This is the second and final part of my conversation with Allen Meadows, the Burghound. Allen is the author of a brand new book, “The Pearl of the Côte: The Great Wines of Vosne-Romanée,” available here at Burghound’s website. I will be reviewing “The Pearl” in an upcoming post.
SH: Do you collect?
Would I find all three of those regions [i.e., California, Burgundy, Oregon] in your cellar?
Would you care to name any particular producers you’re fond of?
Well, in Burgundy, because that’s always been my interest, it would take quite a while to name them all. I would say, though, that I collect producers, but I also collect by appellation. A lot of people imagine that I have only Grand Crus and that’s absolutely not the case. I collect very broadly.
You made a beautiful argument [in his World of Pinot Noir symposium] for Volnay Villages. But let’s talk about California, because I’m a California guy. Would you care to name some of your highest-rated brands in California?
Sure. There are a number I admire, but Anthill comes to mind. Rhys is another I admire greatly. I think Joe Davis, at Arcadian, is doing some really beautiful work. Some of Jim Clendenen’s stuff is really, really pretty. It’s a little austere when you start, like Davis’s stuff, but given time in bottle, it really matures. There are certainly others.
Am I mistaken in thinking that these are all lower alcohol wines, by California standards?
No, I don’t think you’re mistaken at all, because the whole aspect of balance and food-friendly wines I believe are the future, if California is going to be in the eyes of the serious consumer and compete favorably with Burgundy, because high alcohol wines, in general, age less well, less gracefully than lower alcohol wines. But I don’t want to beat this to death either, because high alcohol, in certain vintages, if the wines are balanced–it’s still not my personal preference, but I wouldn’t say they’re incapable of aging.
So if I’m a California producer and my wine happens to be 15.5%, should I say, “I’m not going to send it to Meadows because he’s going to give it a low score?”
Well, chances are good it’s not going to get a great score. What I try and do is try to separate style and content, and if I think the wine is not too warm, and has at least some semblance of balance, I’ll say, “This is very well done in its style, but it isn’t for me personally.” But that isn’t to say that the wine isn’t any good, because the whole philosophy of “I like it, therefore it’s good” or “I don’t like it, therefore it’s bad” I think is intellectually bankrupt.
You may not know the answer to this, but over the years, how many 100s have you given to all your regions?
What was that?
A 1945 Romanée-Conti, and it didn’t appear in the pages of Burghound, it appeared in the book.
How many 99s?
I’d have to look, but probably 6,7.
What’s the highest score in California, if you remember?
I believe 95.
It was one of the Rhys wines. But I believe that one of the Anthill wines was, if not there, then close.
So you’re a fairly stingy rater. That’s my word.
Yes. I’d say that’s probably true, relative to many of my colleagues.
Do you think that there’s a such thing as score inflation going on?
Care to say anything more about that?
Well, I think there is unfortunately a commercial relationship between certain reviewers who give good scores and retailers who can use those scores to their benefit. So someone starting out as a critic is probably well advised to give very high scores to gain some notoriety. The problem is, those scores have to bear up in the eyes of the consuming public, and as we spoke earlier, I think that 90 points is supposed to mean something, as opposed to where you start, and a lot of wines that are submitted to me are in that 86-89 point range, meaning that they’re not technically flawed, but they’re not necessarily greatly distinguished either. But if I give something a 90 or above, I want the consumer to say to himself or herself, “I got something really good.”
Do you taste blind or unblind?
I generally taste unblind. This is not to say 100%, but the vast majority of what I taste is not blind.
Given that this is a somewhat controversial issue, can you explain why you choose to taste unblind?
I can. There are both sides to the argument, and I believe I appreciate and understand both. However, if part of what my clients are paying for is the benefit of my perspective and my, in many cases, intimate knowledge of ageability and style of a given domaine or winery with that particular terroir, to taste blind is to deprive the readership of that perspective. Now, am I influenced by the label? Perhaps. It’s impossible to know for sure. I try and step back and judge that vintage against what I have tasted before.
To play Devil’s Advocate for a second, why not taste blind, and then look at the label and bring your context and experience to the review?
