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Lodi Zinfandel Goes Native

lodi native

Lodi is well-known for Zinfandel. Of particular note are its many acres of old vines. Thick-trunked and twisted after all these years, they look more like short trees than grape vines.

The fruit these centenarians bear is full of character, but their unique traits are sometimes masked by new oak and other winemaking choices intended to please contemporary wine lovers. So, unlike Pinot Noir vineyard-designates often made with a minimum of intervention to expose distinct terroir, even super-premium Zinfandel wines don’t necessarily reveal all the unique characteristics of particular old vine plots. This makes it hard to know exactly how excited we should really be about those vineyards.

The Lodi Native project addresses that problem directly. It presents single-vineyards of distinction from Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA in wines that are skillfully made, but not “crafted.” I tasted the project’s first 6 wines. The differences between each were dramatic. The wines are beautiful. They compelled me to open my wallet, a much harder task these days than it used to be.

What is Lodi Native?

Lodi Native is a serious effort by six winemakers to let heritage vineyards speak clearly through “sensible viticulture and minimalist winemaking”. Each man was responsible for his own wine but also worked with the others from the outset to define a winemaking credo. As wine production moved forward, they consulted with each other on challenges and critiqued all the wines to drive quality and transparency of terroir. Each agreed to forego personal and brand-styles in favor of that transparency.

Here are some of the restrictions on Lodi Native wines:

• 100% Zinfandel from single-contiguous vineyard
  (except when a particular vineyard has a long, recognized history for mixed blacks)
• Native-yeast fermentation for primary and malolactic fermentation
• No new oak or inner staves
• No oak substitutes such as chips or powder
• No addition of water or subtraction of alcohol
• No addition or reduction of acid
• No added tannins
• No added color or concentrates, including Mega-Purple
• No fining or filtration
• No must concentration, Flash Détante or similar extraction measures

This was a risky project. The winemakers couldn’t use commonly accepted measures to counteract issues with the grapes or production. Some winemakers hadn’t relied solely on native fermentation before, so they didn’t know what surprises the peculiar strains in their vineyard and winery would bring. There was no oak “spice box” to cover minor flaws.

In fact, there were originally seven winemakers in the project. One voluntarily withdrew because an issue with harvest resulted in his grapes coming in with too much sugar. He wouldn’t be able to ferment the grapes dry or have a balanced wine while adhering to the protocols.

The Lodi Native Wines

The first vintage for Lodi Native Zinfandel was 2012. A limited number of six-bottle sets packaged in attractive wood boxes are available from the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center for $180. If there are extra single bottles, those will be available from the wineries for about $35.

2012 Maley Brothers Lodi Native Zinfandel Wegat Vineyard
Winemaker: Chad Joseph — Grower: Todd Maley

Wegat Vineyard is on Lodi’s west side, an area noted for Zinfandel with spicy characteristics. Its 21 acres hold head-trained Zinfandel on St. George rootstock planted in 1958. The vines here are noted for producing unusually open clusters with small berries. Some whole clusters were used in making the Lodi Native wine to enhance complexity.

The dark ruby wine is a study in cherries. The vivid nose shows red cherries and black, canned cherries, fresh cherries, macerated cherries, dried cherries and tart cherries. The cherrypalooza is decorated with fresh sage, garrigue and array of spice. The palate is intense, focused and quite long with flavors of red cherry, blueberry and a touch of sweet herb. The body is medium+ with notable freshness and just enough fine-grained tannins. 14.9% alcohol. Highly Recommended+

2012 m2 Wines Lodi Native Zinfandel Soucie Vineyard
Winemaker: Layne Montgomery — Grower: Kevin Soucie

Soucie Vineyard is the furthest west of all the Lodi Native sites, very near both I–5 and the Delta. Kevin Soucie’s meticulous care results not just in great fruit but a vineyard that looks like a massive Zen garden, hundreds of bonsai vines in a vast field of sand that’s smooth as a U.S. Open sand trap. The particular block used in this wine was planted in 1916 and features deep, sandy soil that’s so fine as to be nearly powdery. The vineyard is noted for a unique earthy character that ranges from mushroom to dairy yard notes.

