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 that’s agitated some in the industry. Former Seattle Times columnist Paul Gregutt defends his winery in southeast Washington, but others see a conflict of interest.
If you drink Northwest wines chances are you’ve tasted something Paul Greggut’s reviewed lately. He has written four important books about Washington wines, and has written for the Seattle Times. What Greggut writes about a wine matters.
“If you get a good score, it differentiates you from maybe some other wineries,” says says Charlie Hoppes, longtime winemaker and owner of Fidelitas winery on Red Mountain. “And at least gets you some notice and attention in the mass sea of wines that are out there for the consumer to try.”
Greggut’s newest venture — Waitsburg Cellars — is a partnership with one of the largest wine companies in the Northwest. It’s called Precept Brands. And if you know wine, they also own 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. 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,” says 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.”
I asked Steiman if it would bother him.
He responded, “I wouldn’t do it.”
The Seattle Times had similar concerns. After more than 10 years, Gregutt has written his last column in the paper. The Time’s spokeswoman Jill Mackie said in a written statement, quote, “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.”
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,” Greggut says. “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.
Gregutt says he’s most excited about having people try his two old-vine Chenin Blanc white blends. He says, “In recent years there’s a trend of producing naked wines.”
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,” Greggut says. “Fully exposed. This is me.”
And for the first time, Gregutt will be on the receiving end of wine reviews.
On the Web:
Unfined & Unfiltered: Paul Gregutt’s blog - paulgregutt.com
Waitsburg Cellars - official site
Is it crossing an ethical line for a critic to make wine? - The Gray Report
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