Weekly Interview: Paul Gregutt

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 01-23-2015

Paul Gregutt (credit: Karen Stanton-Gregutt)

Paul Gregutt (credit: Karen Stanton-Gregutt)

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week we continue our series of features on Walla Walla winemakers by interviewing Paul Gregutt.

If you follow the wine world closely, you don’t need an introduction to Paul. His accomplishments in the wine industry — both as a writer and more recently as a winemaker — are too many to list.

Paul is currently a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast; a weekly columnist at the Seattle Times; the author of Washington Wine and Wineries published in the University of California Press; and a guest contributor to various wine publications including the Wine Spectator and Decanter.

On top of all of that, Paul recently took on winemaking responsibilities in his hometown of Waitsburg, Washington (Walla Walla County) as the Wine Director at Waitsburg Cellars. It is primarily in that last capacity that Paul was interviewed. But as you’ll see, Paul tells us not just about Waitsburg Cellars but also about the very history of winemaking in Walla Walla.

We were very glad to feature Paul this week. Check out the interview below the fold!

Let’s start from the very beginning. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Greenwich Village, on Bank Street. My mother was a freelance writer; my father was a Madison Avenue “Mad Man.” When I was 7, we moved to the suburbs of Cleveland, where I attended school from the second grade on.

When and how did you get into wine?

I began tasting and trying to understand more about wine in the late 1970s. I had a couple of good friends who were already into doing big wine dinners, or in tasting groups, and they let me tag along. The Washington wine industry was barely begun back then. I often cite a book written by the late Tom Stockley that came out in 1977. The cover promised it was “a complete guide to the wineries of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia,” which indeed it was. There were 25 wineries total — 12 from Oregon, 8 from Washington, and 5 from B.C.

When and how did you start covering the Walla Walla Valley as a viticultural region?

In the mid-1980s I had learned enough about wine to feel comfortable writing about it for publication. I was already an established newspaper and magazine journalist, so it wasn’t much different than writing about film, or music, or theater or media, all of which I had been covering for years. I did not, however, review or score wines. I wrote about people and places. Harvey Steiman, for whom I had done a couple of things already, suggested that I visit Walla Walla, where a number of upstarts thought they could make decent wine. I came over from Seattle in 1986 and met with Gary Figgins (Leonetti Cellar), Rick Small (Woodward Canyon), Baker and Jean Ferguson (L’Ecole No. 41) and Eric Rindal (Waterbrook) [Ed: we interviewed John Freeman, the current winemaker at Waterbrook, a while back]. That led to a published story in Wine Spectator.

What was Walla Walla Valley like back then?

OK, my memory is not the sharpest tool in the writer’s workshop. I do remember that Gary was making wines in his garage, and was pretty pleased that he’d recently been able to add some underground storage for his barrels. One night after dinner (and a lot of wine), Rick Small took me out to his winery and we did some punchdowns, me standing on a wooden plank over a fermenting vat, trying not to fall in. Eric’s operation was in a reconverted barn. There was nowhere to eat in town; we all had to drive to Dayton to get a decent meal. Oh, and there were hardly any vineyards. The only vineyard of any size was the original Seven Hills, a few dozen acres, inconveniently located in Oregon.

How has Walla Walla changed since then?

Well, how hasn’t it changed? The downtown is thriving. There are around 150 wineries. There are close to 2000 acres of vineyard. There are many fine dining places, as well as food trucks galore. There are several dozen tasting rooms within a few blocks of downtown. There are major wine events throughout the year, from Cayuse weekend in early April on through Barrel Tasting Weekend in December.

What ultimately makes Walla Walla special as a viticultural region?

Clearly, that much-overused word terroir has real meaning here. As vineyards have been planted throughout the AVA, upwards of a half dozen quite distinct sub-regions have emerged. The most famous would be The Rocks, a dried up riverbed noted for its abundant cobblestones. It will soon be officially designated as its own AVA. In the context of all Washington wines, it’s pretty clear that Walla Walla Syrah and Merlot are especially distinctive. But almost any of the red grapes do well there, including such up-and-comers as Tempranillo, Sangiovese and all the Bordeaux grapes.

How did you make the transition to a winemaking?

I’m still a wine writer, but I’ve added a winemaking project to my portfolio. My official title is Wine Director, which is accurate. I am partnered with Precept, and have their talented team of winemakers, cellar staff, vineyard managers, marketing and sales personnel to draw on. My intention in undertaking the Waitsburg Cellars project was first, to showcase what I felt were under-appreciated varieties that thrive in Washington; second, to shine a light on the town I live in (via the name, label and branding); and third, to enhance my overall understanding of the winemaking process. As it turns out, I’ve learned a great deal more about the entire wine industry, from vineyard to retail shelf.

What have you learned about Walla Walla as a winemaker that you didn’t quite grasp as a wine writer?

I wouldn’t say that I’ve learned anything new about Walla Walla specifically, but in terms of the entire winemaking process, I’ve learned plenty. Sourcing grapes; working with vineyard owners on crop management; the importance of picking and sorting decisions; the endless decisions that go on throughout fermentation and post-fermentation; the niggling details that can make or break you such as coordinating bottling and release times. I’ve also come to see how a winemaker’s palate is entirely different from that of a reviewer, and how difficult it is to evaluate wines before bottling. It is surprising to me to find that I really care about reviews from “the press” and can get truly excited about a really good award from a wine competition, such as the Double Gold we just were awarded at the San Franciso Chronicle judging. And then there is the whole sales side of wine. Wow – that’s worth a book all by itself.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

For the Waitsburg Cellars wines I strive to express the very things I admire in all well-made wines. These concepts developed over many years as a reviewer, now carried over into my own brand. I believe in letting great fruit shine; any adjustments should be minimal. New oak should be used sparingly, if at all. I believe that proper vineyard management is essential if you want to make wine that rises above the mundane. I love the extra dimensions that old vines can deliver. I want to produce wines that are aromatically complex, texturally interesting, perfectly balanced and structured for both near term and longer term enjoyment. I want to avoid overblown wines with high alcohol, too much tannin, too much barrel influence or any one characteristic that obscures the overall balance. I want to make wines that are like the Seahawks – every component is an over-achiever, but the real magic happens because they always put the team first.