The grapes for this wine were picked at two different ripeness levels, the first 50% at just 22 brix, to foster complexity, acidity and ensure that the wine would ferment dry. The nose features spicy, slightly resinous, forest floor, mushroom and a whiff of dill with plenty of sweet-tart berry fruit. The creamy, nearly full-bodied palate is intensely flavored with spicy berry fruit. The moderate tannins are fine-grained, the finish long. 14.5% alcohol. Highly Recommended+

2012 McCay Cellars Lodi Native Zinfandel TruLux Vineyard
Winemaker: Michael McCay — Grower: Keith Watts

The TruLux Vineyard is also on the west side, roughly located between the Michael David and Van Ruiten wineries. Its exceptionally tall vines were planted in the 1940s on St. George rootstock. It’s wines are said to lean toward loamy flavors.

Medium+ ruby in the glass, this wine offers aromas of earth, spicy dark plum and carob. In the mouth there’s medium+ body, moderate, fine-grained tannins and marked acidity that provides juiciness throughout the lengthy finish. Flavors include tart and ripe blackberries, dry earth and spice. 14.5% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2012 St. Amant Lodi Native Zinfandel Marian’s Vineyard
Winemaker: Stuart Spencer — Growers: Jerry & Bruce Fry

Marian’s Vineyard is an 8.3 acre plot within the expansive Mohr-Fry Ranch southwest of Lodi. All of the fruit from the 113-year old vines go to St. Amant winery.

This deep ruby wine is softly aromatic, showing dry earth, gentle brown spice and introverted dark fruit. Silky tannins add interest on the creamy, full-bodied palate. Rich flavors of cocoa, savory herb, sweet yet tangy dark fruit and blackberry jam. 14.7% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2010 Fields Family Wines Lodi Native Zinfandel Century Block Vineyard
Winemaker: Ryan Sherman

The vines in this 3-acre vineyard in the far to the AVA’s eastern side are own-rooted. They were planted in 1905 on the quick-draining sandy soil of talcum-powdery fineness. This was the first time its fruit was used in a vineyard-designate wine.

According to sommelier/writer/Lodi wine expert Randy Caparoso, Lodi’s east side is associated with Zinfandel of “red berry perfume and higher acidity.” That’s certainly evident in this feminine, Pinot-esque wine. Its attractive nose expresses three aspects of cherry: the red fruit, the blossoms and the leaves. The palate is also more delicate than the west side wines with medium+ body and prominent acidity balanced by very fine, delicate tannins. Flavors include red cherry, sweet spice and sweet herb. 13.9% alcohol. Highly Recommended

2012 Macchia Wines Lodi Native Zinfandel Noma Ranch
Winemaker: Tim Holdener — Grower: Leland Noma

The portion of Noma Ranch Zinfandel that goes to Macchia comes from own-rooted, head-trained vines that are unusually low to the ground. More than 100 years old, they are dry-farmed and yield tiny bunches and berries with yields as low as one ton to the acre, resulting in very concentrated wines.

The darkest of the six Lodi Native Zins, this Macchia effort is opaque with a ruby-purple hue. Subtle aromas of dark berries, dark spice and ripe black cherry peak from the glass. The palate is much more outgoing: full-bodied with moderate, very fine tannins framing heady flavors of ripe black cherry, plum, spice, cocoa and oak char. (No new oak is allowed in Lodi Native, but once and twice used barrels can still yield flavors.) 15.0% alcohol. Highly Recommended


The Lodi Native project has achieved its primary goal in the very first vintage. The wines very clearly show the differences between some of Lodi’s most-prized heritage vineyards. And, despite a commitment to sacrificing ideal balance and maximum deliciousness to achieve that aim, the resulting wines are very, very good. They show that, when taken from fine, lovingly-farmed vineyards and made with care, Zinfandel needn’t be sweet, thick in the mouth or dressed in new barrels to captivate. Bravo!

For more on the project and wines, including her signature drawings, see Elaine Brown's article at Wakawaka Wine Reviews.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.

5 Amusing Uses for Old Wine Corks

If you open as many wine bottles as I do, you may find yourself with two problems: sommelier elbow and a vast surplus of corks. You can make your elbow feel better by drinking some of the wine. But what do you do with all of those corks. Here are a few inspiring examples of what other forks with too many corks — and plenty of time on their hands — have done. Enjoy!

"Cork in the Road" by Steven Leslie; check out his site for other creations. He has other designs and sells his creations as well.

It took more than 300,000 wine corks to create this huge mosaic.

The shading the artist gets is impressive. Imagine sorting all of those corks!

The artist, Saimir Strati, not only uses different colors of cork, but different lengths to create depth. Don't try this at home if you've been drinking the wine! (via TheContaminated)

Wine cork "art" can be practical and doesn't have to be hard to make yourself. Craftynest has instructions for making your own wine cork bath mat.

