not named Galloni have to struggle to make money; I can tell you that from personal experience. But in order for the public to trust you, you have to draw a line somewhere.
Paul Gregutt raises an ethical question with his new wine brand, Waitsburg Cellars.
Gregutt has reviewed Washington wines for years, for the Seattle Times, Wine Enthusiast and other publications. He continues to be the Enthusiast's main Washington critic, and in fact his venture got an Enthusiastic post from his colleague Steve Heimoff.
Here's the thing: Gregutt's wines are being made by Precept Wines, Washington's second-largest winery.
Wine Enthusiast has known about this situation since last summer, when the deal emerged.
"I'm not going to be reviewing Precept's wines," Gregutt said Thursday. "That would be a clear conflict."
The question is, is it still a conflict to review other Washington wines?
Gregutt told the Enthusiast that a second critic would be needed to cover Precept and other parts of the northwest territory, and he recommended Sean Sullivan for the gig.
The magazine decided to divvy up responsibilities by AVA, as it does in California. This is a little bit more unwieldy in Washington because of the way the state's wine industry has evolved: almost all vineyards are in the dry eastern part of the state, but many wineries are in the more populated Seattle suburbs and buy grapes from everywhere.
Gregutt's wines are mostly being distributed in eastern Washington and Walla Walla, where interest is highest. He said there will be 1000 total cases made in this first vintage of the five wines, and presumably production numbers from now on will depend on market interest, as Precept has access to plenty of grapes.
I don't know Gregutt personally, though we have the kind of email relationship you get in this business. I am sitting with him on an Oregon Chardonnay panel in early May and this post might make that slightly uncomfortable.
It's good that Gregutt won't review Precept wines anymore. But is that enough?
What if Gregutt gives Columbia Winery, now owned by Gallo, an 86 rating on a wine similar to one produced by Precept?
The most recent precedent for this is that Robert Parker owns part interest in Beaux Frères winery in Oregon. But Parker doesn't claim to make those wines, and not only has Parker never reviewed them; he doesn't even review Oregon wines. Parker has particularly high ethical standards that he doesn't get enough credit for.
Before Parker, wine writers frequently had open relationships with wineries. Even today, some of the most popular wine writers -- Kermit Lynch, Terry Theise -- are importers. But while one could always wonder if Alexis Lichine or Hugh Johnson (a longtime director of Chateau Latour) were writing particularly flattering bits about their own interests, they weren't using the 100-point scale on -- or against -- their competitors.
On his own blog, Gregutt writes, "There is much more on the horizon for Waitsburg Cellars."
I'm an ex-newspaper guy. Ethics were different when these dinosaurs covered the earth, and they're still evolving in the new media world. It's worth noting that Wine Enthusiast is not new media, and in fact, though Mr. Heimoff is one of the most interesting and prolific wine bloggers, he still writes relatively often about how the old critical model is superior to the new one.
I'm not sure what to think about this deal. If a California winery offered it to me, I'd be tempted to do exactly what Gregutt's doing. If there's anything that pays less than the wine industry, it's writing.
That said, it's an odd combination of three points:
1) A relatively limited area of criticism (Washington state)
2) A relationship with a very big winery in that limited area
3) The 100-point scale, which eliminates vagueness and politeness
What do you think?