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A conversation with Antonio Galloni: Part 1

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It was a real treat to run into Antonio Galloni at last Friday’s Vintage Retrospective Tasting at the Rudd Center of the Culinary Institute of America, in St. Helena. I asked Antonio if he wouldn’t mind my interviewing him, and he kindly agreed, for which I am grateful.

Antonio became, of course, instantly famous in California last year, when Robert Parker announced he [Parker] no longer would review new releases here for The Wine Advocate, but would instead turn that portfolio over to Antonio. Much of the past year in California wine chat circles has been preoccupied with anticipation of how, or whether, Antonio would, or would not, hew to Parker’s tastes.

I found Antonio to be a gentleman of great charm. Born in Venezuela, reared in Italy, living now just outside New York City, he exudes an urbane cosmopolitanism. He’s also quite good-looking, which never hurts in wine country. In my conversation with him–taped–he was, perhaps, a little guarded, but then, under the circumstances, who wouldn’t be? Yet Antonio also is a voluble man; a single question elicits a mountain of information, which is a treasure trove for a reporter.

Most published Q&As have been heavily edited. This one is not. What you read is pretty much verbatim as it was recorded. I thought it would be more interesting to present this conversation, which was entirely spontaneous, in its fullness. Here’s Part 1.

SH: This is a real treat and a pleasure. So you’re here at Premier Napa Valley.

AG: Well, I’m here at the [Wine Writers] Convention [Symposium]. I think the Premier Napa Valley is a subset of that.

SH: What were you doing at the Symposium?

AG: They asked me to speak at a couple of events. The first one was, the first night we had a 2001 tasting.

SH: How was that?

AG: It was fun, great. It was sort of like this welcome dinner, and then after dinner, there were a bunch of 2001s for people to taste, 30 or so wines, and I picked a bunch of my favorites, and then it was really informal. I talked about 6 or 7 of the wines I really liked, and why. It was very informal, a standing tasting, not unlike this [Rudd Center tasting]. I thought that was interesting, because the wines showed beautifully, you know?

SH: Okay. Well, let’s talk about what people want to understand, which is your role at The Wine Advocate. You had been doing Italy for how long?

AG: Since 2006.

SH: And was it a surprise to you that Mr. Parker asked you to do California?

AG: Well, let’s back up for a second, because there’s one or two intermediate steps. The first one is, I did Italy in 2006, and then, in 2008, I thought we really should upgrade our Champagne coverage, so in 2008, I took on Champagne. And all the while I was doing a fulltime job in the finance world. And Bob had always been sort of pushing me to write fulltime, and we’d talked about what that might look like. And I just think, you know, things just evolved to a state where he really wanted to focus on writing different types of articles, like massive vintage retrospectives that he does, verticals, and more thematic stuff, and at the same time, I think he realized that the number of producers to cover in California was just exploding, was hard to keep up with. And so it just made sense to sort of hand off some of the day to day grind.

SH: So which regions do you cover now?

AG: I do all of California, but [only] new releases. And Italy, Champagne and Burgundy.

SH: Now, how does one mere human being have just the physical stamina and the time? Those are four gigantic regions.

AG: Yeah. The key to success is having a great wife! Or partner. Because she organizes a lot of my–and she works very closely, but she does all of my scheduling and stuff.

SH: How many wines, let’s say a day, on average, do you taste?

AG: Well, it depends, because sometimes I’m not–that’s one of the reasons I’m not going to taste a bunch of wines here, because when I’m not in a big tasting mode, I kind of like to just rest.

SH: So how many wines to you expect to taste this year? Let’s put it that way.

AG: Well,  let’s do the math. If I’m traveling somewhere, I probably taste 100 to 150 wines a day, and an average trip might be ten days, a little longer, a little shorter. But let’s say, ten days.

SH: How do you avoid getting inebriated, tasting that many wines?

AG: I think that tasting wine is a lot like sports. You build up endurance. I don’t ever feel inebriated.

SH: When you get to number 100, you don’t feel like you’re losing a little objectivity?

G: No. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. I can only speak for myself–it’s different for everybody–but I always chuckle. People think it’s hard to taste at the end of the day. I find it actually harder to taste at the beginning of the day.

SH: You kind of have to get warmed up.

AG: Yeah, you have to get warmed up. And it’s just like sports, have to get warmed up. And I always liked the end–my favorite tastings are the ones at the end of the day, because you’re really focused, you’re really honed in, and everything is very clear. At the end of the day, I always feel like everything is very focused, very clear. It’s not unlike if you run or do some kind of endurance sport. At the end of when you really feel the endorphins kick in, you really feel great, is at the end.

