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Spotlight: Paul Gregutt. When the critic makes wine

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Paul Gregutt is my friend, the wine columnist for the Seattle Times, author of Washington Wines & Wineries, the Pacific Northwest Editor for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, owner of the excellent blog, Paul Gregutt: Unfined & Unfiltered, and, as of this month–a wine producer!

Paul and his partners, at Precept Wine Brands, have started a new brand, Waitsburg Cellars.

It’s unusual for a wine writer to go over to–what can we call it–the Dark Side? No, that’s what it’s called when a wine writer does P.R. The only California wine writer I ever knew who made that transition to production was Jeff Morgan, whose brands include Covenant.

Anyhow, Paul and I had a little chat yesterday and we covered a lot of bases. Here’s a Q&A.

So how did Waitsburg Cellars come about?

The project began as a breakfast meeting conversation with Andrew Browne [CEO of Precept]. I’d done some educational work for their sales people and distributors. Andrew popped the question, Would you like to make wine? My first reaction was, Absolutely not!

Why not?

I know too much! It’s very difficult to do it well. It’s highly competitive, and I know there’s a lot of real talent out there. There were two things I didn’t want to do under any circumstances: Buy a bunch of juice and throw a label on it, or get mired down in some expensive project that would eat me alive. But what Andrew proposed was, I come up with a concept and take advantage of their facilities and resources to realize that vision.

Do you have your own money in it?

I haven’t invested any funds. Precept is the financial backer.

So what is the concept?

Well, I was intrigued, and started giving it some thought. Okay, what can I do that I’ve never seen done that takes advantage of Washington’s strengths? Things that have been overlooked, or not done for whatever reason. So I started to develop the idea. I didn’t want to do just another red blend, so on paper I designed one I’d never heard of, but that made conceptual sense. Over many blending trials and barrel tastings, I made that blend. We call it “Three.” It’s 67% Merlot, 20% Malbec and 13% Mourvedre. [The 2011 retails for $21.]

That is a weird blend.

Thank you. I’m also making a line of aromatic whites to showcase Chenin Blanc in two different styles: a dry Savennieres style, called Cheniniere, and an off-dry Vouvray style we call Chevray.

So what’s it like for a writer to become a producer?

I didn’t want to do just a cameo, like a 30-second walkthrough on a movie, I wanted to be fully involved. I mean, I’m not picking the grapes and stomping them, but I am designing the wine, so it’s another extension of my love for all things wine. And it’s putting my ass on the line.

How so?

Because I’m the big wine critic, and now I have wines out there people will take shots at. Just this morning we got the list for who will be sent samples: All the major wine publications and a couple bloggers in Washington State.

So the worm has turned! The reviewer is about to get reviewed.

Yeah. But it’s okay. I’m very pleased with these wines. I know what I set out to do, and I know how close I came to achieving it. So the reviews should be entertaining!

  1. So the wine writer/critic sits down and ponders and comes up with a new concept. And that concept is to make a dry and sweet version of Chenin Blanc and a red wine named for the number of different varieties in the blend. Wow, deep thoughts.

  2. Morton: Could you do any better?

  3. I wish Paul all the best in this endeavor. As we all know the news cycle has peak traffic on Day 1, so soon it will be at the same level as many others looking for press, like Covenant and Beaux Freres. I imagine your post is the last anyone will hear about it here.

    People ask me if I would ever want to make wine, and the reply is a clear NO! I think I would suck at it. I have blended half barrel auction lots with a couple of my favorite Pinot Noir producers but my combinations were not very exciting. I can pick out what I like, but the path to get there requires skills I don’t have.

  4. So does Paul now have a vested interest to rate other WA Chenin Blancs differently now that he is a competitor?

  5. I should also note that I wish Paul the best and think it is a great opportunity for him to have fun doing something he loves.

  6. Doug Wilder: Precisely.

  7. blending barrels is about 1% of winemaking.

    it’s mostly simple tasks, like topping, racking, and about a half dozen lab tests. the hard part is paying attention to your wine, and doing everything at the right time. waiting an extra few days here and there is the difference between a wine that tastes like fresh peaches and a wine that tastes like rotten apples.