There are times I do that, in particular when we do staged tastings where it’s a theme. In other words, it’s a given producer, or a given vintage, or a given terroir. Those are often done blind, and then the review is after the fact, and then you can adjust. But in a way, if you’re going to all of a sudden rate something 83 points, and you find out, Well, jeez, that’s a famous name, now it’s 93–what have you really done? To me, not much, other than you say to yourself that either your palate isn’t as fine-tuned as you think it is, or this really wasn’t very good after all. I can see both sides of it. People who taste blind and believe that’s the best way–it’s the results, ultimately, that count, and the quality of the guidance. I’m less convinced that the method by which you get there is the driving force. So I wouldn’t do it that way, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t entitled to do it the way they see fit.
SH:Let me ask this. Do you use regional organizations to assemble large tastings, like Napa Vintners? Or do you prefer to go to the individual wineries, which is more time-consuming but, as you say, you get more of the experience.
AG: So, in pretty much every region that I have, except for Burgundy, which is really domaine by domaine, there is some component of the tastings that are–let’s just take Napa Valley Vintners. The big tasting that I did in October was 12 days. Of those 12 days, Napa Valley Vintners set up 3-1/2. And the rest was estate visits.
SH: And how many wines did Napa Vintners–?
AG: I don’t remember exactly. It was several hundred.
SH: So why not do those blind, since you’re not on the property?
AG: Because I think you’d want to have all the wines tasted the same way. Otherwise, it’s not–I’d want to taste all the wines the same way.
SH: So what do you taste blind? When do you taste blind?
AG: The wines that we buy, later, on release, and other things. There’s wines coming in to my office all the time; I’m sure you know. But a typical tasting for me would be three vintages of each wine, okay?
SH: Like today.
AG: Like today. But I’m tasting wines from the barrel, too, okay? So let’s just say Phelps lines up 2008, 2009, 2010, Insignia, or their Cabernet, and Backus. If I hit a barrel sample blind that was not sulfured, or something is off, I might review that wine negatively. I mean, the review might be accurate of the wine, of what’s in the glass, but not really fair to the wine. Right? And so, when I come here, it’s usually three vintages for each one. And people don’t see. There’s a lot of this work that people don’t see. If I go to Scarecrow, or Harlan, or Colgin, or taste at Napa Valley Vintners, I always ask to taste three vintages, if possible. A lot of times they’re in barrel. And in this case, let’s just say it’s ‘08, ‘09 and ‘10, I don’t re-review the 2008s because Bob’s already reviewed those wines, and we just don’t have the space to re-review wines every year. But I have context. And then I review ‘09 and ‘10. And the questions that people ask of me and our peers are things like, these wines are pretty expensive, right? Couple hundred bucks a bottle, right? So people want to know, How does that vintage compare to other vintages? For example, how does 2009 compare to 2008, 2007, 2006?
SH: How do you know if you really were not familiar with those wines?
AG: Well, because I am familiar with those wines.
AG: Of course.
SH: You weren’t working here then.
AG: That doesn’t mean I wasn’t tasting those wines.
SH: You were tasting California even when Parker wasn’t paying you to taste California?
AG: For myself, absolutely.
SH: How many Gallonis are there? You would need 25 Gallonis to go through all that stuff.
AG: I’ve been tasting California wine for twenty years, when I worked in restaurants. I saw the first vintages of Harlan, Alban. People don’t know that stuff, but it’s okay.
SH: How do you keep your teeth healthy?
AG: My dentist has a lot of my money! I go often.
SH: It’s important, isn’t it?
SH: You see a lot of older wine people and their teeth are, like–
AG: Every three months for cleaning. And if I get back from a trip and I want a quick polish or whatever, they’ll take care of it.
SH: What’s the one thing in California that’s surprised you the most since you got this job?
AG: The number of top estates where there are really young winemakers making wine. I think it’s fantastic.
SH: Thank you.
AG: So let me just say one last thing, while you have that thing on. You ask, how is this possible, how is this possible? For me, at the level I aspire to be, wine is not a job, it’s a lifestyle, you know? I’m sure it is for you, too. You’re surrounded by it all the time. I brought my wife and my kids out here this week. They travel with me as much as possible. We’re opening and tasting wine all the time. There’s wines that are being shipped to my office all the time. So there’s a chance to be tasting and retasting wines a lot. I mean, sometimes I’ll come here–this just happened to me a couple times–where people came to me. I tasted the 2009 and the producer said, “You know, I didn’t think our wines showed well, and we want to send them to you after they’ve been in bottle–”
SH: What do you say to that producer, when they call you up and they, “You know what? I think you got a bad bottle” or whatever?
