Renowned Pacific Northwest wine reviewer, Paul Gregutt, has a storied career reviewing wines. Paul began writing about lifestyle topics and then was eventually drawn to wine writing and the stories behind the wine. He has been writing about wine from the Pacific Northwest for 30 years, has published one of the big Washington wine texts, entitled Washington Wines and Wineries and has served as a contributing author to both the World Atlas of Wine and the Oxford Companion to Wine. Paul currently reviews wines from Oregon and Canada for Wine Enthusiast magazine and serves as director of winemaking at Waitsburg Cellars. I had the chance to review his two 2014 Chenin Blanc releases from Waitsburg Cellars and was highly impressed as these wines both possessed a silky mouthfeel and rich tree fruit flavors. I recently had the chance to chat with Paul about his career, as well as how he became interested in winemaking. I think you are going to really enjoy his wine journey. Here is my interview with Paul Gregutt, Director of Winemaking at Waitsburg Cellars and Oregon and Canada Wine Reviewer for Wine Enthusiast Magazine
WWB: How did you first gain interest in reviewing wines?-
PG: This goes back many years but I have been a working journalist all my life. I was working as a journalist for many years before I ever wrote about wine. I think that has been an advantage for me. That advantage helped me because the writing part of it was covered. I had also written about lifestyle topics principally starting with theater, popular music and media. That naturally led to a personal interest in wine. At a certain point I thought that the best way to learn about anything is to do it. In order to learn about wine I would start writing about it. That gave me access to the wine industry. Initially I was not going to review wine and wasn’t going to be a critic but I would write about wine from the point of view of the people and the business. I didn’t review wines for a long time. Initially I just wanted to get some things about wine in print and get some credentials as a wine journalist. I started wine writing 30 years ago, while I was working full-time for a company doing media work in all kinds of industries. I also had my own business doing early work in the digital realm 20 years ago. All through this time I was writing about wine.
I started with a weekly wine column in 1985 in the Seattle Weekly and I was in print on a weekly basis in Seattle media for almost 25 years. I also started freelancing through bigger clients as I met an editor for Wine Enthusiast and began writing for them in 1998. Shortly after that they started doing wine reviews and scores in house. Shortly after I signed up I was given the plum assignment which was writing about wines from the Pacific Northwest region, using the 100 point scoring system. That is when I had started scoring wines. I had reviewed wines and recommended wines long before but not scoring before that.
WWB: What was it like starting at Wine Enthusiast Magazine?-
PG: It was the summer of 1999 that things took off. I had been in the industry since 1985 and had even written for Wine Spectator for a couple of years. I had also written a couple of books about northwest wines that came out in the ‘90s. I was not new to wine writing at the time and it was a good assignment and they gave me a lot of opportunities right off the bat. It was a good connection. I have been an advocate for northwest wines and wineries since the mid-80s. My focus was Washington and Oregon. I was seeing the industry getting some traction. At the early going at Wine Enthusiast and with other wine publications I felt it was important to have a knowledge of the wines of the world. Consumers then and now walk into the wine shop and they are looking at values all around the world. They typically don’t go straight to the Washington or Oregon shelf. Consumers are going to look around and I always felt like I was rooting for the home town for wines and wineries. I thought Northwest wines had a lot of potential but they also had to compete.
I was traveling a lot and going on press trips all around the world. I was also attending all the major tastings in Seattle from the distributors and importers. I did that for many years so I felt that what I brought to it was an understanding of who the industry was competing with. I never really left that behind. In the early going with Wine Enthusiast I was reviewing Champagne, and even Zinfandel from California. I was doing a wide variety of things until they settled into specific writers being assigned specific regions. I have covered Northwest wines for Wine Enthusiast but as long as I was living in Seattle (up until five years ago) I was attending a wide range of wine tastings and keeping an eye on the global wine market.
WWB: How did you become interested in winemaking?-
PG: I never wanted to make wine and I always said that I have way too much respect for those who do it and do it well. I don’t have that winemaking skill set, and I have a different skill set. I am not the winemaker at Waitsburg Cellars, I am the director of winemaking. I work with very knowledgeable and skilled people who work on the winemaking side. What I am good at is tasting and blending wine as well as marketing wine and understanding the global landscape of wine and how specific wines fit into it. The Waitsburg Cellars project started because the CEO of Precept and the vice president of marketing came to me and said ‘we would like to do a project with you and are you interested?’ I considered their offer and thought to myself ‘Well, I have never had this as a goal but this is an opportunity to learn and see the industry from a different side.’ This is also an opportunity to showcase hidden strengths of Washington viticulture’ and I told them I was interested.
