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What does the Galloni purchase of Tanzer mean to wine criticism?



It is, I suppose, the fault of the historian and logician in me that I’m always looking for the meaning of things. I’ve always thought that all things are connected in some mysterious way, and that certain events have implications, not only for how the future will unfold, but for trying to understand where we are now. Such an event is the purchase of Steven Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar by Antonio Galloni, which hit the airwaves yesterday via dueling press releases.

The context here is several-fold. One, both Tanzer and Galloni are enormously influential in this little world of wine criticism in which I and, I assume, most of my readers dwell. Antonio got his fame after being employed by Robert Parker to write for The Wine Advocate, which is how I met him (for the first and only time), at a tasting at the Culinary Institute of America, where Antonio was kind enough to give me a very long interview, which I turned into a three-part blog post. (Here’s the link to part one.)

I was very grateful to Antonio for that (he probably knew enough about me to know that my blog could be, ahem, a little controversial). I went away from that experience thinking what a gallant, intelligent and well-bred mensch Antonio is.

Tanzer I never met; not that I recall. But he’s always loomed in my mind because of the huge reputation he’d garnered among the people I respect: winemakers, sommeliers and folks like that. Tanzer’s name was one of those that mattered in high-class wine reviewing. So what I’m trying to say is that both Galloni and Tanzer earned my respect.

For years we’ve been tracking the evolution of wine criticism, the dualism of print journalism versus online, the gradual fading away of my Baby Boomer generation, and we’ve all tried to figure out what’s coming next. Who will matter? How will wine criticism and recommending work in the next decade and beyond? For me, a major question has been: Will there continue to be super-important critics (and their associated publications), or will wine critiquing become so crowd-sourced (due to the sheer magnitude of blogs) that no one voice will have national or international authority?

My answer to the latter question has consistently been: We will continue to have “important critics” because some fundamental part of human nature demands it. Humans want “authorities” to tell them what to buy, and to justify their tastes, especially in an area like wine that’s so confusing, subjective, emotional and, let us admit it, irrational. A few years ago, at the height of the blogosphere’s insistence that “critics don’t matter,” I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. It seemed to me to be wishful thinking on the part of the many (who wanted a piece of the action), against the power and influence of the few (of which, until last Spring, I was part). But I always thought that someone would take the place of the Parkers, Laubes, etc. of wine criticism.

Now, with this acquisition of Tanzer, it appears that Antonio’s Vinous is moving forcibly into a position of great influence and its associated power. I welcome this. Both men seemed marked by fairness and objectivity, and an indifference to external influence. Both men, too (as well as their teams) are profoundly talented. So we could be looking at the next great force in wine writing.

The one question that remains for me is whether or not this new Vinous will address itself chiefly to super-ultrapremium wine, or will examine wines from all price points. This is a decision, obviously, that Antonio and his business partners will have to address, and I hope they will review everything, from under $10 wines to the rarest and most expensive bottles. If my two cents is worth anything, that’s the way to go.

So it seems to me that the meaning of this marriage is that wine criticism is consolidating among a younger generation, who will continue to publish both online and in hard copy. The torch is being passed, folks, and IMHO it couldn’t be placed into better hands.

  1. We live in a world where success increasingly comes from oligopolies.

    (See this 1999 article from the Los Angeles Times “Special Report: Corporate Concentration Paradox”:

    “The New Oligopoly Boom”


    And some would defend modern-day monopolies.

    (See this contentious guest essay in The Wall Street Journal:

    “Peter Thiel: Competition Is for Losers”


  2. Jake Fetzer says:

    I too hope that they review a wide spectrum if wines. Interesting in their press release that no reviewer was responsible for Mendocino wines (unless I missed it).

  3. People do look for a leader – an authority figure – to guide them in many of the choices they make daily. Choosing a wine is only one. And I agree: all price ranges. Informative and interesting article.

