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A conversation with Antonio Galloni: Part 2


This is a continuation of yesterday’s post. Here’s the link, in case you missed it:

SH: Now, do you taste openly or blind?

AG: Well, it’s usually a combination of both.

SH: What about people who suggest it’s not possible to be objective about a wine if you know what it is, and particularly if you’re at the estate?

AG: Okay. So, as an example, Burgundy, a region that I cover, there’s a very narrow window for any critic to evaluate these wines. They are always tasted from the barrel first, and they are always tasted unblind. And you know you’re at de Vogüe, you’re at DRC, you’re at wherever. You know exactly what you’re tasting. Because part of what people are looking for is a commentary on, to what extent does that wine capture the vintage, the site, the style of the producer? That’s the real value-add of a wine writer, the kind of writing I want to write. And so, as an example, nobody tastes Burgundy blind, except for Michel [name unclear], in France, and what he does, he limits the number of wines that a producer can submit to four.

SH: Well, let’s come back to California. If you’re at Harlan, and you’re tasting all those wines openly.

AG: Yeah.

SH: Then, again, what do you say to somebody who says, “You know you’re at Harlan, and that is necessarily influencing your impression of the wines.”

AG: I would say, When you go to an estate like Harlan, it’s like eating at a three-star restaurant. Your expectation is extremely high. And people have a view that tasting a wine unblind, that there is a bias that is favorable. Nobody ever thinks, Could there be a bias that’s negative? Because your expectation at a top domaine is of outstanding quality, and therefore the margin for error is humungous.

SH: Which California wine have you reviewed so far where you have really veered from Parker’s palate?

AG: Well, I think people could look at–there’s a couple of cases where I think Bob has liked certain wines better than others. I mean, Scarecrow is kind of a topic of discussion on our bulletin board. It’s very hard to know, because I didn’t taste the wine in the barrel with Bob, and he didn’t taste the wine in the bottle with me, so we could both be–you know, nobody’s ever right. This is not about right or wrong. But his barrel rating could have been very representative of that wine on that day, just like my bottle rating could have been very representative on that day.

SH: Do you feel any pressure to maintain a certain consistency in the handover from Robert to you, in the sense that if you suddenly started not liking the wines he really loved, people would be shocked?

AG: I think most of the times we like the same wines. Where I’m very focused on maintaining consistency is making sure that all of the estates that are normally reviewed are reviewed when people expect to see the reviews, and that may sound the most obvious statement in the world, but it is extremely hard to see Bob driving this Ferrari he’s been driving for 32 years in California, where he knows everybody and has forgotten more about California wine than most people know, and then to be able to just take his pace and just to keep up with all the areas of California and making sure that Napa reviews come out in December, Sonoma reviews come out of February, Central Coast reviews come out in August. Just to keep up.

SH: So you do all of California.

AG: Yeah. Just to keep up–to finish this thought. Just to maintain where we are is an extraordinary amount of work. And then to think, that’s not my ultimate goal. My ultimate goal is to, and Bob’s, too, when he gave me this job, is to, Okay, take it to the next level. So now we’ve got to put the Ferrari in sixth gear, and we’ll do it. It’s just going to take some time.

SH: What does that mean, taking it into sixth gear?

AG: It means, you know, producers that we maybe haven’t traditionally covered, that may have fallen off our radar screen. There’s all sorts of new wineries coming up all the time.

SH: Can you give the state equal representation, from Santa Barbara through the Sierra Foothills and Anderson Valley? I mean, it’s hard for me to do it, and all I do is taste California. So will you be more Napa-centric, or can you really spread the wealth around the whole state?

AG: Well, in 2011, I spent around 5 weeks in California. Spent ten days in the Central Coast. When I went to the Santa Lucia Highlands a couple of growers told me that I was the first person they knew to actually go and look at the vineyards with them. I thought they were probably just being very polite. It’s hard for me to believe that’s true. But the list of people is probably not very long.

Tomorrow: Antonio talks more about his job.

  1. ¡Maravilloso!

    Antonio Galloni
    “Nobody ever thinks, Could there be a bias that’s negative? Because your expectation at a top domaine is of outstanding quality, and therefore the margin for error is humungous.”

    Turning the argument around to get a good look at it is always a good idea.
    Thanks Steve, to me, this is one of your best posts and reminds me of David Boyer’s blog.

  2. I think Galloni did a very good job of handling the question of tasting blind vs. tasting w/ the winemaker at the wnry. Not a subject I get my knickers in a knot over much. OTOH, if the head honcho asserts that most of their tastings are done blind…it sorta waves a red flag.

  3. The 3-star restaurant analogy, while clever, doesn’t quite stand up in my mind. If I go to the French Laundry or Daniel and have a satisfactory meal but the service and ambiance were tremendous then I do not leave disappointed. I would still rate the experience pretty highly. But with the same food presented at home I would certainly be more critical of the food on it’s own merits. Sure there is a huge margin for error if you are served BAD food. But just a decent effort is going to be elevated by your surroundings. And that is the problem with tasting openly, particularly at a prestigious site.

