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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.

 

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

How Big is the California Wine Industry?

5b2506136128c311ea6f0b660e807af7California Governor Jerry Brown has declared September, 2011 California Wine Month. There are a lot of reasons for California to raise a glass to its wine industry all month long. Deliciousness is a good one.

However, when you’re selling a Governor on making a proclamation, “Because it’s yummy,” is not a sufficient argument. Governors like facts and numbers and revenue. Fortunately, the California wine industry has a lot of those.

Here are three of the statistics Governor Jerry Brown’s proclamation cites:

  • Retail sales revenue of $18.4 billion
  • 330,000 jobs in California
  • 20.7 million tourists attracted

Those numbers sound pretty good. But, in the abstract, it’s hard to really understand their significance. I’ve tried to put the numbers into perspective by comparing them to others.

Compare retail sales of $18.4 billion to:

  • The entire GDP of Paraguay: $18.5 billion1
  • 2010 U.S. movie box office revenue: $10.6 billion2

Compare 330,000 jobs to:

  • The total combined employees of Adobe, Amazon, Apple, eBay, Google, Intel, Microsoft and Yahoo!: 326,5003
  • The population of St. Louis, Missouri: 319,2944

Compare 20.7 million tourists to:

  • The combined populations of New York state (19.4 million) and New Hampshire (1.3 million)5
  • The combined populations of Belgium (10.9 million) and Sweden (9.4 million)6
  • Total 2007 visitors to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida: 17 million7
  • Total 2010 attendance for NFL games: 16.4 million8
  • Total airline passengers served by San Francisco International Airport: 18.5 million9

If you liked this article, you may also be interested in these:
Fun Facts about California Cabernet Sauvignon
Become a Certified California Wine Appellation Specialist

 

1 The World Bank: World Development Indicators database. World Bank. 1 July 2011.
2 MPAA: Theatrical Market Statistics 2010
3 9to5mac.com: "Apple Employees Most Productive Each Works Out to 420000 in Yearly Profits"
4 Wikipedia: List of United States cities by population
5 usgovernmentspending.com: GDP by state
6 Wikipedia: List of countries by population
7 thedisneyblog.com: Disney Theme Park Attendance - The Numbers Game
8 ESPN: NFL attendance - 2010
9 Wikipedia: Busiest airports in the US by total passenger boardings

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 NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. CA Wine Month logo property of California Wine Month/Wine Institute. All rights reserved.

John Alban on the First Hospice du Rhone and the State of American Rhone Variety Wine in 1993

Hospice du Rhone is only two weeks away. I’ll once again be leading a small band of friends on the annual pilgrimage to Paso Robles for the world’s biggest event dedicated to Rhone variety wines. And I know that on the day after HdR 2012, I’ll already be looking forward to HdR 2013.

hdr_20_year_sealThis year marks the 20th anniversary of Hospice du Rhone. John Alban calls it the 20th reunion. He — and perhaps most of it’s attendees — see HdR more as a fraternal gathering than a tasting or conference. Along with being one of the United States' top producers of Rhone variety wines, John was one of the founders of Hospice du Rhone and has been its driving force for many years. Given this year’s milestone, I asked him to tell me about the history of the event. What was the context of its beginnings? How have Hospice du Rhone and the world of Rhone variety wines changed together over the years?

It’s a fascinating story. It's easy to take Rhone variety wines for granted today. They are everywhere, from restaurants to supermarkets. But that is a very recent development.

John was very generous with his time and provided barrels of great insights. I’m publishing the interview in several bite-sized segments. Part two will be published tomorrow (Saturday).

Setting the Scene: Rhone Variety Wines in 1993

Fred Swan: The first Hospice du Rhone was in 1993. How prevalent were California or American-grown Rhone variety wines then? I’m talking about wineries with a quality focus, not just someone growing Grenache Blanc to fill out some high-volume white blend.

John Alban: I was at that point the only winery in the country that was exclusively producing Rhone varieties.  I had started my winery just to do that [in 1989]. That is not to say that I was the first one to make rhone varieties. There were wineries before me making Syrah and Mourvedre, etc. But there was no winery that was making only Rhone varieties.

With Grenache Blanc, there was no one. That didn’t show up until quite a bit later. For Viognier in 1993, there were probably 18 U.S. producers. There were actually a couple in Colorado. There were some in Virginia. But while that sounds like a lot, what you also have to factor in is I’ll bet you more than half probably of them made less than 200 cases of Viognier. So if you totaled them all up, all the Viognier from all those domestic producers, you wouldn’t even equal a medium-small size Chardonnay producer’s single house production. It was truly miniscule.

