Michael G. Etzel
Michael Etzel is the founding owner and president of Beaux Frères Vineyards in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Michael started his wine career when he and his brother-in-law, the famous wine critic Robert Parker, purchased what had been an old pig farm on Ribbon Ridge in the Willamette. In 1991 that farm became the winery estate Beaux Frères; (the term is French for brothers-in-law). In 2017, Robert Parker and another Beaux Freres investor sold their shares in the winery, and Michael took on a new partner—the Burgundy and Champagne house Maisons & Domaines Henriot. Michael still serves as the guiding visionary behind Beaux Frères, and his son Mikey has joined him making the wines.
Karen MacNeil interviewed Michael Etzel for WineSpeed in July 2019.
Karen MacNeil: You didn’t start out in the wine industry. Tell us about your early years professionally.
Michael Etzel: In 1977, as a fresh college graduate from Maryland, I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and got a job selling wine for a local distribution company. Mostly just Gallo jug wines.
KM: What was the toughest part of those early years?
ME: When I purchased the property that would become the Beaux Frères in Oregon in 1986, memory paints a lovely picture, despite how tough the conditions were back then. Financially the partnership was very limited in money, so as a result I had to learn to do just about everything myself, from fixing equipment to planting a vineyard and everything in-between. During those early years, I worked side jobs, from winery tasting rooms on the weekends to falling timber in the summer and working in a machine shop in the winters. The toughest times came from not being able to spend as much time with my young family. Fortunately, my wife was a great home maker.
KM: How and when did you become fascinated by wine?
ME: My brother-in-law, Robert Parker, visited my sister in her senior year of college in France. I believe it was 1967 or so. After his return, Robert’s obsession with wine rubbed off on me. We grew up together in the same neck of the woods. He and my sister still live in the house where she and I grew up.
“My relationship with Robert Parker—or Dowell as we call him—was a brother/father/mentor-like relationship. As you know, he is very opinionated and had a clear vision on the style of wine that we were to make.”
Karen MacNeil: In the 1980s, you relocated with your family from Colorado to an abandoned pig farm on Ribbon Ridge in the Willamette Valley. How did you go about making that decision and how did you know that decision was the right one?
Michael Etzel: My wife and I lived a simple day-to-day lifestyle. Vacationing in Oregon in the summer of 1986, we stumbled upon a foreclosed farm for sale, made an appointment with the realtor, walked the fields, looked into the barns and the house on property and said let’s do it! Never really looking beyond the moment in those days. If I had done a market study with cost budgets, I would not have made the purchase. But I was young and had the will to succeed plus the blessing from my sister and brother-in-law. We began a 50/50 partnership.
KM: To begin the winery, you took on investors, notably as you’ve said, your brother-in-law, the wine critic Robert Parker. What’s your relationship with him like? And has he ever given you comments or pointers on the wines you’ve made?
ME: Our initial plan was only to grow grapes. Five years into the project, it was not sustainable, therefore the need to make wine. By then I had four years of experience working harvests with Dick Ponzi and felt that I could make wine by 1992. My relationship with Robert Parker—or Dowell as we call him—was a brother/father/mentor-like relationship. As you know, he is very opinionated and had a clear vision on the style of wine that we were to make.
KM: While you were planting your own vineyard of pinot noir, you worked four harvests at Ponzi Vineyards. What did you learn from the Ponzi family?
ME: I was so eager to learn and really loved to work hard, so each year I worked with Dick, he gave me more responsibility. The first few vintages at Beaux Frères, I did exactly as I learned from Dick. Each vintage I evolved into what Beaux Frères is today, becoming more in tune with the vineyard and my own style of winemaking.
KM: What wines did you taste at the beginning of your career that you feel deeply influenced or altered your perception of wine?
ME: Being connected with Parker, I have had the privilege to taste some of the world’s greatest wines. I love wines that express soulful, ethereal elements, and that mean, for the most part, Old World wines. New World wines tend to be too clean and fruit driven.
KM: What fascinates you about pinot noir?
ME: It has such a steep learning curve, and I love that it can develop into an ethereal beauty even when the vintage is challenging. Reduction during fermentation or lower sugars from rain seem to only make the resulting wine more interesting.
KM: Did you suspect that the Oregon wine industry would progress as fast as it has?
ME: No. Other New World wines out-market Oregon wines ten-fold, and yet the consumers keep coming. We had no support industry in the early years. Hotels, restaurants and spas did not exist then. Tasting rooms were very limited. But the early pioneers who created IPNC and Pinot Camp – I believe these two events alone helped create demand beyond our wildest dreams.
KM: If you couldn’t make pinot noir in Oregon, where would you want to make it?
ME: I love the Burgundy region of France, and I’ve always dreamed of making wine there.
KM: Who are the people you especially love to drink wine with?
ME: My wife, my friend Doug Tunnell (who owns Brick House Vineyards & Winery), and my sons.
KM: When you think of your own success, what character trait do you possess that’s been the most helpful in getting you there?
ME: I love physical labor; I love to farm, and I love the people in our industry. It is easy to go to work every day, if you can even consider it work.
KM: In 2017, Beaux Frères partnered with the French family-owned wine firm Maisons & Domaines Henriot. Why did you sell part of your company?
ME: Robert Parker and Robert Roy decided to sell their interest in Beaux Frères and I did not want, nor could I afford, the financial responsibility alone. Success has its downsides, I suppose.
KM: Are you still involved making the Beaux Frères wines?
ME: My middle son, Mikey, is making the wines with my watchful eyes upon him. I love his style of winemaking.
KM: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
ME: That I am still alive, loving life and people and the environment more than I ever have before.