support up-and-coming wineries and vineyards.
Under Baseler’s leadership Chateau Ste. Michelle’s family of wineries expanded, excelled, and developed an enviable international reputation for excellence. "There’s been so much over the years that we’ve done. And learned. From people that have participated in this great venture" (Baseler interview). From its earliest days the winery benefitted from the advice proffered from its first notable consultant, the great Russian-born California-based winemaker André Tchelistcheff (1901-1994). In more recent times it has partnered on innovative projects with wine greats including Italy’s Piero Antinori, Germany’s Ernst Loosen, France’s Nicolas Feuillatte, Spain’s Bodegas Torres winery, Chile’s Miguel Torres winery, and New Zealand’s Villa Maria Estate.
Inspired by the Newbies
By the 1980s the finest wines from Washington were beginning to earn accolades and win awards from national wine critics and festivals. Younger wineries like Walla Walla’s Leonetti Cellar and Woodward Canyon, and Snohomish’s Quilceda Creek, were being lauded for their world-class achievements. In the face of this glory going out to these relative newcomers, even an old lion like Chateau Ste. Michelle had to reexamine this state of affairs.
"Washington really started to take off in the mid- to late-'90s," Baseler recalled. "That’s when things really got exciting here. People were opening up more and more wineries, and you had great wineries like Leonetti and Woodward Canyon creating phenomenal wines." In response, Chateau Ste. Michelle looked in the mirror and saw room for improvement. "I think that what they demonstrated was that you could make world-class wines in Washington. We made very good wines, but thanks to them I think we said, 'We can make even better wines.' So we put together this Total Quality Wine Management regime, and invested millions of dollars into French oak barrels, and ramped things up dramatically. And for us, it’s paid off wonderfully" (Baseler interview).
Baseler’s vision for Chateau Ste. Michelle was always one of achieving excellence on all fronts: in the vineyards, in their various wineries, in the broader industry, and in the local community. The Woodinville facility has long served as the site host for the Northwest Wine Benefit Foundation’s annual Auction of Washington Wines events, which since their inception in 1988 have raised over $55 million for community projects and organizations including Seattle Children’s Hospital.
In 2002, Ted and JoAnne Baseler, in conjunction with the winery, established a scholarship fund that is administered by the College Success Foundation. In the years hence it has awarded college scholarships valued at more than $3 million to over 100 high-achieving but under-funded minority students – including the children of vineyard workers.
Chateau Ste. Michelle expanded its portfolio over the years by investing in, or purchasing, a stunning collection of excellent estate wineries including Walla Walla’s Spring Valley (in 2005), Oregon’s Erath Winery (2006); and California’s Stags Leap Wine Cellars (2007). The company was recast as Ste. Michelle Wine Estates to better reflect this broadening portfolio. In addition, Baseler took the lead in helping build support for Washington State University’s new 40,000-square-foot Ste. Michelle Wine Estates Wine Science Center at its Tri-Cities campus in Richland – a state-of-the-art hub for innovation and education in the areas of viticulture and enology that held its grand opening on June 5, 2015.
Baseler’s multitudinous accomplishments have been saluted with many encomiums and awards. Washington State University recognized him with its Alumni Achievement Award, the WSU Foundation Outstanding Service Award, and he was also inducted into the WSU Murrow College Hall of Achievement. Over the years he served as chairman of the Washington Wine Commission; director of the Washington Wine Institute; on the Washington Business Roundtable; and on the board for Children’s Hospital. In 2006 Governor Christine Gregoire appointed Baseler to the WSU Board of Regents. He was reappointed in 2009 and 2014, and served as its chairman in 2011-2012.
Along the way, Advertising Age magazine named Baseler as one of America’s top marketing professionals, and in 2009 Wine Enthusiast magazine hailed him as their "Man of the Year." In 2013, he was included in Vineyard Winery Management magazine’s list of the "20 Most Admired People in the North American Wine Industry." In 2015 one of the nation’s giant wholesaler/distributors, Southern Wine & Spirits of America, presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award, citing Baseler’s decades of "visionary guidance, creative innovation and strong leadership skills ... (which) have been key drivers in solidifying Washington state’s position as the second largest wine region in the U.S." (winebusiness.com).
During his decades at Ste. Michelle, Baseler kept a keen eye on the future – always pondering the probabilities and possibilities that the wine industry might face, and what some positive paths forward might look like. But he also deeply respected the past. In September 2018 – at age 64, and after 34 years with the company – Baseler stepped down, handing the reins to a new leader. But all along, he’d been fully aware of the big-picture backdrop to the enterprise. Back in 2016 he marveled: "One of the fascinating aspects of wine is history. It is so interlocked. You go back and wine was created 6,000 years BC – that’s a long time ago. I don’t think it’s a fad. I think it’s going to stick around for a while longer" (Baseler interview).
Further reading: Excerpts from Peter Blecha's 2016 interview with Ted Baseler