AG: This is pre-review.
SH: But what do you do post-review, if somebody complains, and I’m sure they do, because we all get that. Do you have a standard response? Will you retaste?
AG: I don’t have a standard response, just because I try to do the best in each situation.
SH: So will you agree to retaste, if the producer says that doesn’t sound like the wine I sent you?
AG: Well, we’ll do everything we possibly can. I mean, we bend over backwards to be accurate. So, of course, if there’s a bottle with a problem, I’ll retaste it. It’s no problem. But it’s a lifestyle. We’re opening and drinking wines at our house all the time, tasting these wines all the time, and buying wines off the shelf.
SH: What time do you start tasting wine?
AG: 8:30, 9 a.m.
SH: What time do you stop?
AG: Sixish, sevenish.
SH: So literally tasting 10, 11 hours a day.
AG: Yeah. Take lots of breaks. And it depends on the style of wine. You know, California wine is one of the harder regions, because the wines have a lot of tannin. But I grew up on Barolo, Barbaresco, and after that things are pretty easy. When I go to Montalcino, which is Sangiovese, that’s like a walk in the park. Tasting 100 Brunellos, relative to Cabernets or Nebbiolos, seems very easy. And it just depends on the vintages. I always tell people this, because it’s true: when the wines are great, I don’t ever feel tired. I’m just so energized. What’s the next great wine I’m going to taste?
AG: Is that it? Does it work?
SH: It does! Thank you. You’re a nice person and a gentleman.
This is a continuation of yesterday’s post. Here’s the link, in case you missed it: http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2012/02/27/a-conversation-with-antonio-galloni-part-1
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.
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.
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.
The blogger Fast Company yesterday ran this interview with Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who also was that newspaper’s first blogger. It’s a good read. I thought it would be interesting to take the interviewer’s questions and answer them myself. Of course, some of his questions wouldn’t be relevant to me, so I dropped them.
In your columns and online posts you encourage reader dialogue and response. What kind of responses do you get?
It depends on the particlar post. Some topics elicit a lot of response: anything about Parker, the 100 point system, blind tasting, social media, ethics. For some other topics, I won’t get more than a handful of comments. Some people have accused me of deliberately writing about provocative topics in order to generate heavy response, but that simply isn’t true. I really go by whatever I’m thinking about that day, or if there’s something in the news I have to write about. I often write about things knowing full well that I won’t get more than 3 or 4 comments.
How do you think about your social media interaction?
I love it. I don’t reply to every comment, because quite often, there’s really nothing to say, except maybe “thank you for writing.” Also, some bloggers reply to every comment because that doubles their number of comments, which in turn might move the blog higher up on some popularity lists. That’s a little phony, so I don’t do it. When I read a comment that really needs for me to reply, I know it.
Is this a revolutionary shift in journalism or a more natural progression?
Great question. The answer is: a little of both. There’s clearly something radically different about social media. People all over the world can talk to each other, more or less instantly. It’s very difficult to censure. You can do it on your cell phone or pad: you don’t even have to be sitting at your computer anymore. I think social media has turned out to be revolutionary in certain areas, such as politics, where we see regimes being toppled (Libya, Egypt) with the help of Twitter. In other areas, like sales and marketing (including wine), the jury’s out how “revolutionary” social media is. At this time, I’d call it more of a natural progression that combines aspects of the telephone, the U.S. mail, television and a town meeting. I haven’t yet seen anything in the wine industry being revolutionized by social media. Indeed, I can’t even envision what that would look like.
There’s a lot of debate about the role of social media in journalism, especially on the part of the major print news institutions. While [Wine Enthusiast] was developing strategies and policies, you just started doing it. Why?
Because I wanted to jump into this blog thing and explore its possibilities. I am a writer at heart. Few things in life give me more pleasure than pecking away at the old keyboard and watching my words magically appear onscreen. In May, 2008, Wine Enthusiast was going through their initial deliberations in blogging. I was just too impatient to wait.
Is there a more problematic side with the journalism in the digital age? Do you worry that citizen journalism diminishes overall credibility, for instance?
“Citizen journalism” has always been around. After all, journalists are citizens too. What’s different is the speed and access that people have to publish anything they want. And of course, this does raise issues of credibility. I don’t “worry” about it–there are too many more important things for me to worry about. But I do recognize it and have been stung by it on occasion, when irresponsible people make false charges. However, I take it in stride. And I will say that the positives of social media and “citizen journalism” far outweigh the negatives.
