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An Exclusive, In-Depth Interview with Antonio Galloni of Wine Advocate

Antonio Galloni became a key contributor at Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate six years ago when he took over its coverage of Italian wine. In 2008, he assumed responsibility for Champagne. One year ago, Parker announced Galloni would both succeed him as the primary reviewer for California wines and  take on Burgundy. Galloni's first report on Napa Valley was published in December.

Antonio Galloni and I were both participants at last week’s Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley. Over the course of the week, I had many opportunities to chat with him and watch him interact with the other writers. He readily accepted my request for an exclusive interview.

Galloni-head-shotWith his permission, I recorded the interview so I could focus on our conversation rather than note-taking. Transcribed, the main interview runs more than 6,000 words. I also have supplemental material taken from our side conversations. We discussed many topics in-depth, including how he came to take over responsibility for California, his plans for improving the coverage, the relevance of terroir here, his views on blind vs. non-blind tasting, his tasting methodology and overall approach to wine writing.

For publication, I divided the interview into a few moderately-sized articles which will appear daily. Each will address an aspect of his background, his coverage of California and some aspect of the controversy with respect to The Wine Advocate or wine criticism in general. So that you can best understand not just Antonio Galloni’s views on wine, but his personality and manner, I include his answers in full, removing only the occasional “um” and “you know.”

Due to Robert Parker’s real and perceived influences on the California wine scene, Antonio Galloni became an overnight celebrity when the review of those wines fell to him. He does not carry himself that way. He keeps to himself, but is approachable. He is confident in his abilities and opinions, but in no way arrogant, He will firmly defend himself, Robert Parker and Wine Advocate, but is not argumentative. He has a passion for wine and he wants to share that passion with others.

For those interested in appearances, Galloni easily qualifies as tall, dark and handsome. His dark hair is cut short. He dresses neatly and conservatively, but not formally. A few ladies I know were disappointed to learn that he is married. His wife is very nice, a smiling lady with blonde hair and a charming Italian accent. The Gallonis have two children and live just outside of Manhattan.

Antonio Galloni Discusses His Approach to Wine Writing

Fred Swan: You mentioned at lunch the other day that you don’t have a lot of formal education in journalism or tasting. What is your background?

Antonio Galloni: Well, to me there’s various schools of wine writing. There’s a British school where people come out of the trade. And the kinds of writers that I’ve always gravitated to people who are really consumers first and buy and drink wine, then become writers and commentators because of their passion.

That’s one of the things that always attracted me to Parker. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed Allen Meadows' work on Burgundy and later California. The genesis is really “we’re wine buyers.” Overtime, you aggregate a certain amount of experience which is maybe a value to other people and then you start to write. It really stems from “we buy wine, drink wine.” Really regular consumers. So, it’s true what I was saying the other day. It’s funny to be in a conference like this. It’s been very useful, because I’ve never had any formal writing background. My mom was a journalist when I was a kid, so maybe I have it in my genes, but I’m not a trained writer. English is my second language. I’ve never taken any tasting classes either. I’ve just learned by visiting wineries and spending time in winemaking areas, which I still think is a very valid way to acquire knowledge.

Antonio Galloni on his Tasting Process and Why He Doesn’t Taste Blind

FS: Explain your tasting process. People know you taste a lot of wine. They don’t know how you go about it.

AG: Usually what I like to do is taste three vintages of each wine. And this is a lot of the work that people don’t necessarily see, because there’s a lot of wines that are tasted that don’t make it into the reviews. So, for example, I always like to taste the preceding vintage. Now, just because of space, I don’t generally publish the scores of the preceding vintage unless, let’s say, there’s some massive anomaly, like I really blew it the year before or find that the wine has changed. But to start off I always want to taste the preceding vintage, just to kind of establish a benchmark.

Then I taste the current vintage. And then I want to taste the future year’s wine which is almost certainly going to be in barrel. So it’s three vintages of each wine. I generally prefer not to taste blind because over the years I’ve found that the questions readers ask of me require some context.