Of those 18, there weren’t more than five who actually knew what they were doing if you will. I know that’s a strong statement that can be construed in a lot of ways. But It was so primitive that consumers were saying things like “Is this what it’s supposed to taste like?” And you had producers who I think if they were completely honest, would say to you, “We’re not sure what it’s supposed to taste like.” Of course that’s a tremendous oversimplification.

Syrah was much further along. There were probably 40 Syrah producers, and probably half of them had a pretty darn good idea of what they were doing or where they were headed with this, or hoped to head with it. But again, all of this was made in such small amounts that it was truly baffling.  It was a different world.

If you went to a wine tasting in 1993 and you had people there who were pretty into wine, not your cork dorks, but people who drank wine daily and would go to a wine event, and you asked them to raise their hands, “How many of you have heard of Viognier?” I don’t think you’d get one in ten. Now, I’d be surprised if you got one in ten who hadn’t. Viognier is pretty commonplace. It’s more unusual to go to a restaurant that has a solid wine list and not find a Viognier on the list than it is to find one that doesn’t.

FS: I understand there was a time when the production of Viognier in Condrieu had dropped to very small amount too, and people have said that it was on the verge of disappearing over there.

JA: Very true. By the mid 80’s Condrieu acreage was less than 50 hectares. The renaissance of Condrieu matches up shockingly well with the burgeoning of Hospice du Rhone. And I think that you would find a lot of Condrieu producers that would say that’s no coincidence. As Hospice du Rhone started to hit stride and people became interested in it, interested in its message, Condrieu exploded. \

Now, virtually the entire appellation is planted, hundreds and hundreds of hectares. And it’s not just the vines. You didn’t have the children in those families interested in being vigneron anymore. They were leaving, They would do anything else. Now you have a whole new generation. They’re young and extremely passionate about Condrieu. And I suspect they will create children who have that same passion. It’s really been a tremendous turnaround.

About the First Hospice du Rhone

JA: The very first event that led to what we know as Hospice du Rhone was called the Viognier Guild and that was organized exclusively by Mat Garretson and held in Piedmont, GA. I was one of two producers that attended the event. There were maybe 10 - 12 people who came to it. There were about four bottles of wine for every person there.

He really meant it to be the largest tasting of Viogniers, domestic and imported, that had been held in the United States to date and I don’t doubt it was. Mat assembled Condrieus and all the U.S. producers he could get. It was a luncheon. There was a little vineyard tour at the winery where it was held, and then this luncheon. And then the more serious folk, of which I think there were four of us, went back to Mat’s home in Atlanta and continued tasting some other Rhone varieties.

When Mat took me to the airport the next day, I said to him, “You know I think this is a brilliant idea and if it were held in Calfiornia, if you’re interested in doing it again, I think it would really attract an amazing group of insiders. It’s so cutting edge it will really take serious cork dork type people to want to come to it. If we make it more accessible by having it in California, I think it can grow. I think the other thing we need to do is expand it to other Rhone varieties.”

Part of why i wanted to get this event going was when I went around trying to spread the gospel of Rhone varieties at different wine events... Naturally wine is promoted and to a great extent evaluated and enjoyed, as part of a group. If you want to learn about Pinot Noir, you tend to drink a bunch of different Pinot Noirs. Over time, you develop some impression of what you think Pinot Noir is.

With Rhone varieties as I got together with other producers and we started to spread the word about Viognier, because these other producers made 200 cases of Viognier — which at the time was a lot and 18,000 cases of Chardonnay, which was obviously much more — if excitement started to build in the room about Viognier... many of these people would start to recoil. They would say, “You know this is just sort of a fun little thing, but let’s not lose touch with the real thing. That’s our Chardonnay.”

So they start to actually have a reality check and come back to “where’s our bread really buttered.” That’s what convinced me that we needed to do something that was just about Rhone varieties. When people showed up at it, even if they did other things, there would hopefully be such a critical mass about Rhone varieties and people focusing all their attention — and having come all this way to learn about Rhone varieties — we wouldn’t get caught up in that other stuff.

Part Two of this interview will be published tomorrow. In that section, John and I discuss the evolution of Hospice du Rhone, the popularization of Rhone variety wines in the United States and one of his favorite HdR tasting seminars of all time.

Don’t miss the upcoming Hospice du Rhone on April 27 & 28. For more tastes of HdR, take a look at these articles too:
Looking Forward to Hospice du Rhone 2012
10 Big Wine Events to Look Forward to in Early 2012

Recap of Hospice du Rhone 2011 - Day One
Recap of Hospice du Rhone 2011 - Day Two

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 NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.

He Wasn't Talking To You, Mr. Outrage


Jon Bonné wrote a book. People love it. People hate it.