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

Selling wine is hard work, and I think almost any winemaker would say that is the toughest thing to do.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

In my three decades of writing about wine, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many of the world’s greatest wine regions. I’ve been able to chronicle the growth of the Pacific Northwest, from those first 25 wineries up to almost 2000 in the region today. I’ve lost count of the great wines and great conversations I’ve shared with so many of the pioneers here in Washington, in Oregon, and in California. Some conversations (and wines) that stand out over the years: I spent most of a day with Nicolas Joly at Coulée de Serant, my first introduction to biodynamics. I had a remarkable lunch with Joel Peterson (after I’d criticized some of his Ravenswood wines), where he took the time to listen to my point of view, to share his own, and to tell some great stories about himself. I got to know Charles Smith early on, long before fame and fortune had come to him; on one memorable afternoon he visited my home to show me his new releases and sketched on a napkin an idea for a new label that had just crossed his mind – House Wine. In Florence one evening the Marquis de Frescobaldi rode in on his motorbike (just back from the U.S.) and hosted me and Mrs. G. at a private table in his tasting room. I could go on forever, but I’ll just say I’ve been truly blessed.

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

Of course I am most familiar with what’s happening here in the Pacific Northwest, and so it is here that I have the opportunity to discover the really interesting new projects. I will interpret “new” to mean really new – as in roughly a half dozen or fewer vintages released. In no particular order, I’d list James Frey (Trisaetum), Scott Southard (Southard), Kit Singh (Lauren Ashton), Richard Holmes (with consulting winemaker Charlie Hoppes at Côtes de Ciel), Kevin White (at Kevin White), Matthew Driscoll (WildAire), John Derthick (Lujon) and Robert Brittan (Brittan Vineyards). They all make wines that deliver quality above price, that make you pay attention, that immediately stand out as special and that continue to intrigue you when tasted on the second and even the third day.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?

I can’t pick just one, so I’ll go with Tuscany for its Chianti Classicos and Brunellos; Sancerre for its unbeatable Sauv Blancs; Chablis and Champagne because, well, they are simply spectacular wines.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

Well, I guesstimate I’ve tasted somewhere around 250,000 wines as a professional over the past 30 years. There may have been a best, but I honestly can’t think of one.

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?

My cellar is loaded with wines from the Northwest, California, Italy and France. I have about 2000 bottles in all. I make it my personal goal not to find any wines that are over the hill. So I frequently pull out bottles that are 10 or 15 years old, but I rarely keep anything much older. I still have a 1988 Pichon Lalande in there somewhere (long story on that one!) and a couple of Ports from the 1970s. That’s about it for old. For quite awhile I had a small stash of 1982 Mouton (the famous Parker 100 pointer) that kept creeping up in value. Last I looked it was going for around $1200/bottle. I paid $42. I drank most of them and sold the last one to pay some bills (probably invoices for more wine).

What’s open in your kitchen right now?

Funny you should ask! The actual no b.s. truth is this: just yesterday we did the final blending for the 2014 Waitsburg Cellars Cheninières, Chevray and Three White. So I have the components of each open on the counter – different lots of Upland Vineyard and Rosa Hills Vineyard old vine Chenins, and the unblended components of the Boushey Vineyard wines – a Grenache Blanc/Picpoul co-ferment, and a Marsanne. Over dinner last night I re-tasted them individually and then put them together as blends. Part of that steep learning curve. The last finished wine (still open on my counter) that I thoroughly enjoyed drinking is a 2012 Lujon ‘Spofford Station’ Cabernet Sauvignon from Walla Walla.

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month with every dinner, what would you choose?

The red would have to be a Fonterutoli Chianti Classico Riserva from a great vintage (1999 and 2006 are really good right now). The white would be a Pascal Cotat ‘La Grand Côte’ Sancerre (unless you would allow me to glug down a 2002 Salon Cuvée ’S’ Le Mesnil Blanc de Blancs every night for a month – on your tab of course!).

Is beer ever better than wine?

On a hot day with barbecue, and after a long day of wine tasting, beer is the only thing to drink.

How do you spend your days off?

I am a dedicated guitar player and songwriter. In fact, just recorded demos of about 18 original songs at a sweet little studio in Walla Walla.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

While living in Manhattan after college, I worked as a studio engineer at Electric Lady, the studio Jimi Hendrix built. After that I moved to Seattle to work in ‘underground’ FM radio, as a DJ. I worked at various radio and TV stations for the next 12 years, before moving into writing full time.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing?

I would be on tour with WIllie Nelson, as his opening act (OK, I’d settle for being his roadie).

How do you define success?

I often think success can be summed up by a catchphrase I learned while working for David Brewster at the Seattle Weekly: “Living Well Is The Best Revenge.” A lot of wisdom there. My definition of success has come from discovering what is really important to me, in terms of how I manage and fill my time, day to day, month to month, year in and year out. And then finding a way to have absolute control over that time. It’s equally important to find balance in life, putting effort and joy into work, relationships, education, community, art and health. It’s a lifelong quest. Success is not something you have; it’s something you discover, invent and nurture.

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