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In-Depth Interview with Antonio Galloni, Part 3

In case you missed them, here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this interview.

Antonio Galloni on Assuming Responsibility for California Reviews

Fred Swan: The decision to have you take over California, was that a semi-long term plan or something more spur of the moment based on circumstances.

Galloni-head-shotAntonio Galloni: So, I joined [The Wine Advocate] in ’06. There were some intermediate steps. At the time I had a full time day job at a bank, Deutsche Bank, and then I was writing about wine on the side. I was in this situation where my wine writing was just much more rewarding than my day job.

I wanted to expand. My wine interests have always been much broader than just Italy. And Champagne was an area where we were lacking. And I said to Bob, “Look, you know, I’d like to think about Champagne. It’s a short region and I could do it without affecting my other responsibilities.” And he said, “Okay, fine. Go for it.” That was really fun because it let me do stuff that was different from Italy and I loved that. So that was ’08.

And after that, it was clear that... People don’t understand. You know when people say what it takes to be a good taster; it’s your palate, your historical knowledge of a region, your experience with wines. Those are the obvious answers right?

I think what people don’t realize is that the job also requires — the way that we work — a lot of physical stamina. Place to place to place to place to place. It’s exhausting. In parts of the world like Burgundy where you’re tasting in the cellars, the temperature changes can be very severe.

So, if I’m tasting white Burgundy in the summertime in France it can be like 90° - 95°  outside and freezing cold in the cellar. Just those shifts, six or seven times a day, can become really tiring. You’re on your feet. So, what people don’t realize is this job is a job for a young to medium-aged kind of person. And certainly at 65 I don’t want to be going from place to place to place. It’s just really grueling.

So, I think as Bob was approaching that part of his life, looking to kind of just slow down a bit. California was one place were he thought, you know... I think he realized the wine scene had just exploded. So, it wasn’t enough even to maintain what he was doing. What he really wanted to do was put a shot into the arm of our coverage and really ramp it up. Spend even more time here, which I am.

And so I think that those things just led Bob to think, “you know what, maybe I should just pass this off and see if we can’t dedicate more resources to California and improve our coverage. And obviously other people will decide if we’ve improved our coverage. But I can decide if we’ve increased our resources and we certainly have. So, that was the goal, the impetus.

These are never decisions that are made at the spur of the moment. These are things that we had talked about for a long time. Like everything, it goes from the conceptual stage, to the thinking about it stage, to really thinking about it and then he and I both saying, “Okay, now is the moment.” It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a big decision for him. For me too.

Antonio Galloni on Upgrading Wine Advocate Coverage of California

A couple of days before I interviewed him, Antonio was sharing a lunch table with me and three or four other writers. He said that he’d made six trips to California last year. He wants to upgrade its coverage in The Wine Advocate.

Napa wines aren’t covered with a lot of passion,” he said. Perplexed, he added, “Harlan, Colgin, etc. are open to barrel tastings, block tasting... people don’t ask for it.” [Remember the context. We’re at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. He’s not suggesting that every casual writer or wine tweeter should start calling cult wineries for appointments.] He said that he “wants to elevate the coverage of California, treat it more like Burgundy, tasting clones, tasting must, etc.”

FS: [Back to the interview.] What are your priorities for coverage of California now?

AG: Well, there’s a couple of things that are global to every region. We’ve started to implement video, which I think is a way of... To me what’s really important is to make wine more accessible to people and bring people closer to wine. I think the reason video’s useful is that so many top properties around the world are closed to the public.

It’s really hard to go to Harlan, or to go to Screaming Eagle or to Sloan or whatever. Video’s a way of opening those doors to people and letting them see what the places are like, what the people are like. The story of the wines. So that’s one big thing. And we don’t just have that for California, but every region.

I spent 8 days in Sonoma — just in Sonoma — in January. It’s been many years since Bob did a pure Sonoma trip. And then I think the last piece of it is I’m spending more time. And not only spending more time. I’m trying to do more estate visits and winery visits to bring these wines to life for people.

Antonio Galloni on What Has Surprised Him Most about the California Wine Scene

FS: Have you been particularly surprised by anything since you’ve spent a lot of time out here?

AG: Well, I wrote about this in my Napa review. But the more I think about it, the more amazed I am by the number of quality wineries being run by young professionals. They’re in their late 20s, early 30s.