One of the other big changes in journalism we’ve seen in recent years is the rise of advocacy journalism. That’s different than what you do. Take Fox News for instance.
I don’t do “advocacy journalism” on my blog, if you take Fox and MSNBC as the prime examples today on TV. However, I can express my personal opinions a lot more candidly and colorfully in my blog than I can in the traditional journalism we practice at Wine Enthusiasm. That’s one of the pleasures of blogging. It’s on my Facebook page that I do true advocacy journalism. But I try to keep my politics out of my blog.
How do you negotiate the line between activism and journalism?
At the magazine, that line is kept rigorously bright by our New York-based editors, who impose strict journalistic standards that might be a little old-fashioned by today’s social media standards, but are very important nonetheless. Somebody has got to make sure that statements are based on fact and not just made up. On my blog, the standards are looser, I freely confess. However, there’s an enforcement mechanism that I would argue is every bit as powerful and effective as an editor: my credibility. If I was slinging unsubstantiated trash around on my blog, readers would long ago have lost respect for it.
[Continued from yesterday. This is the final installment. Have a great weekend!]
When did you leave the NFL?
My last training was 2007. I went from the Broncos to Houston, and at training camp, before the season, is when a lot of people get cut, and I got released in 2007.
What were your options on getting released?
What it was, when you’re released you’re a free agent, and what you do from there, you keep training, and waiting for the opportunity to come back to where you can go back with someone.
And you didn’t want to do that?
No. I didn’t want to, because–and it wasn’t just about wine. I was cracking. I was living away from my friends and family. I remember vividly walking around, primarily in Hispanic supermarkets, searching for wine. And I’ll tell you, I bought this great bottle of ‘97 Heitz, in 2001, for like $10! It was weird, what am I doing in my free time? I’m scrounging for wine in these Hispanic supermarkets in Houston. That’s where my mind was: my free time was collecting wine.
You got bit by the wine bug.
I did. And that’s what it was. I was spending time at steak houses. I was into dining. Drink wine, get away from the things I didn’t like. Money wasn’t a problem. I could shield myself from reality. Yes, I love football, yes, I wish I was still playing. But did I make the wrong decision, walking away? Because my dad and everyone was like, “What are you doing? There’s hiccups in careers. You don’t throw everything away you’ve built up.” And I’d say, “Yeah, but I’m jeopardizing someone I want to be.” Because I thought I would become someone in football I wasn’t.
Did your father have the remotest idea what you were talking about when you told him you were jeopardizing the person you wanted to be?
No. I don’t think he had the slightest idea, because, you know, everything I’ve told everyone about “This is who I want to be,” and I did, by all means, because that’s what I thought would bring me ultimate happiness, but it also brings me power. In a sense, I thought money was power, and power was prestige, and I could start commanding. I was becoming a very commanding person.
Was there some religious aspect to this? You didn’t turn into a born again Christian or something?
No. I was drinking wine every night, hiding out in wine bars! But spiritually, yeah, I remember reading a lot of Eckhart Tolle, a lot of spiritual stuff, meaning I had to start asking myself questions about what was I running from and who was I trying to be. And I decided that–and I knew what it was about. It was about fear, it was about anger. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t an angry person. I’ve never been in a fight in my life.
I guess you need some anger to be in the NFL.
That’s true, but I wanted power so I could command and get what I wanted in life. Not that I knew exactly what that was back then, because I didn’t see it as being bad.
I’m still not getting where it came from. Usually when people undergo that profound of a change, it’s due to something. Something happens. Somebody dies in their life, they take a psychedelic drug, whateveer. What happened to you?
What happened in football is I started getting the gits. [slang?] You know what happens in golf? Like, tremors? What was happening was the pressure started coming in on me, and I started cracking. I wasn’t that relaxed, free.
You mean, this would happen in the middle of a pressure play?
Exactly. I would just try to breathe through it. I would get very hypersensitive. I couldn’t–
Makes me remember watching Joe Montana in the pocket. He was so graceful and relaxed.
And it wasn’t just football. It was my friends. It was people that I started–the people that really knew me, I started breaking away from it. There were friends at that time that said, “You know what? You don’t realize what you’re becoming.”
What kind of friends?
These were my friends, people I knew very well in college.
How do you know they weren’t just jealous?