SH: Well, you’re obviously in good shape. Is it important to be physically healthy and in good shape in order to do your job?

AG: Well, I think it’s important for me. But I can’t say for somebody else.

SH: How do you stay in shape?

AG: Well, I go to the gym several times a week, a lot of cardio, spinning, weights. It’s important for me, but, you know, I think there’s plenty of evidence out there that it’s not an important criterion for success!

SH: Now, one of the big things people were really interested in, they were thinking, “Is Galloni going to, in California, continue to kind of like the same wines Parker liked, or is he going to diverge to some extent, will he pull a 180?” What’s your answer to those people who are wondering that?

AG: Well, every time I taste with Bob, if we have ten wines, in 7 or 8 or 9 of those cases we’re going to be very close. And then there’s always going to be some that he likes more, or that I like more, and I think that’s pretty normal. But for the most part, we’re pretty close, and I think that is because great wines are just great wines. What I’ve always tried to do is give a very representative picture of what’s out there, and let people decide what they like. It’s not so much about what I like, it’s just about–I think of wine as being very agnostic to style. I can love Shafer Hillside Select, it was brilliant at that 2001 tasting, but yesterday, here, Denis Malbec [Malbec & Malbec] brought 1991 Dunn Howell Mountain, which was equally beautiful. I can’t tell you that one is more beautiful than the other. I just know, on one day I might be more in the mood for one, and on another day I might be more in the mood for the other. But they’re both, for me, very top representations of what Cabernet Sauvignon can be in Napa Valley.

Tomorrow, Antonio Galloni on tasting open versus tasting blind.

  1. SH: When you get to number 100, you don’t feel like you’re losing a little objectivity?
    I would feel like Lucy !

  2. Steve, nice of you to include this. It is refreshing to see you approach this as a reporter. I love interviews (obviously).

    I feel though that Mr. Galloni is missing some valuable opportunities in his new role. Being a young wine drinker, I don’t engage much with wine scores (for a number of reasons), but I do with people, like on this site. Antonio seems to be following the path of Mr. Parker, that people should be interested in them, not the otherway around. I do not mean to imply this is true in the flesh, but their online presence is lacking connection to say the least.

    To say it bluntly, it reads like an ongoing list of “why my life is better than yours.” That is probably not how it is intended, but it comes off that way.

    I have to say, from a critical standpoint, I have largely agreed with his summations on California, particularly the Central Coast. And while I take some issue on his open speculation on brands like The Ojai Vineyard, I feel he is a good fit for our area. Still, I find his lack of interest in engaging extremely off-putting and I am not alone.

    It’s a shame, he could help change this game and reach a new generation. It is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes I am affraid.

    Wonderful though to have this interview. I am certainly not trying to attack the mans character.

  3. I was at the symposium and found Antonio to be absolutely charming and tremendously compelling. His enthusiasm was palpable and his energy down-right infectious. There was something so refreshing about his tone and take on things and while I don’t so much agree with the wines he likes, (we were on opposite ends of the page at that 2001 tasting) he is one of those voices that I would want to read just to feed off that excitement. Very cool cat.

  4. Cool cat indeed. I hope he takes me up on my invite to lunch in Oakland!

  5. STEVE!

    I was at the Symposium tasting of 2001 Napa Cabernets with Samantha. One wine that Antonio Galloni criticized at that event was the 2001 Phelps Backus Vineyard Cabernet–indeed, it was showing very poorly that evening. I don’t think the bottle was to blame, the wine had simply begun to fall apart and show its overripe, unbalanced character. I told Samantha that I was sure Parker had given it a high score originally. So I looked it up when I got home and, sure enough, it was rated 97+ in the original review.

    Not that Parker was wrong, but it gave me hope that Galloni will indeed blaze a different trail than Parker in California. And not only was he a cool dude, his wife/partner (?) was incredibly charming as well.

  6. Hosemaster, it just shows that predictions of the future of Cali wines are risky. That’s why I tend to hedge my bets these days in my reviews.

  7. Interesting interview, Steve. Looking forward to part deux. But, I did have to laugh at his comments about liking the wines better at the end of the 100+ tastings! It may be that he actually is more focused at the end of that long day, but, for me, it just confirmed why you should always serve the best juice first and rely on your guests getting more “focused” later on! :)

  8. Good interview – a little scary to see how similar to Parker Galloni actually is. One thing is, is that his passion literally jumps off the page…………………

    Vim (www.12×75.com Fine Wine Blog)

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