I told them that I wanted to work with Chenin Blanc in particular. I had always had a great love for Loire Valley Chenin Blancs. One of the first wines I really enjoyed was the first vintage of Chenin Blanc from Hogue, a 1982 wine. This was probably in 1984 or ’85 when I first tried this wine and I can still taste that excellent wine. As you know, Chenin Blanc never really caught on in this country other than being in a jug wine component or a wine to release in the spring to make a few bucks and to satisfy that segment of the market that likes sweet and fruity wines. Having traveled through the Loire and tasted many fine examples I knew that the grape was capable of much more. Jancis Robinson named Chenin Blanc as one of the great varietals of the world. The other motivation is you see Chenin Blanc ripped out of the ground and not replanted but my feeling is that the wine has to be made from old vines. We were just getting to the point where there were some old vines and I only saw one winery in Washington State that was doing justice to the grape. L’Ecole was making some great Chenin which was 100% Chenin Blanc that was off dry back then and it was very good, only costing about 14 bucks a bottle. Other than that wine I wasn’t seeing very many good Washington state bottlings. I wanted to do Chenin Blanc from old vines and do two different styles. That is how the project formulated in my head. I would learn a lot about winemaking by working with people who are winemakers and also I would be able to elevate the reputation of Chenin Blanc.
WWB: Can you talk about the two different styles of Chenin Blanc that you create?-
PG: The 2014 wines are looking really good right now. I am also drinking the 2012 wines which are sensational, as these wines improve with age. One wine, called Cheninières, is modeled on Savennières. It is quite dry to emphasize the aromatics. The other style is called Chevray. It’s modeled on Vouvray and is riper, not necessarily off-dry, but it has more fruit and a deeper ripeness style, having a bit more residual sugar than the first wine. This style does have some barrel aging and I wanted the wines to be differentiated so if you taste them they really taste like two different wines. Even if they were from the same vineyard, and in the first few years they were from the same vineyard, picked from the same day, they still tasted completely differently.
A lot of credit from the initial vintages of our Chenin Blanc goes to Ron Bunnell who was making the wines and helped carry out my ideas. Subsequently it is Jon Zimmermann who is now making our Chenin Blanc wines. We recently have added another vineyard to the mix but still are staying with old vines for our wines. At Waitsburg Cellars we have added a few different wines as well, the Boushey Vineyard Rhone style ‘Three’ white wine is one, and this fall we are going to release a Cabernet Franc from a mix of Precept vineyards, principally Alder Ridge.
WWB: As the Oregon wine reviewer for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, you have had the chance to review many 2014 Oregon Pinot Noirs. Many producers are excited about this vintage. I was wondering what are your initial thoughts on the new 2014 vintage in Oregon?-
PG: I think that reviewing vintages is not that helpful and I know that the magazines do it. Especially in Oregon I don’t think that the vintage reviews help because you can have vineyards that are side by side, and they harvest at different times. The grapes have different aspects. They are using different clones. Some pick before, during or after the rains. You get completely different results. Who can say that 2013 was a bad vintage and 2014 was better?. I have had some marvelous wines from 2013 and some OK wines from ’12 and ’14 that are delicious but not as good. I don’t have a preference in the vintages because in Oregon every vintage produces some spectacular wines. There are some winemakers who excel every single year. And there are some who even in the best of years, make an OK wine.
WWB: When you are not busy with winemaking at Waitsburg Cellars or reviewing Oregon wines, what wines of the world do you most enjoy?-
PG: I am still drinking a lot of Washington wines and Oregon wines. I will pull out older vintages to see how they are doing. Apart from that, I still enjoy California Zinfandel. I love Italian wines and have an extensive cellar of Chianti Classico Riserva, one of my favorite wines in the world. It ages beautifully. For the white wines I will go to Champagne or to Cremant de Bourgogne or another French Sparkling Wine. I love the Loire Valley white wines, particularly Sancerre. I have never jumped into trying to create a Sancerre style wine with Waitsburg Cellars but I wouldn’t rule it out. I love a good, crisp white wine, like Muscadet or Albarino or something from the northeast of Italy.