On the other hand, the creations that are difficult to create and epic in size can be pretty amazing. This cork cow can be seen at the Charles Creek Vineyard tasting room on the square in Sonoma. Photo: Charles Creek Vineyard

After a hard day of building cork cows, you'll want to sit back and relax. So build yourself a chair too!

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Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

12 Things You Should Know about Sake

What is sake?
Sake isn’t wine. It’s not beer or a spirit either. Sake is alcohol made from fermented rice.

Alcohol levels in sake aren’t as high as you might think.
Sake is commonly served in small cups that may remind you of shot glasses, but it isn’t nearly so potent as a shot of whiskey. Sake is usually between 15% and 21% alcohol. That’s similar to robust table wine on the low end and fortified wine at the high end.

morimoto daiginjo
The presentation for Morimoto's delicious Daiginjo at Morimoto restaurant in Napa. Photo: Fred Swan

The biggest differences between wine and sake in your mouth are that sake has much lower acidity and no tannins.
These differences are significant when it comes to food pairing. Because there are no tannins, sake can work with most any seafood. Sake is good with heavier proteins too, but you’ll never need a ribeye to give it a smooth mouthfeel.

We’re accustomed to matching food and wine based on acidity levels. Since acidity in sake is relatively low, you’ll want to avoid pairing it with high acid foods like tomato sauces and dishes with a lot of citrus or with very creamy or chalky cheeses like Brie or soft goat cheese.

The three most important things to consider when pairing sake with food are palate weight, flavor profile and flavor intensity.
Because sake is higher in alcohol and lower in acidity than most wines, sake tends to have a smooth and relatively heavy mouthfeel. In my experience sake body ranges from medium+ to full. For a harmonious pairing, select sake that is similar in weight to your food. The higher the sake’s alcohol and sugar content, the more body it's likely to have.

Like wine, sake can be simple, with just one or two obvious aromas and flavors, or very complex with five to ten things going on. Even in a complex sake though, there’s often one category of flavors that dominates: tree fruit (apples, pears), light fruity aspects (lemon/lime pith, melon, cucumber), floral notes, umami (savory flavors like meat, mushroom and salt) or, in some aged or unpasteurized sake, oxidative flavors like toasted nuts and dry cheese.

Most sake flavors are derived from the rice, the strain of yeast and the mineral content of the water used. Some sake is strongly flavored with fruit extract though. Flavors include various berries, yuzu, plum and lychee. This type of sake tends to be sweet and is best enjoyed after-dinner.

Like wine, sake ranges from dry to sweet. Consider the level of sweetness when pairing sake with food.
There are three main ways to make sake that has residual sugar.

  • Stop fermentation before the yeasts have consumed all of the sugar.
  • Use yeast that dies naturally at an alcohol lower than can be produced by the amount of sugars available.
  • Add fruit extract for sweetness and flavoring.

Sake flavor profiles are unique and quite different from wine.
To me, the primary aromas and flavors of sake are gentler than those of a wine. Instead of lemon or lime zest, I smell citrus pith. Instead of biting into a crisp green apple, I smell a bowl of uncut green apples. I get peach blossom rather than peach. An exception is licorice which can be nearly as assertive in sake as in wine.

One aroma/flavor I frequently find in sake is petrichor. To me it’s almost an entire category of aromas like minerality is for wine. Petrichor is the scent of rain falling on dry earth. I love that smell and it differs depending on the season, what kind of surface the rain is falling on and what plants and flowers are nearby.

Today I tasted more than 50 different sakes. Within them I found a whole spectrum of petrichor. There was warm summer rain on a dirt path, light rain on a sidewalk and on a street. One smelled like mud from a heavy rain, another was rain in a flower garden. Very nice.

Sake is made from special rice.
The rice we eat is usually long and cylindrical. Sake rice is short and pudgy. More importantly, the bulk of its starch is concentrated in the center. Sugars derived from that starch fuel the fermentation process. Sake brewers can create different flavors and textures of sake by using most of each grain or by grinding them down until just that starchy core is left.

There are different grades of sake, based upon how much the rice was ground (aka polished).

  • Futsu-shu doesn’t require any milling at all. The whole grain—not including the husk—can be used.
  • Honjozo uses rice that has been polished until only 61-70% or less remains.
  • Ginjo means that just 51-60% of the grain was used.
  • Daiginjo is made with rice that was ground down until 50% or less of the original grain remained.