What I think about that is it’s only a situation that could exist in America. Because, in Europe, the only way a person is running a winery in their 30s is if they’re somebody’s child. Here, you have a chance to prove yourself and earn an opportunity.

Of course, it always helps if you’ve been introduced or had some help, got a lucky break... But when you start to see young winemakers at Harlan and Bryant and Screaming Eagle, at Futo, on down the line, at Ovid. That to me is very exciting to see young people at such important positions.

You’ve got to imagine that these people are still many years away from giving us their best wines. And boy, to be able to work with a terroir like Bryant at the earlier stages of your career has to be an incredible launching pad. If you can’t make great wine there, there’s a problem. And if you can make great wine there, you can probably make even greater wine than you might think.

Antonio Galloni on Values in California Wine

FS: Are there particular regions or varietals in California right now that you think present especially good values?

AG: I think one portfolio that I tasted that was just really impressive was Chateau St. Jean. There’s just so many wines that are $12, $15. It’s all varieties. It’s more about blending fruit from different sources. Less prestigious areas, could be Monterey or whatever Chardonnay. Kendall Jackson, same thing. So many wines that are really good that are also available to people.

Because that’s one of the problems, right? I review a great wine that’s 50 cases... I get a lot emails saying, “I can’t find that wine.” So, I tend to think more about producers on a large scale that are affordable, delicious, easy-to-find. Two of the wineries that are in the next edition are Chateau St. Jean and Kendall Jackson.

Beyond that, there are things that are interesting. Obviously Sonoma Cabernet is priced very differently from Napa Valley Cabernet. And, while $50, $75 or $100 isn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination, your money does go farther in Sonoma for, let’s say, French varieties. And there are some people making some really great wines in Sonoma from Bordeaux varieties.

That I think is going to be a really interesting story as it develops. Obviously, people think about Syrah and Pinot and Chardonnay. But, I think what’s happening with Bordeaux varieties in Sonoma is really exciting.

Antonio Galloni on What He Looks for in a Wine

FS: From a personal standpoint, are there any particular varietals, wines or producers that you’re really passionate about, something you’d love to have as a house wine for yourself or a go to wine for a special occasion?

AG: What I look for in wine is personality. A wine has to say something. I remember the tasting we did two days ago. For example, the 2001 Shafer Hillside Select I thought was in stunning shape. Boy, if I had a case of that at my house I’d be thrilled. The 2001 Bond wine, St. Eden, was beautiful.

I mean we drink at home all styles. It’s really about the wine that captures the maximum expression. I tasted the ’88 Togni yesterday. It was fantastic. I have a hard time choosing between those because they have so much personality and character. There’s a reason that you want to drink the wine. It has a story. The story has to be different. It’s like it’s alive.

FS: [We paused our interview for a group tasting session. Four French winemakers now working in Napa Valley presented two wines each. The first was a wine that signified what inspired them to work here. The second was a wine of which they were proud.] Which of these wines did you like best?

AG: I liked very much the Derononcourt Cabernet because of it’s length. That’s very important to me. The length of the wine. And I liked the two wines that Denis Malbec brought ['91 Dunn Howell Mountain and an '08(?) Kapscandy]. They were obviously very different but they were totally beautiful.

Antonio Galloni Responds to a Complaint About the “Parkerization” of California Wine

After the tasting mentioned immediately above, the moderator (wine writer Bernard Lewin) asked the winemakers if they had concerns about high alcohol in their wines and worked to mitigate it. Genevieve Janssens [Robert Mondavi Winery] said that she was not particularly concerned. She focused on balance. Denis Malbec [Kapcsandy and Erba] held essentially the same view.

Marketta Fourmeaux [Marketta Winery and formerly Chateau Potelle] responded vehemently. She expressed great concern about levels of alcohol and ripeness. She said clearly and forcefully that the fault lay with Robert Parker and James Laube. She expanded on her complaint.

More than fifty wine writers were in that room along with Rudd Center staff, etc. More than 100 eyes suddenly opened wide. Everyone, including Marketta, knew that Antonio Galloni was in the room. I looked at him sitting beside me. His facial expression didn’t change. He said nothing.

Bernard Lewin moved on to Stephane Derononcourt’s assistant. She said they are concerned about alcohol and work hard to keep levels moderate. Then Lewin offered Galloni the opportunity to respond. Lewin later told Galloni that he wasn't trying to put him on the spot. Rather, he thought it was only fair to offer the opportunity of a response. Because he was so near, I was able to record what Galloni's response to Fourmeaux' assertion.

