Friday, March 29, 2013

Is it crossing an ethical line for a critic to make wine?

Wine writers 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?

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Mike Dunne said...

Since you asked...
While Paul Gregutt is being open about this transition in his relationship with the Washington wine trade, I question whether his plan not to review Precept wines goes far enough. It would be a significant sacrifice for him to abandon writing of Washington wines entirely, but nothing less assures his continued credibility. Perhaps Wine Enthusiast should realign whatever its staff assignments are in the Pacific Northwest, and give Gregutt responsibility for Oregon, Idaho and British Columbia and someone else Washington state. The 100-point scale should have nothing to do whatever with how this matter shakes out. If I were in Gregutt's shoes, I'd know going in that my wine-writing days would be over. There's little chance of that happening. I've made home wine. When Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti tasted it, he said, "Keep your day job."

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: I should point out that Precept is also the largest winery in Idaho, inconvenient for the Enthusiast as Idaho wines are improving very quickly and it's not likely that Spectator or the Advocate will pay attention immediately.

Anonymous said...

Precept also makes a fair bit of wine in Oregon and owns Oregon vineyards.

Patrick Frank said...

I see this as analogous to a situation in the art world: a lot of artists also write art criticism, and no one claims a conflict of interest there.

Mike Dunne said...

Blake and Andy, shame on me, I wasn't aware of Precept's long reach, which would seem to complicate matters for Paul Gregutt, at least with respect to his reporting and writing. Good point, Patrick, and, of course, the editors of book sections often turn to novelists for reviews of newly published novels.

Amalie Robert Estate said...

Hi Blake,

I think we might see a change in comments and scores/ratings if wine critics were required to sell a few vintages of wine they made – not had made for them, but made.

Wine Business Monthly did a little feature on Pinot Noir a while back where CA and OR Pinot Noirs were reviewed by the respective winemakers. It was certainly a different perspective.


guren said...

Blake, there was a somewhat analogous situation at your former employer, The San Francisco Chronicle. Patricia Unterman was the Chronicle's restaurant critic for 15 years before Michael Bauer took over, and held the same position at the SF Examiner for 20 years after that. Around the time she started at the Chronicle, she founded and became co-owner of the Hayes Street Grill. The Chronicle tried to negate the conflict of interest by not allowing her to review other fish restaurants or restaurants in her neighborhood.

There is a fairly lengthy Chowhound thread about the possible conflict of interest at the below URL. The thread contains a transcript of an interview a gentleman named Robert Lauriston did with Ms. Unterman regarding this topic.

Doug Charles said...

another thought...
those of us in the industry have often wondered about the obvious issues of reviewers and how they review the wines made by good friends. As subjective as reviewing is, is it not possible that scores may be skewed if your good friend made the wine, and happens to live next door? Then, after the good scores come out, the quasi partner of the friend then makes the reviewer a wine of his own? Not naming names here or pointing fingers, but I smell a tempest brewing here.

W. Blake Gray said...

Oh Doug, you tease. Now I have to know. Neighbors, eh?

kschlach said...

I left a comment to this effect on Steve's site, but he doesn't usually respond to me...

Unknown said...

To answer your question directly: Yes, it is a poor ethical decision for a critic to "make" wine. The reasons are too numerous to write about from an iPad keyboard. Lets just say I have recieved some email dialogue on this and it's not positive. Yet another reason the ScoRevolution is a justifiable and honorable cause.

As the Borg would say my dear Gray:

Resistance is Futile.

Anonymous said...

Only objectivity is a necessary and sufficient condition for achieving and maintaining reliability in fact and appearance.
In my opinion this is true in journalism and in wine writing.
The question triggered my own blog poste here:

W. Blake Gray said...

I got this comment by email from a west coast winemaker who asked to remain anonymous:

Another disturbing trend ( to me) is high end sommeliers making private labels for themselves and the restaurants they work at (I think it was Rajat Parr). When asked by guests in the restaurants what wine goes best with a dish will they lean towards their own wine (with a 300% mark up) and reap even more of the profits? This may be a disservice to their patrons as well as the wineries they have on their lists.

Unknown said...

I think it is refreshing to have a critic finally put his own ass in the hot seat. It would be nice if Waitsburg cellars sent samples to winemakers for review. Of course I am confident this is nothing more than a marketing stunt and Paul has a long way to go before he can command the same sort of respect as a winemaker that he does as a critic.

wallawallawinegal said...

Gregutt had a perception of bias issue before crafting his own wines. For a number of years, he has had his shingle out as a musician for hire at wineries and for their special events. At what point does taking money from a winery become a conflict of interest? Does he only accept gigs at wineries whose wine he already likes? This makes for an interesting dilemma. Of course, he does have the right to enhance his income, somehow, one wishes it was in unrelated areas.

Lisa said...

Of course it's a conflict of interest!

It's worse than having a predilection for steak and so grinding seafood restos. He needs to hang up his criticism gig or he's operating in bad faith.

Chris Wallace said...

I have a lot of experience in dealing with conflicts in the corporate world so I will draw on that experince for this post. Conflicts arise all of the time and they are usually resolved with disclosure. Tell people that you may be conflicted, and why, and let them use that as their guide in how to view your actions. Independence is a different matter. If you receive an "economic benefit" (to use the corporate speak) from someone then you are no longer considered independent from them (and for a period of 3 years after you stop receiving the benefit). Independence is generally considered an essential quality for passing judgement. Because Mr. Gregutt is not independent of Waitsberg cellars or Precept, he should not judge any of the above's wines. I did not know about his playing music at wineries for money until I read wallawallawinegal's post here. That really creates a broader problem. He should not review any of those wineries products either. But this makes the slope steeper and more slippery: How does he review any winery he may have solicited for work where he did not get the job?

I certainly do not begrudge any writer getting some extra money. But to be seen to be really, really clean, it has to all be from outside the wine industry.