Ted Baseler is president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. The interview with Hannelore Sudermann took place in his second-floor office at the Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville in late July. Journeying from advertising and marketing into the world of wine hasn’t been the easiest trip, but certainly one worth making, he says, as he now steers Washington’s largest wine company ahead. Baseler graduated from WSU in 1976 with a degree in communications. His wife, JoAnne, is also a Cougar (’75 Ed.), as is his daughter Andrea, who started at WSU this fall.
Look for what you want.
I took a job in advertising at J. Walter Thompson in Chicago, right out of graduate school. At the time, it was almost impossible to get a position with their Chicago office right out of school. In fact, they hired me first for their Detroit office. But then something opened up in Chicago, and I went for it. It was a great move. I was able to work on some really wonderful accounts like Gerber Baby Food and Ford Motor Co. The job required a lot of disciplined analysis and thinking. I love marketing, because it’s really the synthesis of statistical analysis and innovative thinking.
Then I moved back to Seattle and took a job with Cohen Webber. Seattle was different, because we didn’t really have the consumer packaged goods here that we did in Chicago. But it was an exciting time to be working back in Washington.
Know when to leap.
In 1984 the vice president of marketing for Ste. Michelle was promoted to president, and he said to me, “How would you like my job?” I loved what I was doing in advertising, and I was on a great career path. I would be leaving something I really enjoyed to come to this small winery that was losing money, making mainly Riesling, and had a few years of off weather, [all of] which was affecting its profit margin. I thought, “Boy am I getting off a big yacht to get on to a leaky sailboat?” But it was the right opportunity. I didn’t realize it then, but the advertising market was contracting, and the winery was at a turning point.
Get out of the city.
It’s nice to go to a winery. But it’s better to go to a vineyard and see where the grapes are going. You feel you’re in the country[, and] you really get a sense of what wine is about. You can have an urbane or urban lifestyle and the country life simultaneously. It’s the white tablecloths as well as rural agriculture.
Celebrate everyone’s success.
People get along very well here. There is much more of a collegial atmosphere in Washington’s wine group than in other, longer established wine regions. When another Washington winery wins an award, we don’t get jealous. We celebrate their success. We think it’s more important to grow Washington’s wine industry than to just focus on our own. In every year that there has been a serious freeze or other problem, we can always find a few grapes for people that will help them out. For the health of Washington, you’ve got to keep the good wineries going.
Believe in what’s here.
It pains me when I hear friends and people in the community say, “I’m going to Napa this week to buy wine,” when they could go to Walla Walla. It’s as if they have the attitude that if it’s abundant and it’s local, it can’t be that good. There are people and places around the world that would just die to have Washington wine.
It’s OK to be the underdog.
It’s such a healthy thing. It’s like being a Cougar. You have to work a little harder, work a little smarter, and think creatively. When you are number two, which we are in Washington, compared to California, you have to be a little more fleet of foot.
Don’t believe everything you see in the movies.
People think sometimes, if everybody wants it, then it’s time to move on to something else. Consider the movie Sideways. Every time I hear that trailer with Miles saying, “Nobody’s drinking merlot,” I get stomach acid. The truth is, the average merlot is far better than the average pinot noir. With merlot, you get more good wine for the money. Fortunately, while the movie has increased pinot noir sales, it hasn’t seemed to hurt merlot.
Hang on to the classics; they’ll pay off in the end.
We started with Riesling, but it lost its cachet in the late ’80s. It’s a much better wine than people give it credit for. There was no question in my mind that it would have a comeback. The question was when. Then [German winemaker] Ernst Loosen came and said he wanted to make a wine with us. Lo and behold, we had the Eroica [Riesling]. It was a stunner. It has taken us places we have never been before.