AG: [calmly, but with some force] I don’t think anyone put a gun to somebody’s head and said you have to make a wine like this. And probably he [Robert Parker] has done more for this area and the well-being of most people in this room than any other person. So before you criticize too heavily, you should really take a historical perspective. Because there was a time when people begged Bob to write about California wine. When he first started writing, it was mostly about Bordeaux. And people asked, “Why aren’t you writing about domestic wines.” And that’s when he started writing about California wines. This is not my seminar, this is the panelist's seminar. But just be careful about, you know...

[Shortly thereafter, my interview continued] I picked up on the question of Parker’s influence on wines. “Randy Dunn didn’t change the way he made wine,” Galloni shrugged.

Antonio Galloni on How Wine in the United States will Evolve.

AG: There’s a major status change in California. When you go see Steve Kistler and he says “well I’m picking earlier, lower brix, I’m using less new oak. Frankly I’m not really happy with the way my wines have aged,” that is a very powerful statement.

I think of it as an evolution. One of the things that is always talked about with wine writers is should you be focused [on one region.] I think if you have the advantage of seeing lots of places in the world you see this is a theme. This is not about California. It’s a broader conversation, the evolution in winemaking styles. We went through this period where everything was about ripeness. And now people have explored that dimension and gotten the most they can that way.

The next evolution or direction will be how I can make it a bit elegant or refined. You see this all over the world, it’s not just in California. And so with Chardonnay there’s a focus on more restrained use of oak, picking a little bit lower. And then there’s a focus on what people call really marginal, coastal sites in Northern Sonoma which I think is fascinating. Those wines are really beautiful. They’re very pure.

[At lunch two days earlier, while talking about evolution in Chardonnay and Cabernet styles — picking at lower brix and being more subtle with oak — Galloni was asked if critics should drive that change. “I don’t believe critics should shape anything,” he said flatly.]

Antonio Galloni on the Problem of Points without Context in Shops and Advertisements

I closed the article by coming back to the issue of context. He had mentioned it many times. It was clear to me that he was more interested in sharing the attributes of a wine and its source vineyard with consumers than in simply scoring.

FS: Relative to context again, you put a lot of info into the newsletters. If someone goes into a wine shop and looks at the shelf tags they’re going to see one sentence and a score. Are you concerned about the lack of context that people get on a producer website or a wine shop? Are you doing anything to improve that, give shops additional materials?

AG: Well it’s a Catch-22 because the usage terms of our site stipulate that you’re not supposed to take big, huge chunks of content. That’s why people excerpt, to stay within the terms and guidelines of our own user agreement. I think probably we would be more inclined to amend the user agreement to give people the right to do more. Because if you’re going to use our stuff it’s much better that you do put the whole note as opposed to just taking out a sentence. Like I might say that “Dunn 91 is a beautiful wine” then I might say right after “but it falls short of the greatest wines.” People might take that last part out.

Conclusion

This article and the two that preceded it have been long. Too long for the web, almost everyone would say. I realize this. But my interview with Antonio Galloni was long and it was filled with very interesting perspectives, provocative quotes.

I asked for the interview because I thought it was important. Having completed it, I wanted to share it — all of it — with people who care about wine. Was the format ideal? Perhaps not, but if I sold this interview to a magazine you’d be reading it a year from now. It would be much less relevant.

Tomorrow, I’ll be back with the final article in this series. I will write about my biggest take-aways from the interview. What did I learn? What were the most significant observations? How will they change what I do, how I think about wine and wine writing? I’ll try to keep it brief.

Related Articles

An Exclusive, In-Depth Interview with Antonio Galloni of Wine Advocate, Part 1: His Approach to Wine Writing, Why He Doesn't Taste Blind & the Challenge of Succeeding Robert Parker in California

In-Depth Interview with Antonio Galloni, Part 2: How Antonio Galloni got started at The Wine Advocate, his thoughts on Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma County, and the issue of bias with respect to non-blind tasting. In the meantime, you may be interested in my recent article regarding Antonio Galloni’s December report on Napa Valley.

Antonio Galloni Identifies a New Generation of Cult Wineries: Commentary on his first Napa Valley report.

Antonio Galloni on the problem of NV Champagne without stated disgorgement dates in my blog for The San Francisco Wine School.

 

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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Photo by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.