The more the rice is polished, the more expensive the sake. This is partly due to the extra processing but mostly because so much rice is discarded. It takes roughly twice as much rice to make daiginjo as futsu-shu.

dassei sake
Dassai Sake offers ultra-premium daiginjo made from rice polished to 39% and 23%. Photo: Fred Swan

Many sake are fortified with a very small amount of distilled alcohol.
Adding alcohol adds to the body of the sake. It can also help extract more and different flavors from the rice. It’s a totally legitimate and respected practice. Junmai designates a sake to which no distilled alcohol was added.

With very few exceptions, vintage is not a key factor in a sake’s flavor.
Weather can have an impact on rice growing, but it doesn’t have the big carryover effect on flavors that it does with wine. Occasionally, a producer will sell specially aged sake from a particular year. For the most part though, sake producers aim to have consistency from one batch to the next.

Sake is ready-to-drink when you buy it.
Even though vintage isn’t critical, sake bottles list the production date. That’s to help you know when you should drink it. Most sake should be consumed within one year of purchase.

If you open a bottle but don’t finish it, cap it and put it in the fridge. It will be good for up to three weeks.

Sake doesn’t have to come from Japan.
Sake is a very traditional Japanese beverage, but the word just means “alcohol.” It’s not a protected place name like Champagne or Port. There are some sake breweries in the United States. One, Takara Sake, is located in Berkeley. It has a tasting room plus a little museum. I highly recommend visiting them.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

Tips on Buying a Wine Fridge

Serving temperature has a big affect on how a wine smells, tastes and feels in your mouth. Even a very good wine can be awful at the wrong temperature. Improper storage temperature can also shorten a wine’s life or ruin the wine completely. Regular refrigerators are too cold for most wines. “Room temperature” is too warm.

The best way to keep wine at the right temperature is with a temperature-controlled wine cellar or a wine refrigerator (also known as a wine fridge or wine cooler.) Wine fridges are readily available these days. You can buy wine coolers online, from wine shops, department stores and even warehouse stores.

More about proper wine service temperatures...

More about aging wine...

Which wines age well...

What to Look for in a Wine Fridge


The first thing you need to decide is how many bottles you want to keep in your wine fridge. The answer depends on whether you’re storing for aging or for drinking, how many bottles of you want to have ready at a moment’s notice and how many different types of wine you want available. Wine coolers come with capacities ranging from 6-bottles to 300+. I recommend getting one that's a bit larger than you think you need. If you're serious enough about wine to be buying a cooler, you'll fill it faster than you'd expect.

Where to Put Your Wine Cooler

Do not put your wine cooler in the garage. The big temperature ranges of a garage will make the cooler run too often, shortening it’s life. If the temperature in your garage gets too high, and it probably will, the cooler won’t be able to keep up and your wine will get warm. Likewise, the garage may get too cold in the winter. Wine fridges can’t keep wine above a certain temperature, only below.

Don’t put your wine fridge in an unventilated area, such as a closet. Wine coolers give off heat and they suck in air. In an unventilated space, the cooler will be sucking in its own hot air and will have to work harder, shortening its life.

Don’t your wine cooler next to an oven, regular refrigerator, freezer, dishwasher or clothes washer or dryer. They all give off heat through their side walls and that will make the wine cooler run too often. Some of these appliances also vibrate a lot and that’s not good for wine either.

Vent location

Wine coolers have vents that expel warm air and fans that pull in room-temperature air. These vents and fans need breathing room so that the cooler can work efficiently. Wine coolers can be purchased with front, rear or top venting. If you’re going to putting it under-counter make sure to get a front-vented cooler. Rear venting usually requires at least 6 inches of clearance in the back. Top venting allows the unit to be flush with a wall but needs about a foot of clearance above.

Size and Shape

Wine coolers come in many sizes, but four basic form-factors. Those for 20-bottles or fewer are typically intended to go on top of a counter. Coolers holding between 20 and 60 bottles are usually designed to work for under-counter installation. Larger coolers, especially those over 70-bottles, are almost always designed to be a freestanding appliance. Some are cabinet-style, tall and narrow. Others are console style, wide and half-height.

Once you know where you will put the wine fridge, you can figure out what the best orientation and specific dimensions are. Make sure to account for a couple of clear inches on each side plus enough air space for the venting so the cooler can work efficiently.

Rack Design

The racks inside wine coolers come in two basic styles, fixed and sliding. Sliding racks pull out like a drawer. You pull out a rack, place the bottle on its side then slide the rack back in. Fixed racks are like pigeonholes. You push a bottle, bottom first, into an open hole and then lower it slightly into place.