Well, because, deep down inside I’d start to see how I’d be, how I’d drink too much, how I’d walk around and I was very nice, but I was also–I wasn’t so–I was very judgmental.
Some wine drinkers are like that.
It’s not like you left one dysfunctional world and now you’re going into some pure, unblemished one.
I know that, but I also–I’m not saying I’m leaving an undustry that is filled with everything bad to an industry that is just bursting with good. That’s not it. But I also find that, to me, the people in the wine industry are more mindful, they’re more agriculturally based. I’ve found peace in the vineyards. It wasn’t just wine drinking, it was the idea of walking vineyards, of seeing the sun set and rise in vineyards.
Where were some of the first places you went?
Napa. I think it was with my mom. I did the big tours, like Beringer, just sat on the grass with my mother.
So these were not private, one on one tours for Bradlee Van Pelt.
Not at all.
You’d show up as a tourist.
As a tourist, regular guy walking around, asking questions. Couldn’t get enough. I was going to Cakebread, Quintessa. Again, it was the culture, the scenery. At that time, I didn’t quite understand the type of people who were in wine, because I was reading Wine Spectator and Enthusiast, and going buying wines that you would recommend. I’d buy a case of it, and that’s how I started out. I’d have 20, 30 cases lying around, but that’s how it was. I was passionate. And I just realized, at the same time, I was pressuring myself who I wanted to be. I wanted to understand me. I didn’t find it in wine, but wine helped me ease the transition, and gave me this clear path to leave who I was.
Where do you live now?
Where do you work?
Ergomotion, a manufacturer of adjustable foundations. So we work the bedding industry.
So you’re not in the wine industry?
Well, I have side projects. What I decided professionally, because of all these grand plans I have in wine–I’ve tried to buy a wine bar, I’ve tried to buy into a wine bar, that really turned out bad, partly because I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t trained in business.
So what are your side projects in wine?
Right now, we’re buying negociant style.
Me and a business partner. It’s how I’m setting up my early strategy. And as we buy wine, we’ll also start producing wine on a limited scale.
So you’re buying wine now? Where are you selling it?
We’re bottling right now. We’ll probably sell straight to restaurants.
Under what label?
Tributum. Some people will find it corny and cliched, and I understand it, but Tributum to me is, it’s my tribute to certain people, and to myself, and it sounds corny, but it’s to live up to the person I want to be. It is. It’s about giving back.
Do you have a website?
No. We’re going back and forth. We’re starting very small because there’s a lot of social media tactics I want to go after, and again, this is all to learn. It’s going back to square one. So it’s a time in my life to go and experiment. I want to custom crush in very limited quantities. This isn’t high end. It’s very price point driven, very strict on costs. I’m not about trying to undercut people. I just really enjoy wine, and I’ve got to start learning, to really see wine from a distributor, wholesaler perspective, and a producer.
Where would you like to be in ten years?
Ten years? I’d like to be a retailer of wine.
You mean, have a store?
Have multiple stores.
Like who? BevMo?
No. Not at all. Small and nimble. Like nothing you’ve seen. That’s something that arose in our first conversation, when I was actually talking to you, you were like, “Tell me more,” and I said, “Steve, I’d love to, but…”
You were all secretive.
Not because I’m the oracle, or that you’re looking at the next Howard Schultz [CEO, Starbucks] of wine. So part of going back to square one is that for me to be that retailer that I believe I can be, how do I do a paradigm shift in retailing, which I think I’m setting out to do, or at least, that’s what I want to do. If I have to go back to square one and, like, okay, I got to buy wine that’s finished, I got to sell it negociant, I got to custom crush, I got to learn those dynamics, I got to learn about distribution, really learn it, not just study or read it, not just work for wineries and not just travel, but actually distribute my own wine, and then I can enter the retail scene once I have proven successes underneath my belt, so that people aren’t going to look at me and, like, “So, kid, what makes you the next big retailer? Why is your idea so good?” And I’ll be able to go, “Well, this is why.” And that’s why I’m doing this, my current [mattress] work, a small company that allows me to head up certain projects within it, so that’s now sharpening my business sense in a different area from wine. So wine is my hobby; that’s what I do after work, that’s what I study at night, that’s when I meet people. In ten years, I assume I’ll be on a path to become the world’s largest wine retailer.
P.S. I hope to see you at the Chardonnay Symposium, which is tomorrow, Sat. July 23!