The Gospel According to Joel Butler
Ste. Michelle’s Wine Evangelist
BY RONALD HOLDEN
photo courtesy Joel Butler
In the panoply of dream jobs, few have more potential for pleasure and satisfaction than Joel Butler’s: he is director of education for Ste. Michelle Estates. Sometimes in tee-shirt and jeans, sometimes in coat and tie, he travels the country as a sort of wine evangelist, thumping a bible of enology, converting skeptics with logic and hedonism, rejoicing in those “Aha!” moments of revelation when his parishioners finally recognize the difference in the glass, the quality of Washington wine.
“I thought I knew a fair amount before I came up,” Butler confesses, “but in fact there was a steep learning curve” after he joined Ste. Michelle. There are a lot of different things to taste between Wahluke and Walla Walla, after all. Now he sees the glory. Now he’s in tune. And now he’s spreading the good word. Not exclusively Ste. Michelle’s word, although Ste. Michelle is the state’s biggest player, and Butler its apostle to the outside world. Rarely in his Woodinville office, he’s far more likely to be in the field (in Ste. Michelle’s eastern Washington vineyards) or on the road (wine festivals and sales meetings, from Park City to Park Slope).
The gospel is based on inexorable fact: Washington’s geographic advantage over California. Latitude first and foremost, since latitude determines the profile of daylight hours during the growing season, and day-night temperature variation in the fall. More daylight hours (but not more heat) mean riper grapes; lower nighttime temperatures preserve the proper balance of acidity.
Washington wine, grown on the same latitude as France and northern Italy, has the same bright fruit flavor, structure, and balance. California wines have the stewed fruit character of Spain and southern Italy. “You don’t see this unless you taste a lot,” Butler says.
That doesn’t mean, he hastens to say, that California wine is bad. After all, he spent years working as education director for Diageo’s Chateau & Estates division, a rival denomination whose followers are no less devout than Ste. Michelle’s. (And Ste. Michelle’s own portfolio includes California wineries.) Before joining Diageo, Butler had already acquired the title of Master of Wine, one of the first two Americans so ordained by the British wine clergy, and was serving as tutor to new supplicants. Among those to whom he provided guidance: a gifted, soon-to-be wine maker named Bob Betz from Washington State. Butler still finds it ironic that he ended up succeeding his pupil (and good friend) at the Ste. Michelle pulpit.
Let us not, however, consider Butler to be parochial. Denver-born, he graduated from Stanford and has since then continued to study widely (a Master’s in European History, for example.) He has lived in Italy, worked as an importer, made his own wine, and written for both the lay and professional press.
Friendly and approachable, with a receding hairline and a neatly-trimmed beard, he drinks riesling at home (perhaps the world’s most versatile and most neglected variety) as well as Champagne. (“Different times, different reasons.”)
On the road, he preaches to a congregation that is perhaps 70 percent non-professional, regular folks who buy wine. The balance are not wine makers, but people on the sales side of the business. They work to move boxes full of bottles, and Butler’s job is to make them care what’s inside the bottles. “Washington’s climate produces a style with structure and balance,” he says. As the industry matures, quality gets better.
After that, no more commandments. “Drink what you like with what you eat,” is Butler’s guiding principle. A few obvious injunctions nonetheless: nothing spicy with high-alcohol wines, no sweet foods with dry wines. Champagne and dessert don’t belong together. Wine and cheese combinations (both being fermented products) have “textural issues.”
The challenge now, as Butler told online magazine Mutineer in August, 2008, is to spend more effort and money “on the goal of making Washington wines more than just an asterisk on California’s butt.” Washington has long been the country’s second-largest producer of wine, and most likely will always be an also-ran in terms of volume, but “in terms of quality and in terms of value, it’s another story.”
A story that needs telling and retelling, daily reinforcement and reconfirmation until it becomes part of a wine drinker’s unquestioned, unquestioning core beliefs. And so Butler opens another bottle, pours another glass, takes another sniff, seeking not the heresy of winemaking faults but the ecstasy of wine when all’s right with the world.
Seattle freelancer Ronald Holden published several early guidebooks to Washington’s wine country. He has also worked for KING TV, Seattle Weekly and at Chateau Ste. Michelle (a decade before Joel Butler’s arrival), and writes a blog, Cornichon.org, about food, wine and travel.