Some people who love it continue to enjoy the “lean, fresh and balanced” California wines they’ve already been drinking, perhaps a bit more proudly now that a respected writer is so publicly in their camp. Others who love the book are giving California wines a try for the first time in decades, or for the first time in their lives. They’ve grown up on lighter wines, probably Old World and probably from neither Bordeaux nor Chateauneuf-du-Pape. For any number of reasons, these folks have been unaware that some California wines suit their palates. I believe Jon Bonné wrote his book for these people.

320px-Angry tigerAmong the people who hate “New California Wine” are those who don’t like the wines it champions, who don’t make wines in that style, or who write about wine from the opposite point of view. They have been writing in blogs, magazines and message boards about about how horrible the book is, how it’s trying to fix something that isn’t broken and how unprofessional Bonné is for expressing his opinions.

Bonné wasn’t talking to them. He doesn’t think the whole California wine industry will change. He doesn’t think the sun will get colder, California rainier or that people who love rich, opaque, mouth-filling wines are going to suddenly switch to Trousseau Gris. What he wants is for “his” wines to get a little more attention and to find an audience. His book isn’t intended to destroy the California wine industry but to expand its sales by appealing to people who would never buy the opulent wines that Robert Parker, James Laube, et al praise.

Bonne’s been called self-serving. For expressing his opinions? If the book had diverged from the views he’s been expressing for years in order to grab attention, I could see that. It doesn’t. He's taken the perspectives for which he's known and sandwiched them between two pieces of stiff cardboard. And he isn't claiming to have "saved the world from Parkerization."

I don’t have a dog in this fight. I like wines of both styles. I’m a personal friend of neither Jon Bonné nor his detractors. But I’m fed up with critics who appear to think they’re the only ones allowed to express opinions. I’m surprised they don’t realize that, by sounding off against “New California Wine” in vehicles with substantial reach, they are only drawing more attention to that which they hope nobody will buy. And, as Robert Parker said just before launching into attack mode, I’m disappointed in the lack of civility.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Angry cat photo by Guyon Morée All rights reserved.

 

How Critics Taste Wines - On Blind Tasting

You’ve read thousands of wine reviews. But what do you know about the way wine critics perform their evaluations? Frankly, even wine writers don’t always know how their fellow reviewers conduct tastings.

This is the first in what will be a short series of articles revealing how several respected wine critics go about their business. My inspiration was a panel discussion at the 2014 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers held last week in Napa Valley. Moderated by Alder Yarrow of Vinography, Ray Isle of Food and Wine magazine and Lisa Perotti-Brown of The Wine Advocate described their processes in substantial detail. Other writers chimed in. I’ve interviewed still others.

Wine Reviewing Makes You Go Blind. Or Not.

320px-Blindfold hatThere is ongoing debate between wine reviewers on the pros and cons of tasting wines blind. Newsletter reviewers, such as Antonio Galloni, Doug Wilder, and those at the Wine Advocate, do not taste blind. Critics for top wine magazines—Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, and Wine Enthusiast—do.

In a note to Jameson Fink, Harvey Steiman, who reviews the wines of Australia, Oregon and Washington for Wine Spectator, said, “At Wine Spectator every review in New Releases is the result of a blind tasting. We believe that blind tasting insulates our judgments from any bias that might result from knowing producer or price. It’s the fairest and most objective way to allow every wine to show its true character”

In a recent blog of his own, Steiman suggests that even knowing the stated alcohol level of a wine prior to evaluation can color one’s opinion. “Some high-profile wine writers are suggesting that that they shouldn’t have to taste blind, that it’s unnecessary unless you have an agenda. I would submit that a preference for low-alcohol wines is an agenda. Just how much alcohol is present is not so obvious when you can’t see the label.”

Alcohol isn’t the only bit of information that might sway an opinion. Reviewers could potentially be biased with regard to price point, producer or certain varieties in a particular region. Even bottle weight and label design could sway perception.

Joe Czerwinski, managing editor at Wine Enthusiast where he also reviews wines of Australia, New Zealand and the Rhone, tells me that he knows what countries might be involved in his review tastings due to his beat. When tasting for a particular feature article, he may also know the specific region and varieties. He never knows the price or producer though.

At Wine & Spirits, reviewers have three pieces of information. They know the region, the variety and whether or not the wine costs less than $15. The latter helps them earmark wines for “best buy” designations. Knowing the region and variety lets them judge typicity, eg. does a particular Dry Creek Zinfandel meet expectations as such.

Some reviewers, myself included, often taste blind but don’t do so exclusively. In an email to me, Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “I’m increasingly of the opinion that blind tasting isn’t really that useful when tasting critically.” The Chronicle’s panel tastings are typically conducted blind but, when tasting on his own, Bonné usually sees what he’s pouring. This is common with solo reviewers. The logistics of managing the blind tasting of a multitude of wines by one’s self makes it highly impractical.

