Ste. Michelle CEO to talk about tourism in region

When the CEO of Washington's largest wine company accepted an invitation to speak at the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau's annual meeting today, he figured harvest would be pretty much finished.

But it's been a strange year, said Ted Baseler, who has headed Ste. Michelle Wine Estates for a decade. Harvest started more than two weeks later than usual, and September rains caused problems with rot in some grape varieties and areas, yet quality is mostly good.

"It's been a bizarre year," Baseler said, adding that almost every region in the Northern Hemisphere is having issues. "Ironically, we're seeing more rot in California."

But Baseler isn't coming to the Three Rivers Convention Center to talk about wine grapes -- at least not directly.

"I'll talk about where we were, where we are and where we might go," he said. "We're not just driving a world-class wine region but also the surrounding industries, specifically tourism. The biggest piece is hospitality: having the right inns, hotels and, especially, restaurants."

He admits he thought Washington would be further along than it is in these areas.

"It has improved, but not as fast as I'd hoped," he said.

And he's not just talking about Eastern Washington. Woodinville, where Ste. Michelle is headquartered and is the state's busiest wine tourism region, also has a dearth of quality restaurants.

"I think there are a number of things we can do to help," he said.

Primarily, the wine industry has an obligation to frequent fine dining in the Tri-Cities, Yakima, Prosser and Walla Walla.

But don't expect Ste. Michelle to open its own stand-alone restaurants.

"We've thought of opening restaurants as long as 25 years ago," he said. "We're good at growing grapes, making wine and marketing it. We should probably stick with that."

But he also thinks Washington will see an increase in wineries adding food service on site, much as Tagaris and Bookwalter do in Richland.

"If you go to Napa, there are all kinds of combinations of restaurants near and in wineries. That's what we need to encourage and fertilize."

He thinks the Tri-Cities' greatest opportunity, however, is the proposed Wine Science Center at Washington State University's Richland campus.

"I'm convinced it will be world-renowned," he said. "People will come from all over the world to this center. That will have a significant impact on the Tri-Cities. "

Baseler, a WSU graduate, is chairman of the fundraising campaign for the proposed $21.5 million facility.

The Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau's annual meeting begins at 4 p.m., and Baseler is scheduled to speak at 4:40. The meeting is open to the public. RSVP by calling 735-8486.

-- Andy Perdue: 582-1405;