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NorCal Wine Blog

Tuning Into Antonio Galloni's Palate

”You should spend one day of every week listening to music you don’t like.” That was advice from one of Antonio Galloni’s instructors at the Berklee College of Music. Galloni acted on the advice musically and learned to enjoy new genres. It also influenced his approach to wine.

On October 16, I sat front row center in the EcoLab Theater at the CIA’s Greystone Campus. Winemakers and proprietors from scores of California’s top wineries filled the room around me. We had each paid a lot of money to taste the twelve California Syrah before us and, especially, to learn why Antonio Galloni selected them.

The 8th Annual Wine Advocate Seminar and Tasting at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena was the most important for local vintners in several years. Most of the past events featured Robert Parker. Tasting with Parker is an excellent opportunity, but he and his preferences have long been well-known in California. Last year’s tasting was with Galloni, but the focus was Barolo. He has written about those wines for years and, while interesting, his opinions on them have no impact on wineries here.

antonio_galloniThis year’s tasting was different. Galloni remains mysterious to California vintners. They are still trying to figure him out and wanting to know if he understands them.

By far the youngest among the top echelon of critics, Antonio Galloni is positioned to be the most influential taste-maker for California wines over the next three decades. He matters. Learning his taste in Syrah and his thoughts on its incarnations here is important. Vintners also hoped e seminar would provide insight on his approach to California wines overall. It did.

Here’s my quick summary of his tastes, based both on his comments and the character of the twelve Syrah which he said were among his favorites:

  • Antonio Galloni favors red wine that is full-bodied and red wine that isn’t.
  • He likes a wine that is fruit-forward or savory or floral.
  • He appreciates the ripe fruit of warm climates, the herb and peppery spice of cool ones. 
  • He loves purity of fruit but a little barnyard is okay.
  • He asks about process but doesn’t pre-judge accordingly.
  • Prices don’t have to be high, production volume doesn’t have to be extremely low.

It’s said Robert Parker favors a particular style of wine. Many wineries tuned their efforts to please Parker’s palate, leading to homogenization of wine styles in his regions of focus. Antonio Galloni doesn’t appear to have “a style” when it comes to rating wines.

Asked by Tor Kenward about inclusion of whole clusters, Galloni said, “I’m totally agnostic. I have no view. It just depends on the wine. I taste the wine, is it in balance? I don’t really have a view on whole clusters, new oak or anything that’s technical. I’m not an enologist. I don’t ever want to have a strong view on anything like that, stylistic choices. I taste every wine with an open mind. If the wine is beautiful, it can be zero or 100% whole cluster and it’s fine by me.”

Winemakers and proprietors tell me that his approach at tastings is serious and business-like. He wants to understand the wines, vineyards and processes but isn’t looking to swap jokes or make friends. Some proprietors say that will change over time. I’m not so sure.

In his post last Sunday at On the Wine Trail in Italy, Alphonse Cevola says, “Galloni has re-invigorated the Wine Advocate brand in Italy with his fierce impartiality.” In the same article, a Tuscan winemaker compares Galloni to James Suckling. “Galloni is the best, [but] he’s untouchable.” Galloni has been publishing reviews on Italian wines for eight years, long enough to have become "flexible" if he were so inclined.

So, he doesn’t have a style and appears to be above outside influence. What is Antonio Galloni’s approach to to tasting and scoring wines? “I’m generally an optimistic person,” he told us at the seminar. “When I taste wines, I’m looking for things to like, not things not to like. Unless it’s obvious. The things to not like are very obvious if it’s a flaw. You don’t have to look for it. It hits you right in the face. I’m trying to understand each wine for what its attributes are. I’m really looking for balance, where nothing really sticks out.”

”A hallmark of greatness in a wine [is that it] captivates [you]. It holds your attention. It’s always changing in the glass. It has layers of flavor. Every time you taste it, you discover something new. A new flavor, dimension or texture.”

He also said that he combines the European and American approaches to evaluating and characterizing wines. In Europe, he said, there is an emphasis on the texture of wines, acidity and tannins. In the United States we are flavor centric. He tries to encompass both.

Galloni said this California Syrah tasting presented “a Burgundian approach to terroir,” celebrating the uniqueness of small vineyards up and down the state. “Most people’s concept of Napa Valley [for example] is Highway 29 and Silverado Trail and the vineyards you can see while you’re going north to south... But Napa Valley is also these enclaves — vineyards like Sloan, Snowden, Diamond Creek, Pritchard Hill, Harlan — in the middle of nowhere. I can’t say these wines reflect my expectations of Napa Valley [as a whole], but they reflect my expectation of their sites.

Zappa_16011977_01_300I asked Antonio Galloni how his musical background has impacted his evaluation of wine. He referred to Frank Zappa who, he said, was agnostic to the style of music, but enjoyed excellence in all styles.1 Galloni then described his own varied tastes and experiences in music. 

”As a teenager, I played in heavy metal bands. I had a ponytail, earrings, played really loud rock and roll. I played for three years in a jazz big band, music of the 30’s and 40’s. Going to music school, I was very influenced by Pat Metheny and I did a lot of improvisational music. And I studied classical music. Later, I learned that I could sing. So went to Milan for three years and studied opera with someone from La Scala. Don’t worry... I sucked. [laughter] When I was in college, I played in a country band for two years. I played mandolin and guitar and electric guitar. And that’s the most fun music to play, country music. I love all of that.”

”There may be some people who only want to listen to one kind of music and they can’t tell or don’t care about the difference between outstanding, excellent, good and mediocre. I would rather listen to great from all those things. I’m agnostic to the style of music, I’m into the excellence of the musician. Is the voice beautiful? Are they talented instrumentalists?”

”That’s why I can give a top score to someone like Randy Dunn and to a Colgin. They can co-exist. It’s the extent to which that wine has maximized its potential expressiveness. It’s about excellence.”

If Antonio Galloni does have a bias in wine, it’s for “wines made by real people: handmade, artisan wines.”

Here’s my advice to wineries that want high scores from Antonio Galloni. Be polite and friendly, but don’t bother trying to become his pal. And forget about tuning wines to his palate. Put all your energy into growing the best grapes and making the best wine you possibly can. Make wine that’s beautiful and balanced and genuine and speaks eloquently about its variety and/or vineyard.

For consumers, there is good news and bad. The good news: we should see increasing diversity among high-scoring wines. The bad news: you will need to do more homework. A score alone is going to mean even less about a wine’s style than it used to. You won’t be able to say you always love/hate the type of wines Galloni rates highly. And you will to have to read the whole review to know if the wine is rich or lean, fruity or mineral. Even better, take Frank Zappa’s cue and enjoy excellence regardless of style.

See which twelve California Syrah Antonio Galloni selected, along with my tasting notes and his commentary.


1"Since I didn't have any kind of formal training, it didn't make any difference to me if I was listening to Lightnin' Slim, or a vocal group called the Jewels ... , or Webern, or Varèse, or Stravinsky. To me it was all good music." —Frank Zappa, 1989, from a discussion with Peter Occhiogrosso published in The Real Frank Zappa Book, p. 34

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This article is original to Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Frank Zappa photo by Helge Overas licensed via Wikimedia Commons. All rights reserved.