Bonné also poses the question, “Why shouldn’t a critic evaluate a wine the way his or her readers do?” I’m sympathetic to that view and try in other respects, such as selection of glassware, to taste wines the way I think enthusiasts might. Perhaps more importantly, Christophe Hedges of Hedges Family Estate suggested (in that same article by Jameson Fink) that he believes blind tasting removes important context from the evaluation process.

What context matters? Knowing the vintage can help you judge whether a wine is an excellent 2011 or a lean 2009. Region, even vineyard, and variety can indicate typicity. Knowing the producer, and their track record, provides important clues as to the likely aging profile.

Context is, along with practicality, the primary reason given by critics for not tasting blind. At the Symposium, Lisa Perotti-Brown said she tries to ensure her tastings at wineries are under controlled conditions, but she always tastes non-blind and with the winemaker. She asks a lot of questions as she tastes. One of her main goals is to get as much information as possible for her vintage reports.

In a past interview, Antonio Galloni told me, “I generally prefer not to taste blind because the questions readers ask of me require some context.” Reader questions he fields include comparisons of different vintages of a particular wine, wines made by different producers from the same vineyard, differences between vineyard blocks, etc. Therefore, he likes to taste three successive vintages of each wine: the one being reviewed, the preceding vintage and a barrel sample of that upcoming. He, and other reviewers at wineries, will also taste a variety of vineyard designates side-by-side.

As important as context is, the issue of reviewer bias always arises when discussing non-blind tasting. Can critics completely divorce themselves from prejudices of any sort? The mind is a sneaky thing. Objectivity can be easily, and stealthily, clouded. There’s a reason why doctors aren’t (officially) allowed to treat their family and why judges recuse themselves from cases.

Even if one can be totally objective, non-blind tasting creates doubt in the mind of consumers, wineries, etc. For example, going back to that Jameson Fink article one more time, Hedges assumed Wine Spectator didn’t taste blind and that Steiman’s reviews might somehow be biased against them. Neither was true, but the doubt and perception affected Hedges’ own behavior.

On the other hand, blind tasting tempts one to make guesses which may also be a distraction. Unless the tasting is not just blind but double-blind—when the reviewer has no idea whatsoever which wines are in the tasting—there’s a natural tendency to look for hallmarks of the known regions or producers in various bottles. That can lead to false assumptions that skew results more than non-blind tasting would have.

That’s why magazines’ office-based tastings are generally double-blind. They also have enough staff to be able to receive, catalog and pour bottles without involvement from the reviewers. Home-based reviewers can’t do that unless they have a part-time helper. [Reviewers may taste 50 wines per day, six days per week. Setting all that up is very time-consuming and even the most gracious spouse or friend won’t want to spend 20 hours a week doing that over the long term.]

Jon Bonné adds this on blind vs. non-blind, “One significant thing: When I looked at how Robert Parker and the Advocate was tasting, it was clear that they increasingly opted for non-blind tasting, often with the producers themselves. Context seemed to be more important. Over and over again, my conclusion was that non-blind tasting led to better criticism.” Bonné and Wine Advocate are famously at odds with each other. His praise for their methodology therefore speaks well of that system and Bonné’s own objectivity.

In reality, neither tasting method is perfect. What we see is that the method used depends on the practicality of tasting blind, the intended use of the evaluation and the intended audience.

If the critiques will be going into a large compendium of capsule reviews without much context, such as those found at the back of magazines, then blind tasting makes sense. It evens the playing field, creates the perception of fairness and most readers are simply looking for a list of solid wines from which to select a few bottles for purchase anyway.

The newsletters address a different type of buyer. These subscribers may be purchasing in case volumes or higher. They are looking at more expensive wines on average and have more concerns about aging potential, resale value, etc. Such readers are also more likely to be using their wines for formal tastings, perhaps verticals or horizontals. Then, the added context provided by a Galloni or Perotti-Brown educates and provides creates discussion points.

Wine evaluations for inclusion within a regional or producer profile are different still. This is the type of writing Ray Isle typically does for Food & Wine. In this case, readers are primarily interested in the story or learning about the overall topic. Notes on the wines are used almost adjectivally, adding color or supporting a broader point. Tasting non-blind does no harm and is often essential.

The good news is that, regardless of their tasting methodology, the vast majority of professional critics are just that—professional. They do very the best they can in every circumstance to be objective. Personal taste, be it for intense, mouth-filling wines or lithe, high-acid ones, plays a much larger role in the scores than does knowledge of producer, price point or region.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Photo of blindfolded woman by Isarra. All rights reserved.