  4. Antonio Galloni says:

    People tend to assume that every winemaker is charming, gracious, etc. and that tasting with them is a positive influence. Anyone who has done this job professionally knows that is not the case. A pro has to be able to tune out everything and focus just on what is in the glass. I have had several instances where wines showed better in my office than they did at the properties.

  5. “And people have a view that tasting a wine unblind, that there is a bias that is favorable. Nobody ever thinks, Could there be a bias that’s negative? Because your expectation at a top domaine is of outstanding quality…”

    Pretty interesting and valid statement.

  6. I still think that this “blind vs non-blind” tasting is a non-issue IF we are talking about professionals who taste wine for a living. Not to sound all “elitist” about it, but if you are a professional who gets paid to make assessments based on certain criteria, you should be able to “tune out everything” (as per Mr. Galloni) and concentrate on the subject being evaluated.

    I’ve also been a car guy for many years and read all the major car mags every month. Do the people who write about cars do so in a “blind” environment (no pun intended)? No — they know what they are driving, most likely how it was built, the history of the car company (and the people in it), as well as reporting on the road conditions. I don’t feel that the fact they were flown to a remote location for the extended test drive by the car company unduly influences their assessments. Having read their work over a period of time, I get a feel for how they make their judgments and am especially impressed when they can make a critical comment about the vehicle *in spite* of the seeming influence of a free trip.

    They know their credibility is at stake, not only for that article, but for all future articles that they might write. The car companies know this as well, and know that they are taking a chance on getting all these critics together to pounce on their latest offerings. Yes, there may be some influence by the surroundings, meals, trips and other things that go along with playing the game. But, at the end of the day, both sides of the professional teams know that they have to do their job, regardless of how the other team may like or dislike their opinions.

    Trained professionals who have some history and experience in these fields know something about how the game is played and can filter the BS — if not, they get weeded out pretty quickly.

  7. Understandingly, one cannot walk every vineyard.

    Although Anderson Valley is distanced from Sonoma, being the most northern coastal appellation in California, true conviction is to be found.

  8. Sherman, the reason this blind vs. unblind issue never gets resolved is because there is no right or wrong. There are perfectly valid reasons for and against both approaches. We talk about it a lot, because it’s fun and interesting and involves other issues of great importance.

  9. Thanks for the post. It is cool to see he is actually a ‘real’ person. A wine critics job has got to be one of the toughest, and he was doing it before while still maintaining a day job?

  10. Fun interview, Steve. The only reason (ok, two) with the blind vs. non-blind issue is 1) if a critic is easily biased by label reputation and 2) if a critic/publication claims all reviews are conducted blind, but in actuality are not. AG does not seem to fall into category 1. The WA standards does not claim all (or even most) tastings are conducted under blind conditions, so category 2 doesn’t seem to be an issue with AG. Cheers to Antonio for sitting down with Steve.

    Btw – I invite both Steve and Antonio (and anyone else for that matter) to come to Colorado to taste what our wineries are producing. You might be pleasantly surprised…

  11. raley roger says:

    Wow, by far the best blog entry so far this year!

  12. Dear Colorado, re: your #1 (“if a critic is easily biased by label reputation”), pray tell me how you would determine that? You can’t just ask the critic, “Are you biased by label reputation?” because they’ll all say “No.” This is the famous problem of Other Minds. We cannot really ever know what’s going on in someone else’s head. (Hell, most of us barely know what’s going on in our own head!) Therefore, a strong argument in favor of blind tasting is to eliminate any possibility of “bias by label reputation.”

  13. Very true. I do not disagree. Though I do think label bias *may* show through in the writing. Unfortunately, this does not mean a majority of consumers will catch on…

  14. Steve,

    Thank you for the Sierra Foothill reference. When you speak to Mr Galloni, please let him know Mr Cappelli, Mr Pittinger and I would love to have him in our vineyards tasting the handcrafted wines here above 2000′ in El Dorado County.

  15. @Greg, you can tell Antonio yourself! He’s easy enough to find.

  16. Steve,great post! While the rest of blog-o-mania is rambling on about the impact of AG taking the reins from RP, you went straight to the source. Your writing and journalistic bent sets you apart. Real enlightening stuff.

    I appreciate AG’s openness and he holds the party line about as well as one could. That being said, there isn’t any denying that most tasting practices are severely flawed and at the WA they are certainly among the worst offenders, tasting blind and clearly tasting far too many wines.

    The basic auspice that tasting in the most subjective environment wouldn’t color your ratings is crazy. As much as tasting isn’t scientific, it should be objective. Psychologic studies have clearly shown such biases are not equal and would provide an edge for wines with track records and you’ll try to make things harmonious and overlook a wines faults to match expectations unless things are so disharmonious they can’t be ignored. Maybe that explains AG’s Freudian slip, “therefore the margin for error is humungous.” Indeed.

  17. Antonio Galloni says:

    So, let me give a real example.

