When I interview people, they (or their P.R. reps) often ask for my questions in advance. I always say no. If you feed them their questions before the interview, they’ll rehearse the answers, making for a phony interview that’s of no use to anyone.
I get interviewed myself from time to time. I never know what my interviewers are going to ask me and I don’t want to know. I like the thinking-on-your-feet aspect of an interview, especially when it’s a live broadcast, without a safety net to catch you if you fall. You have to be conscious on several different levels. You want to be cogent, sound reasonably intelligent, current on events, perhaps be funny, not say anything demonstrably false, and keep up with your interviewer. When I was recently interviewed (for the second time) by Laura Lawson on her “Wine Crush” radio show, all these parameters applied, especially the latter: keeping up with Laura Lawson is no easy task! She’s got a great talk radio personality, meaning it’s her show, she’s the boss, you go where Laura wants to go. She’s got strong opinions, and the leash she puts you on isn’t particularly long.
But I like that! I like my women like I like my wine: powerful. I thought it would be fun to share my interview with you here on the old blog. (Sorry for the commercials, especially the one on acne. I don’t come on until about halfway through, so if you want to advance the feed, feel free–and you can also fast-forward through the subsequent commercials.) I had no idea what Laura was going to ask me, because I hadn’t heard the introductory part of her spiel, where she explains her “shiny object” theory of wine: the “new stuff,” the “newest, the coolest” things that apply to almost every consumable: new and improved cereal, laundry detergent, TV sets and, yes, wine. This is the “shiny object”, and Laura wondered how much shininess is too much shininess in wine–things designed to grab our attention.
This isn’t something I’d given a moment’s thought to, so when Laura started off by asking me if some wineries are getting gimmicky (offering flip-flops, balloons, flowers, pens, perfume and so on with the purchase), I was a little unprepared. When she said, “This is our shiny object show,” I was like, uh oh–I have no idea what she’s talking about, so I was glad that she extended her opening question with a couple questions-within-questions, so I could think a little. But if you listen to my answer, you can hear me hedging a little. I always see everything from six different points of view (that’s the Gemini in me), so as soon as I say “black,” I see the white, and the purple, and the polka dot, and I have to frame my answer accordingly.
Anyway, the reason I like chatting with Laura is because our conversations are never stilted. I wrote yesterday about canned conversations, the kind neither party really wants to have but for some reason both have to have. Traditional interviews often go that way. I’d love to have an interview with a winemaker (or owner or publicist or whatever) where we both agreed to talk about anything but wine. Maybe start off with a little politics, or philosophy, or TV shows, or our earliest memory as children, or favorite restaurants, or all-time favorite books, and take it from there. Wine will enter the discussion at some point; it always does. In a fluid, living conversation, people end up talking about stuff they love (or hate).
Of course, the risk of a fluid, living conversation is that it can lead into cul-de-sacs that go nowhere. But what’s wrong with that? It happened in my conversation with Laura (can you detect where they are?), but people of good will can always agree to quickly change direction, back up and find the conversational path again.
Anyhow, this interview represents an aspect of me you might not see if you’re only familiar with my writing. I’d like to do more interviews. They’re fun, and as the interviewee, I always learn something to make me a better interviewer. Interviewing is like dancing: it takes a lot of practice to get good at it, and the more you do it, the better you get.
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.