  8. Tim Smith says:

    Another big plus in becoming a Excellent Winemaker is have a great palate, with Paul does. Robert Mondavi use to laugh and say my Son Tim is a better winemaker than I ever was, but I have the better palate, so we make a perfect balance.

    All the best with your new Venture Paul, with your outside the box thinkings, concepts I know you will do well. And as you have in the past will be honest for forth right with wines that you will taste in the future, and will give an honest accessment. You have the passion and now you have an avenue to grow!!

  9. Thank you Tim and Doug for the kind words. The criticisms come with the territory. Bottom line is, I would rather have some skin in the game than spend my life in a critic’s ivory tower.

  10. I regularly read this blog and part of my enjoyment is catching Morton’s oft-humorous commments. That said, I’m a big Washington wine fan generally and I get why what is being done here is a “concept” and think it’s very interesting. Acknowledging some success for riesling, the white wine market from Washington–at least nationally–has been completely dominated by Chardonnay, to an even greater extent than California, I think. Washington produces very good Chardonnay, especially in the value category where it really crushes the California competition. At the higher end, though, it’s hard to say it makes really distinctive Chardonnay. If Washington is really prime country for making distinctive, high-quality Chenin Blanc, not many people know it. If Mr. Gregutt thinks it is and can play a role in demonstrating that, I’m interested.

    And, although the name isn’t especially clever, I find the red blend also to be very interesting. I’d love to hear more about why Mr. Gregutt thought this blend made sense conceptually and how it is distinctive from more traditional red blends in reality.

  11. I realize Steve tends to ignore comments from Kyle, but I think this one is particularly important, and I’m confused as to why Steve never thought to mention it. You have a critic making wine, and continuing to review wine from competitors. That’s obviously a conflict of interest, unless I missed something.

    Now, I don’t know Paul personally, and I like his work. This isn’t personal. It’s an observation that very basic standards are being violated — again, unless I’m missing something. Am I?

  12. My impression of the criticisms of Paul is that they come from a small cadre of disgruntled bloggers who are always complaining about something.

  13. So you’re saying there is no problem with critics making wine and reviewing competitors’ wines? Or reviewing wines owned by company which they have a business relationship? Good to know.

  14. Steve – I’m a disgruntled blogger? Are you serious?

    I’d prefer you respond to a substantive question without resorting to an ad hominem while ignoring the substance of the matter.

    I’m confused as to what makes me disgruntled. I write for several online publications; my day job is as a journalist; people seem to like my first book. I’m just about the happiest guy I know. I travel and write about food, wine, and culture. What a life! But I don’t mind challenging conventional wisdom or addressing what I perceive as a spot of disagreement.

  15. To anyone who is distressed about Paul, I suggest you address your questions to him.

  16. Steve -

    I want to stress an important point: I find your work remarkable. I still don’t understand why Blake Gray or myself or others would get the “disgruntled blogger” tag from you, simply for pressing an important point. But again, I simply could not post five times weekly, with consistently interesting content. I read your work for a reason. I don’t always agree, but it’s a great read.

    I’ll reach out to Paul, who seems like a great guy.

    Consider what would happen if, say, Randy Dunn became a WE critic. Would people be okay with that? Would it be okay if he didn’t review Napa wines? You would simply never see it cross over that way. A political writer would not be able to keep covering politics while running for office. Yes, wine is different, but we have to adhere to standards about covering potential competitors.

    Now, I’m often missing something. I suspect Paul will help me understand the situation, and I’ll be glad to touch base with him. I remain surprised it doesn’t interest you, even if Paul is a friend.

  17. Steve- you wrote the article. Why can’t you answer questions about what you wrote? That’s all we’re asking. I apologize if we sound too “disgruntled.”

  18. We as Serious Amateur Winemakers have a different view of Paul Gregutt’s winemaking abilities. read it here….http://www.westchesterwinemakers.com/2013/04/25/x-12/

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