I prefer sliding racks. It’s easier to find a bottle when you can pull out a rack and easily see all the labels. I also find it’s easy to scuff or tear a label when moving bottles in and out of a fixed rack. This is especially true if you’re in a hurry or the bottle is a little over-sized. If you do opt for a sliding rack, make sure that the drawer mechanism works smoothly and easily. Bare metal wire sliding in plastic grooves doesn’t work well, especially when the rack is fully loaded.

That brings us to the next issue, rack size. There are a lot of wine coolers with racks that don’t accommodate over-sized bottles. I’m not talking about magnums either, very few coolers can handle those. I mean Champagne bottles and Burgundy/Pinot Noir bottles. These bottles have thinner necks but a larger diameter at the base than a “regular” Bordeaux bottle. I strongly recommend taking a bottle of Champagne or Pinot to the showroom so you can see if it fits.

Some racks are plastic, some are bare chrome wire, others are metal wire with wood fronts. I don’t recommend plastic for durability reasons, but beyond that, it’s a cosmetic and economic choice.

ProductPhotos-VT-50SBW10 TopR 800x600H480W640A1
A Vinotemp 50-bottle wine cooler with glass door, refrigerator hinge, front vent, wood-front sliding racks and one temperature zone.


The better insulated the cooler, the less often it will need to run and the less energy it will consume. Insulation is measured in R-factor. The higher the number the better.


The are two basic hinge types. One is continuous, like a piano hinge. Those are strongest and the most energy efficient. The other option is refrigerator-style, with one hinge at the top and another at the bottom. Most manufacturers let you choose which side the hinge will be on. Some come with the ability for you to put it together either way. That’s convenient in case you move and need to change the orientation.

Noise Level

Most winecoolers use something similar to a refrigerator compressor and they also have fans. This makes noise. A noisy wine cooler can be distracting or even cause discord on the home front. Try to get the manufacturer-measured decibel ratings for the wine coolers you’re interested in. You want something that’s not too much above 40 decibels at worst. (40 decibels is similar to a typical office environment or the sound of light rain. 50 decibels is a dishwasher... You don’t want that because, unlike a dishwasher, the cooler will be running very frequently.) Also be aware that having the wine fridge semi-enclosed, as it would be under a counter, will magnify the sound rather than decreasing it.

One or Two Temperature Zones

Most wine coolers give you the opportunity to set the temperature you prefer, usually between 45° and 65° (Fahrenheit). Some have two thermostats, each manages one half of the cooler. You might set one part for 50° degrees for white wine service and the other at 58 or higher for red wine. If you’re only going to store red wine, you may not need two zones. On the other hand, you might want two so you can have Pinot Noir at 54° and Cabernet Sauvignon at 62°.

Door Style

Some wine coolers have glass front doors, others are solid wood or metal. The main benefit of a glass front is that it looks cool. Some fridges also have internal thermostats that you can read through the glass. There are two downsides to glass doors. One is that they may be less energy efficient. The other is that it makes your wine collection more obvious, a potential security concern.

Build Quality

You don’t always get what you pay for, but you almost never get what you don’t pay for. Buying a cheap wine cooler nearly guarantees you’ll get to buy another one much sooner than you’d like because the compressors tend to fail early. You’re better off paying $1,100 once than $700 twice. Other issues with inexpensive units are scant insulation, poor seals and noisy performance. Choose a reputable manufacturer. Reading user reviews on sites such as Amazon can also be helpful.


There are many brands of wine coolers. Some companies specialize in wine fridges, others make other kitchen appliances. Some just buy wine fridges made by some company in China and then put their own label on it.

Any of these companies might have a product that works well and meets your needs. In my opinion though, you’re best off buying from a company that specializes in wine coolers. They have the most experience producing them and working with customers who care about wine. These companies may have better information about how wine should be stored and have spent making steady improvements. Above all, since their entire business is focused on wine coolers, offering good quality and satisfactory customer service is essential to the companies’ future. Many online stores offer a wide range of wine coolers from reputable manufacturers.


Some wine coolers have a high-tech stainless steel and glass look that’s also easy to clean. This is appropriate for a kitchen or bar area. Others have furniture-quality cabinets made of oak, cherry, etc. These may have solid wood doors, plate glass, beveled glass or even stained glass. Top manufacturers will customize the look to your preferences.


Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to Copyright 2013 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

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.