Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Four Wine Questions For: Paul Gregutt

Through the Walla Walla Grape Vine will be celebrating its third year and I thought it was time to start a new blog feature. From time to time (hopefully once a month) you will see a new feature, “Four Wine Questions For” or in short, "4WQ4." Each “Four Wine Questions For” article will feature a four Q & A with a well-known person in the wine industry.

I am very excited to introduce my first interview. Paul Gregutt is a familiar face who has been covering the Washington State wine industry since the mid-1980’s. He is the wine advisor for the Seattle Times newspaper as well as wine advisor for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and Yakima Herald. Paul is a contributing editor for The Wine Enthusiast and writes the Pacific Northwest section of Tom Stevenson's annual Wine Report. He is also the author of Northwest Wines: A Pocket Guide to the Wines of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. And most recently authored a new book, Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide. This book has received applause from wine industry peers such as Oz Clarke, Eric Asimov, Natalie MacLean and others. If you love Washington wines or want to learn more about this exciting new wine area, this is the most comprehensive book on the topic.

Check out Paul’s future appearances with book signings and especially those in the Walla Walla area. And now on to "4WQ4:"

W5: What's the most interesting development you've seen in the Walla Walla wine industry over the past five years?

PG: I think that far and away the most interesting and important development is the maturation and exploration of vineyards in Walla Walla county. I remember when the total Walla Walla vineyard consisted of an acre behind the Figgins house and something called 7 Hills located rather inconveniently in Oregon. There was no significant planting in Walla Walla for many years. And without that intimate connection to the land, it is rather amazing that the earliest pioneers – Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and L’Ecole, were able to establish a meaningful AVA. In the last five years not only have some of the most important vineyard sites (such as Pepper Bridge and Spring Valley) come of age, but exciting new sites such as Upland and Loess have been established. Of course, the founding of Vinea, with its dedication to sustainable farming and renovating the land, is another important facet of the evolution taking place. And still more, even bigger projects are in the development stages, that will continue to expand and explore the existing boundaries of the Walla Walla AVA. As these vineyard projects are translated into actual wines, a meaningful assessment of the appellation will surely lead to the establishment of more precise sub-AVAs. I think that there are easily at least four sub-AVAs that already look pretty obvious, and possibly as many as six could evolve in the next decade or so. I would also hope to see an expansion of the basic Walla Walla AVA as far north as Prescott and Waitsburg. There is land up there just begging for vines to go in.

W5: Walla Walla has attracted several French-born winemakers -- Marie-Eve Gilla at Forgeron, Serge Laville at Spring Valley, Gilles Nicault at Long Shadows, Christophe Baron at Cayuse, Christophe Paubert at Canoe Ridge, and Virginie Bourgue at Cadaretta (new winery) and not to forget Michel Rolland's involvement at Long Shadows as well. Do you see the emergence of a French style in Walla Walla wines as a result of all these French ex-pats or is a style that's both distinct from France yet related to it emerging?

PG: Hey let’s not leave out J-F Pellet at Pepper Bridge, an honorary Frenchman who happened to be born in Switzerland! Yes, the appeal of Walla Walla to so many different, talented, and highly educated European winemakers is a tremendous asset in so many ways. I was so impressed with this trend that I devoted an entire chapter of my book to it. As for an emerging French style, I don’t think it’s quite that – it’s more of an emerging French approach to all facets of winemaking. I think one of the most striking examples of this is Christophe Baron’s early exploration of The Rocks. Being French, he saw the land differently than it had been seen before. He was looking at the same dirt, but he saw vineyard potential where others had not. And I think that was because he is French. Marie-Eve Gilla, with whom I just met last week, has a meticulous eye for vineyards also, and a particular interest in developing wines from some of the cooler sites. Virginie Bourgue is in Western Australia at the moment, part of an experiment in a cross-cultural exchange with another emerging wine region that favors a more moderate, European style. That is, wines with racier structure, higher acid, more minerality, less oak and far less alcohol than the California fruit-bombs that have dominated the New World for the past two decades. Tastes (as well as climates) are changing now, and the fact that these very talented French and European winemakers are moving to Washington – and particularly to Walla Walla – is not an accident. They see something special here, and they will certainly be a terrific asset to the future development of the wine industry here.

W5: How much larger can the Walla Walla wine industry grow, do you think? Is there a limit somewhere that will inevitable be reached?

PG: I think that the real limits on growth are 1) the cost of land and 2) the availability of water. I think that the AVA will likely run out of land suitable for vineyard development (which must include water rights) long before the global market is saturated with Walla Walla wines. That is not to say that some individual wineries will not fail along the way; this is a very competitive business. But the overall growth will continue until all the good vineyard sites are developed, or until it becomes too expensive to do any more. That same answer holds true for the entire state. Land prices and water rights are the defining issues. It used to be thought that climate was the limiting factor for Washington viticulture, but I think we can put that one aside for good. This is, after all, the perfect climate for wine... =[:-)

W5: Many of us know that you and your wife, Karen bought a 120+ year-old cottage in the small farming community of Waitsburg, located in the county of Walla Walla. Perhaps some people may envision Paul Gregutt as "cool wine-writer guy" (which you are) who counts his collection of fabulous wine living a glamous city life when at your home in Seattle. Waitsburg is quite the extreme from the Seattle area. So who is Paul Gregutt when he is at his cottage in Waitsburg?

PG: We discovered Waitsburg after a rather long and frustrating search for property in Walla Walla. We had driven up and down every dirt road we could find that led east, south and west, but somehow had not gone north. Krista and Mike Davis invited us to join them for dinner at a new restaurant that had just opened in the spring of 2005. That was the Whoopemup Hollow CafĂ©. We returned to Waitsburg the following month and started poking around. We looked at every house on the market, and picked the absolute worst-looking, ugliest wreck in the entire town. I give Karen full credit for that. I thought she was out of her mind. But we loved the little town, and the house was sitting on a nice lot, and so we took the plunge. It was probably the luckiest and best decision we’ve ever made. Who am I when I’m there? Well, I’m a more relaxed guy, that’s for sure, who finds time to yak with the neighbors, who is on a first-name and friendly basis with the mayor, most of the city council, most of the business owners and the publisher of the town paper. I have lots of time to sit on my porch and play guitar, and I feel good about being part of a community where your vote, your presence and your actions really make a visible difference. I still love the city life, and feel very fortunate, as does Karen, that our businesses are structured so as to enable us to live this dual existence. For me in particular, it is a tremendous asset to live half time in wine country. I don’t believe I could be an effective wine journalist living exclusively in the city.

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