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!
Bradlee Van Pelt was an NFL quarterback during his career with the Denver Broncos and the Houston Texans. As the the son of the late, great NFL linebacker, Brad Van Pelt, he was born to play professional football. Bradlee, who’s only 31, left the NFL in 2007, in the throes of a dramatic personal transformation: he’d fallen in love with wine, and decided to devote the rest of his life to learning about it and succeeding in a wine career. We chatted over a couple glasses of wine in Oakland.
This is part one of a three part series.
BRADLEE: When I explain the story to people about who I was before and who I am now, they don’t really buy it. They think I’m coming up with an excuse, in the sense of why football didn’t work out. And I don’t really tell everyone. I don’t tell people about my past. You won’t find it hanging on my walls, you won’t find me telling of myself who I was, before, because that was a different person. It’s someone I know, and someone I still look at in the mirror at times, but the transformation I saw in myself was of who I was, and who I wanted to be. And so when I got into wine, and I saw the people in this small little wine bar, hanging, drinking wine, swirling, talking about life, and culture, ideas, I felt so happy and so relieved that I didn’t have to feel a pressure anymore, I didn’t have to be somebody. They didn’t care about my money, or what I drove, the clothes I wore. To me, the culture was very inviting, and not stigmatizing.
SH: When you were with your athlete friends, did you feel pressure from them? I would think that was your peer group, that you’d have a relaxation and comfort with them.
The problem is, you have an image to live up to. And you don’t realize it, because you’re in that bubble, where all your friends have money, some have a lot more than others. You’re all wealthy. You’re going to be way upper class, even if you’re young, it doesn’t matter, 22 year olds, 32 year olds. So you don’t really get a different perspective. And you also expect to pay for things, whether it’s for your friends from the football team or friends outside of it. You don’t want to be seen as cheap, right? You don’t want to be seen as someone who doesn’t fulfill their idea of what a professional athlete should be. And that creates a lot of conflict, because you are starting to become someone who you think you should be, instead of the person you want to be.
What’s wrong with being wealthy?
I don’t think there’s anything. I mean, I’m still trying to become wealthy, in a sense. But it’s not all money-driven in wine. I figure I can make money, enjoy myself and be a better person, a nicer person, a more compassionate person. I mean, in football, it’s very hard to be compassionate, because you have no idea what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.
You can’t be compassionate on the field, but once you leave the game, can’t you be a nice, compassionate guy?
Well, sometimes you can, and there are people out there who are very nice and compassionate. What I mean by “compassionate” is someone who works 40, 50 hours a week, who’s trying to make ends meet, and how difficult it can be in our system, whether it’s our tax system, or if you’re a mother trying to raise kids, like I saw my own mother. You really don’t have a perspective of that. You can say you’re compassionate, but a lot of football players have a need. But to me, it’s a greed, to acquire more reputation, more prestige, cars. It’s really an image thing. We live in a very image-conscious culture right now, and when you have money, and you’re a professional athlete, it’s heightened, because now, everyone’s looking at you.
You didn’t want to go a Deion Sanders route.
I didn’t want to go that, and I didn’t want to just be a professional athlete. I thought it was very limiting. But I didn’t realize this at first, all the things I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want to be like my dad, caught in the traffic of having females all around me. I mean, it’s good and fancy while it’s happening, but you don’t see all the extra pressure, the image pressure, the sexual pressure.
Most people who listen to you will go, what the heck is wrong with this guy? He’s complaining because he had too much money, too much sex, too much nice stuff, too good a life. Where does that come from?
I think it comes from, I forgot what it was like to be a regular person. You’re built up as a kid. I saw my dad, he became very high, and he became quite low, too. So right in front of me I saw someone who had a lot and kind of lost it. I also had people around me who said “You don’t know how to value a dollar, you don’t know how to treat people. You don’t remember people’s names. They just forgive you because of who you are.” So I was learning life lessons.
Weren’t there any peers in the NFL you could use as role models, who were managing to do it in a graceful way, so you could have done it the right way, instead of abandoning it completely?
Well, I could have. And that was something that my family, my agent, and people around me were telling me, as I left Houston and decided I need to go back to California and hide out. I need to just walk away. They said, “Why? Can’t you just regroup?” And I said, “No, it’s not like that, because if I go back into it, it’s me clawing.” Because that’s how I felt, I was clawing to rise to the ranks of the NFL. Not only because I thought I had the talent, but because I wasn’t going to let anybody tell me I couldn’t do something.
In any industry, you have to claw to be at the top, if that’s your ambition. And so you’re going to be clawing to get to the top in wine, too.
Well, I am, but I think I can claw and still be a better person, a better brother. What I mean by more compassionate is knowing what it’s like to walk in a person’s shoes, a regular American’s shoes. And I know that’s hard, because that’s putting everyone in a group. But I mean getting up in the morning, putting on a shirt, going to work, having to report to someone, working for $15 an hour, $20 an hour. It’s really hard to understand that until you do. The only time I understood my brother and my friends for the first time is when I started working. I used to be preach to everyone: Make sure you go work out and save your money, and they used to look at me and be like, “Why don’t you just shut up? You don’t know what it’s like. You work out for a living, you get paid X amount of dollars, you travel so you’re always relaxed.” And I was like, Well, that’s a good point, but darn it, I work hard, so I deserve it! I felt–a lot of us in the NFL feel–entitled. And I really believe that, in a lot of professional sports, you felt entitled, because you worked hard.
One of the things I want you to amplify on is, last time we chatted, you were talking about how you’d be out with your NFL friends, they’d be chugging Dom or Cristal, and you’d be talking about swirling and sniffing, and they would look at you like, Dude!
I remember bringing it up with you. It was almost feminine, being like soft. “What are you doing, swirling wine, philosophizing? What are you trying to find about wine? Why do you keep swirling it? What is this? Why?” Because very few people did it. It wasn’t looked at like going out and drinking beer with the guys. I mean, you’re sitting there wanting to go into wine bars, sit down in dimly lit areas and drink wine. And very few understood it. The majority of people, they looked at me being that odd, almost eccentric person.
I asked you before if you were gay, because–were they looking at you that way? “Dude, you’re not married, you’re swirling wine…?”
Yeah. You know, I can’t say anyone ever thought I was gay, but I could see from the course of when I was quite young, to today, I’ve gotten along with both heterosexual people and with homosexual people, and at times, people have joked, they’ve thrown out, “You must be gay or something, because you don’t seem to really chase women.” I mean, male contact is perfectly fine with me, touching someone. A lot of things didn’t bother me. But at the same time, I could see how that created a lot of interesting relationships with people, because I was very open, and I never was scared or worried about another male’s responsiveness.
Tomorrow: Part two.