Washington wine writer Paul Gregutt got himself into quite a kerfuffle earlier this year when he sprung Waitsburg Cellars onto the world.
The longtime resident of the Evergreen state is a veteran critic and author of Washington Wines and Wineries, the definitive book on Washington wine, whose wine reviews appeared on his own blog and in several print publications. He had never been a winemaker, but in 2011 partnered with Precept Wines, the state's second-largest wine company, to craft his own wines for the new label.
Questions were raised. Could a wine critic also be a winemaker without raising conflict-of-interest issues? Could an untrained neophyte's wines be any good?
Well, I tasted them blind with their peers, as we always do around here, and I can say they are better than good. Not only that, they take off in directions few, if any, other labels are pursuing. All the wines are screw-capped. That's a big plus in my book.
There was a time when Chenin Blanc looked to be one of the gold-standard wines for Washington's future. When Kay Simon left her job as chief winemaker at Chateau Ste. Michelle in 1983 to start Chinook Wines with her husband, Clay Mackey, they made Chenin Blanc a signature wine. That same year, L'Ecole No. 41 opened its doors and quickly made a success of its Chenin Blanc. And ... well, that's about it for Washington vintners who make drier-style Chenin Blanc a core part of their work.
Those who dismiss Chenin Blanc should taste all of these Washington versions, including Waitsburg Cellars'. They all use old-vine vineyards (well, old for Washington—three decades or more), and they represent real presence at realistic prices. Of the two versions, I like the dry one modeled on Savennières a tad better than the soft one patterned on Vouvray.
Riesling lovers love Washington, which produces some of America's best examples from this variety. Waitsburg's Riesling Old Vine 2012 ($15) is sleek and silky, with pretty, honey-inflected pear and grapefruit flavors that linger effectively on the off-dry finish.
The lone red also suggests a churning mind. Waitsburg's Three 2011 ($25) is based on Merlot, for years Washington's signature grape, even though the state's best wines rely more on Cabernet and Syrah. This one adds Malbec and Mourvèdre for a fresh and vibrant blend.
Gregutt has long consulted with wineries and other entities, conducting educational seminars for visiting sales reps and distributors for Precept. In doing these, he got friendly with Precept CEO Andrew Browne. Waitsburg Cellars is a joint venture between Gregutt and Browne, using Precept's grape sources, winery and distribution.
Gregutt's foray into winemaking prompted a lively discussion on journalistic ethics and conflicts of interest. "I thought I had cut the appropriate ties, but the pushback from certain members of the writing community was harsher than I envisioned," he said, having ceded coverage of Precept's wines (and others) to another critic. The Seattle Times, hewing to tough standards, dropped Gregutt's regular wine column after 11 years.
It will be interesting to see how far Gregutt can take Waitsburg Cellars, and what consequences the brand will have for his career as a writer. It's never easy to do two things well, but the Waitsburg wines are not only good, they represent something new.