from critic to winemaker
7:01 am
Sun April 21, 2013

Well-known Northwest wine writer starts wine venture

In the wine business, one good review can mean a lot of money. 

Now, one of the most prominent wine writers in the Northwest is getting into the wine business himself. And the news has agitated some in the industry.

Former Seattle Times columnist Paul Gregutt defends his winery in southeast Washington, but others see a conflict of interest.

A name that carries weight

If you drink Northwest wines, chances are you’ve tasted something Greggut’s reviewed lately. 

“Well, I’ve written four important books about Washington wines. I’ve written for the Seattle Times,” said Greggut.

What Greggut writes about a wine matters, according to Charlie Hoppes, longtime winemaker and owner of Fidelitas Winery on Red Mountain. 

“If you get a good score, it differentiates you from maybe some other wineries,” said Hoppes. “And at least get’s you some notice and attention in the mass sea of wines that are out there for the consumer to try.”

An unsettling move for some

Greggut’s newest venture, Waitsburg Cellars, is a partnership with one of the largest wine companies in the Northwest, Precept Brands. And if you know wine, you know that Precept also owns places like Waterbrook, House Wine and Sawtooth.

The arrangement worries some other winemakers who now wonder whether Greggut can be fair. Several declined to talk on the record, for fear of getting on Gregutt’s bad side. 

A conflict of interest?

Even some of his media peers say designing wine and being paid by a major brand couldn’t happen in their organization. 

“From a journalistic standpoint, it’s a conflict of interest to write about somebody you have a business relationship with without disclosing that,” said Harvey Steiman, Northwest editor for the magazine Wine Spectator. “Now, in this particular case, he’s disclosed it and people can make their own judgment whether it bothers them or not.” 

Does it bother Steiman?

“I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

The Seattle Times had similar concerns. After more than 10 years, Gregutt has written his last column in the paper.

“The discontinuation of the column is related to decisions he has made that are good for his brand and business but make his serving in the same role problematic from our perspective,” said Seattle Times spokeswoman Jill Mackie.

'It's a matter of expertise'

For his part, Greggut contends that he’s been transparent and tried to limit even an appearance of bias. For his Wine Enthusiast gig, Greggut says he won’t write on any of the other Precept brands. He says his wine venture is all part of a modern freelancer portfolio. 

“The New York Times has authors reviewing books from other authors,” said Greggut. “It’s a matter of expertise. I have the expertise.”

And one media ethicist, Al Tompkins with the Florida-based Poynter Institute, says with no clear example of biased column or blog post, he doesn't see a problem.

'I’m starting a trend of naked critic. Fully-exposed’

Gregutt says he’s most excited about having people try his two old-vine Chenin Blanc white blends.

“In recent years there’s a trend of producing naked wines,” Greggut said. That’s a style of white wine produced with very little oak flavors. It’s an analogy for how he feels now.

“I’m starting a trend of naked critic. Fully-exposed. This is me,” he said.

And for the first time, Gregutt will be on the receiving end of wine reviews.

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