    On a recent visit to Gaja I tasted a number of wines. Those of you have been to Gaja know how the tastings work. I am are seated in a large conference room with all the wines and bottles prepared. Then Mr. Gaja exits and leaves me with instructions to call his office when you I am done, so he can come back to say goodbye. I have all of the wines available to me from full bottles and can take as little or as long as I need. There is total silence in the room. Am I influenced by tasting these wines in a historic castle? I don’t think the wines show very well. It is very hot on this day, and even though the wines are served at the right temperature a couple of wines aren’t as expressive as they typically are. I then taste the same wines in my office a month and a half later and they are much more open. Angelo Gaja and his Barbaresco castle are nowhere to be seen.

    People who take the time to examine my track record will see plenty of examples where famous wineries have received scores that are lower than their pedigrees might suggest. Take a look at Bruno Giacosa’s 2008 Barbarescos. Giacosa is one of my (and RP’s) favorite producers. His wines are heavily represented in my cellar. Still, I had no issue calling out the winery on their substandard 2008s. While I don’t always have the time to read all of the reviews of other publications, I am pretty sure mine were among the most critical views of these wines.

    There are a handful of instances where my views diverged from RP’s. Of course I was aware of the reviews those estates had received in the past. That didn’t stop me from writing exactly what I thought. We are all human and prone to mistakes. But anyone who thinks that some wineries will get a free pass based on the past is mistaken.

    Lastly, on the subject of blind vs non-blind tasting…All of the US critics who review Burgundies from barrel are reviewing the wines non-blind. Without exception. Are we really to believe that Tanzer, Meadows and Gilman aren’t capable of reviewing these wines without bias? Please. Try asking producers in Burgundy how many reviewers go to the trouble of visiting them each and every year to taste, doing long trips of several weeks at a time. How many people truly do the day to day work? I am betting the answer would shock most people.

    I realize that the main interest here is CA, so I will throw out a similar question with regards to those wines. Try asking CA producers how many people take the time to actually visit the wineries on a regular basis, how many critics have the interest and passion to ask questions, taste wines from barrel, visit vineyards and do the real work.

    At The Wine Advocate we have a team of critics that are hitting the pavement every single day. Of course I am biased, but I don’t think there is a more passionate, talented or harder-working team in the business.

  18. @Colorado

    The Wine Advocate, on page 1 of their publication, does assert to taste blind (whenever possible).

    In all of Parker’s Bordeaux books that he published, he also claimed that every final score for the wines of Bordeaux were done so in blind conditions, stateside, from wines that he purchased off of US retailer shelves.

    Antonio, I applaud your efforts to not hide behind anything and answer questions as openly and honestly as it would appear possible.

    Which wine regions/producers do you taste blind?

    FYI, I believe that Bruce Sanderson, of Wine Spectator reviews Burgundy wines blind. Of course, under the WS criteria, Bruce is unable to officially review most of the top wines of Burgundy. A shame.

  19. Cabfrancophile says:

    Mr. Galloni makes a really excellent point about bias running both ways. If expectations are sky high and the wine doesn’t “wow” then it will suffer in the review. Since professionals are not in awe of the big names, at least not so much as the common wine drinkers, that does reduce the tendency to overrate the name due to being starstruck.

    Still, the bias issue is real whichever way the knife cuts. Objectivity is particularly hard when one must taste on the terms of the producer or not at all, be it Bdx, Burgundy or Napa cults. Mr. Galloni notes that re-tasting in a controlled environment, his office, may yield a different result. If treated as experiment, the best thing to do is have as many controls in place as possible. Remove label bias, remove tasting site as potential factors. Although it would require more time and effort, I don’t see why context cannot be added after the fact once the single-blind tasted wines are revealed.

    The one major factor that should be noted, however, is that WA is focused on collectible and investment grade wines. The producer and region are a large part of the appeal. When the wines are opened, they are most often not consumed blind. In this sense, the WA is serving its customer base well. If the readers care about the labels as much as the contents, then it is a good business strategy for WA to employ its current methods. Mr. Galloni has to answer to his paying customers, not blog readers.

  20. I completely agree Cabfancophile. At the bare minimum, AG is open about the process which is the most important and admirable as is his dedication to engaging the winemakers. He will certainly continue to appeal to WA cultists with a “my cab is bigger than yours” mentality. Customers are paying for your approach which includes your scores, your dedication to “hitting the pavement” and on some level they are also paying for the WA bias, which WA appears to strategically embrace. Some times (Burgundy barrel samples, etc) WA can’t taste blind, no problem. Just let us know when and AG’s been very open about this.

    But, are we really to believe that AG, RP, SH, Tanzer, Meadows and Gilman aren’t capable of reviewing these wines without bias? YES. It’s not a matter of professionalism or integrity, but a fact. Anyone who tastes non-blind is biased. It will affect the score, probably positively but maybe not. I find it pretty hard to believe that this is considered debatable given the multitude of evidence regarding biases that are introduced by non-blind scenarios (hence the ultimate study showing would be a double-blind study). That’s why we want to know whether the tasting was blind, just as a scientific papers publish their methods and disclosures as well as their results to evaluate sources of bias. Non-blind tasting introduces more bias.

    Then again, this is why I to go the vineyards and wineries myself. I prefer my own bias to anothers (though I prefer my tastings to be blind as much as possible).

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