People want to know, how does a wine compare to the previous vintage? How does it compare to wines from the same vineyard? So here there’s, let’s say... To Kalon, or in France there might be Bonnes Mares in Burgundy. People want to know, Mondavi Reserve from To Kalon, how much does it capture the personality of that vineyard? A lot? A little? How does it compare with other To Kalons? How does it compare with other vintages of that same wine? Same thing with a Grand Cru like Bonnes Mares. And in Burgundy, it’s not enough to know which vineyard it is. People want to know what side of the village it’s on, minutiae. In Burgundy, all wines are tasted unblind because its the context that matters.

FS: And you want to know that while you’re tasting the wine?

AG: Yeah, because afterwards you can’t. You can’t go back to that. Because there’s a lot of blind tasting and then you go back and revisit the note? That’s really not authentic. You want to taste the wine in Bonnes Mares and understand. Is it the clay soils? Is it the limestone soils? Is it the slope? What side of the village? Just like here, you want to know where you are in the vineyard. You go to Schrader there’s all these different blocks in To Kalon. It’s all about context. The questions that people ask of us require you to know what wine it is so you can draw some comparison. How does this vintage compare to preceding vintages?

[Note: Tomorrow’s article will thoroughly cover concerns about bias in non-blind tasting.]

Antonio Galloni on Prioritizing His Time Between Global Regions, Within California and the Challenge of Succeeding Robert Parker

FS: How are you prioritizing between regions?

AG: At the highest level, I have two priorities. The first is keeping all of the California articles at the same schedule that they’ve always been. We’re all creatures of habit. People are used to seeing the Napa article in December and the Central Coast over the summer. So, the first priority is just to keep things kind of constant so people don’t get too freaked out. The first thing is that all of the articles are being printed on the same schedule that Bob always followed. So if you’re used to seeing your big Napa, our review, in December, the big Sonoma and other NorCal wines in February, you’re going to get that.

Beyond that, the only other region that’s a very hard constraint is Burgundy. You’re tasting the wines from the barrel and the window for tasting from the barrel is fairly narrow. And it also changes from year to year depending on when the malolactic fermentations are done. So, those are my two big constraints and everything else is more malleable. My trips to Italy are often focused. They’re shorter, I can move them around a little. My big priorities are really making sure that Burgundy is tasted when it needs to be tasted and that California reviews come out when people are expecting them.

FS: Which California regions are you putting most focus on, obviously Napa Valley but beyond that, which other ones. Sonoma you mentioned...

AG: You say obviously Napa Valley, but the only thing about Napa Valley that’s obvious to me is that there are a lot more wines that need to be written about.

FS: I say obviously, because I know you’ve spent time here already.

AG: In the last issue of Wine Advocate, we had many wineries that we’d never reviewed before. I’m just beginning to peel back the onion, right? And I’m sure as I peel it back, I’ll find more. So, I think I’ll start with Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast and even if I take it one next step, it’s still an enormous amount more than we’ve ever done before. I mean our our Sonoma article is going to be bigger than... Articles that I’ve written so far have been equal or larger in terms of the number of reviews to what Bob wrote.

It’s really hard to take over after Robert Parker. You know the guy is driving a Ferrari [Galloni is speaking metaphorically here] and I’ve got to match that. I’m not given the luxury of starting off... he built his pace over many years and the expectation is that you hand off the baton and it’s just continual. And that is a lot harder than even I expected.

Because I always said to people, well, we want to ramp up our coverage. We want to do this, that and the other. One thing I forgot to mention is that first you’ve got to maintain. But when you’re the new guy, just to maintain is pretty damn hard. I think even within the main regions of California, just discovering the new producers is a lot of work.

So, when I was here in January, I covered a lot of producers on the northern coast of Sonoma that we haven’t reviewed ever or not in many years. Littorai, Hirsch, those producers have been sporadically covered, maybe not ever. Anthill Farms, I don’t think ever. Even there, there’s a lot of stuff to do.

The Rest of the Interview

Part 2 is here. It covers 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.

In Part 3, Galloni describes why he's taken over California reviews, what changes he plans to bring, where he sees value, what he looks for in a wine and more. And there's a moment of controversy in a room crowded with writers.

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 Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. Photo by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.