Ted Baseler has announced that he will retire Oct. 1 after 34 years at Washington's Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the past 18 as CEO. Baseler, 64, took a company that was already doing pretty well and made it into an international player. He has overseen a dramatic expansion in volume and quality, things that don't always go together in wine.
Not bad for a guy who got into the wine business through advertising.
One of his first acts as CEO was to introduce Eroica, a joint venture with the German vintner Ernst Loosen, which played a strong hand in redefining what Washington—and American—Riesling could be. Baseler also created an import division at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates that brings in the likes of Antinori from Italy, Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte from France and Torres from Spain and South America.
More local acquisitions include Stag's Leap Wine Cellars and Patz & Hall in California, Spring Valley in Washington and Erath in Oregon. Washington labels introduced under his watch, such as the big-volume 14 Hands and innovative Intrinsic, have become, in their own way, game changers.
Under his leadership, the company increased production from 2.8 million cases in 2000 to 8.5 million last year, and multiplied operating income from $21 million to $146 million, an average annual growth of 12.1 percent.
A soft-spoken, straightforward kind of guy, Baseler likes a wide range of wine types. That made it easy for him to relate to vintners from Washington and California to Italy and Germany. My conversations with Baseler of necessity focused on the business of wine, often veering into long explorations of the places where wine and science intersect. So it was no surprise when he put his time and $5 million of Ste. Michelle's money behind Washington State University's state-of-the-art Wine Science Center, completed in 2015.
His most recent big project is a multimillion-dollar visitor center completed in 2016 at Ste. Michelle's chateau in Woodinville, where the offices are and a winery bottles all the sparkling wines. The addition includes an 80-seat theater that can function as a tasting room and connect audiences with the company's partners in Europe by video.
A life in wine was not on Baseler's radar when he started an advertising career with J. Walter Thompson in Chicago. In the early 1980s he went to work in Seattle for Cole & Weber, one of whose clients was the upstart Chateau Ste. Michelle.
"In those days getting credibility for Ste. Michelle was the big thing," he told me in a 2016 interview. "It was already the leader in Washington, but it lacked full national distribution. We produced an ad, 'The Secret of Ste. Michelle,' that showed a light on in one office of the chateau, and a map showing the same latitude as Bordeaux for comparison."
He also shepherded production of the Tastes of Liberty cookbook for Ste. Michelle (published by Stewart, Tabori and Chang in 1985), "with crumpled recipes from a cross section of immigrants," Baseler chuckles. It became a New York Times bestseller and went through 250,000 copies in five printings. It helped, Baseler notes, that donors of $20 or more to the Statue of Liberty Fund got the book free.
In 1984, Allen Shoup was promoted from marketing director to CEO of Ste. Michelle. Shoup had cut his teeth at Chrysler, Max Factor and Boise Cascade, but also had a short but fruitful marketing stint at Gallo. When he took the top job, he hired Baseler for his old position. Sixteen years later Baseler succeeded him.
The next CEO is Jim Mortensen, senior VP of human resources for Philip Morris (also part of the Altria Group, formerly Philip Morris, which owns Ste. Michelle), continuing a tradition of executives with little wine on their résumés. We will see if he can grow into the job as Shoup and Baseler did.
Although Baseler says his future plans focus on improving his golf game, I can't believe he will just disappear from the wine scene. He remains a regent at Washington State University and sits on the board of the Auction of Washington Wines, a four-day annual event held at the chateau in August.