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A conversation with Antonio Galloni: Part 2

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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.

AG: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SH: So you do all of California.

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow: Antonio talks more about his job.


A conversation with Antonio Galloni: Part 1

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

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

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

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


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

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

SH: What were you doing at the Symposium?

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

SH: How was that?

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

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

AG: Since 2006.

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

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

SH: So which regions do you cover now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SH: You kind of have to get warmed up.

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

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

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

SH: How do you stay in shape?

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

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

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

Tomorrow, Antonio Galloni on tasting open versus tasting blind.


Spotlight: Cameron Hughes

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With this post, I’m introducing a new, occasional feature to my blog: Spotlight. I’ll be writing about interesting people doing interesting things in the wine and food biz. If you’d like to be spotlighted, or know someone who should be, let me know.

I’ve been a fan of Cameron Hughes’ wines for years. An admirer of the man, too. He took a business model–the negociant–that was far from a proven success, and made it work. I’ve given a lot of Best Buys to Cameron Hughes wines over the years. His Cabernets and Bordeaux blends are some of the best values on the market.

• age — 40.
• company name — Cameron Hughes Wine
• title
— CEO
• founding date — 2001
• HQ — San Francisco
• # employees — 25 + 400 contractors
• total case sales — approx. 400,000
• rank, U.S. wine companies – #31
• # SKUs produced – over 100 this year
• why so many? — The idea is to preserve the initial identity and quality of the source wine.
• most expensive wine – $28 [Stags Leap and Napa Valley Cabs]
• cheapest wine — $5 Romanian
• how many countries do you make wine from? — At least ten
• do you level off or keep growing? – Keep growing. Sky’s the limit.
• your background in a few sentences – Started as cellar rat at Corbett Canyon, went into marketing and sales with The Wine Group. Worked at an importer for a year, then started this company.
• born – Modesto. Dad worked for Gallo, then Wine Group.
• describe Cameron Hughes Wine in 1 sentence – We’re a virtual winery and negociant company.
• how find/select your wines? — Through turning stones over. Brokers bring us deals, and we actively go out and try to acquire partnerships and wines. And people come to us.
• are there confidentiality agreements? — Yes. At the very high end, a few folks require those. Folks sell bulk wine for a variety of reasons. For example, we get between 13,000-16,000 gallons of wine blended for us from a super-super high end Napa producer I can’t identify. They’re component wines that didn’t fit into their blends. So they purpose-build blend it for us, not just dregs.
• what do you drink at home – Everything. I buy lots of different wines from lots of retailers all the time. I’m constantly trying new and different things. I’m very eclectic.
• hobbies? — Big skier. Newbie triathlete. Rehabbing my shoulder so I can swim.


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