  4. I think you make some strong points on the future of wine criticism and recommendations. To speak to your question on the sea of voices in this new landscape: We increasingly have ways of quantifying credibility–through things such as “followers” or “likes” or “subscribers.” It’s not a perfect system yet (see: Klout’s failure), but I’ve seen a number of wine websites and apps where prolific writers/reviewers with interesting things to say are building strong audiences. In a way, the “authorities” of the future won’t need bylines in major newspapers or wine periodicals–they’ll just need to prove themselves worthy of attention among their peers.

  5. George Ronay says:

    I agree, and always felt that Antonio had the better palate for Italian wines anyway. Since I couldn’t afford any good Burgundies, I never paid that much attention to Tanzer!! I hope that they do “deign” to review some of the more readily available wines. Although it’s interesting to read about the DRC releases, the day has long since passed that I can think of affording to purchase one. It will be interesting to see how these two proceed – is a merger with Mr. Suckling the next step? Will the point inflation start to ease? Stay tuned……

  6. Daniel Dycus says:

    I wonder if the day will ever come when we would use statistical measures to give consumer’s real insight into how something might taste? I mean, we use Yelp don’t we? I used to think that sensory science was the answer to the few critics who seem too be biased or opinionated on one matter or the other. I also thought the advent of new genetically modified yeasts with beta lyase activity meant the industry as a whole would also recognize a need for more in terms of the rigors of science and mathematics both in the marketing side and consumer front-end. I guess Mr. Heimhoff is right. Consumers need an authority, not a panel. I sometimes wonder what Maynard Amerine would say about the power of the critic.

  7. I’m not sure what Dr. Amerine would say generally, but having sat on tasting panels with him some time ago, I can tell you that he had no fear of blind tasting or of expressing himself.

    In fact, one of my favorite memories from one of those tasting panels came when Amerine and Joe Heitz got into a bit of cat fight about tannin in red wine. Surprisingly, Heitz was critical of a young wine for being too tough to drink at that moment and thus not worthy of a medal. Amerine disagreed. The real kicker, of course, is that the best Heitz wine, the Martha’s Vyd was one that belonged in the cellar.

    As for critics/authority figures. No matter how much influence an individual voice may have on free platforms, it is only when that voice is followed by the big buyers (meaning up-scale stores, restaurants and collectors) and thus moves a lot of wine, that any of the new voices will become an authority.

  8. Steve,

    You can use this subject to springboard to conducting an unscientific sampling of your blog readers:

    “What or who do you turn to for wine recommendation and wine selection advice?”

    — Special interest wine magazine? [Please list the title(s).]
    — Newspaper wine column? [Please list the newspaper and writer’s byline.]
    — Wine blogs? [Please list.]
    — Wine store personnel? [In-person conversation or website content or e-mail blast.]
    — Wine store or grocery store wine aisle “shelf talkers”?
    — A trusted family member who is a wine enthusiast?
    — A trusted friend / neighbor / co-worker who is a wine enthusiast?

    Years ago, the California wine merchant The Wine Club (San Francisco Bay Area and Orange County) habitually conducted a survey of its mailed newsletter recipients.

    The responses were summarized and published in an annual edition.

    Among the questions asked was which wine media did the customers read.

    The spectrum was interesting to note.

    Today, I am not aware of any wine merchant conducting such surveys — or publicly sharing the results.


  9. Great news and should be good for everyone now that Parker is no longer the big picture of wine criticism. And in the eye of Costco it is Tanzer now!

  10. I don’t believe wine criticism is going to change now that Galloni and Tanzer have joined forces. Perhaps Tanzer is not doing well financially? Perhaps Tanzer and Galloni are both struggling? Perhaps both are doing well, but by joining forces they feel that they can generate more revenue together?

    Galloni and Suckling have put together slick multimedia sites that feature high-end videos. Although Tanzer, Parker and Wine Spectator are doing the same to a degree, their sites are not as slick. Also, one could argue that there are too many players in the wine ratings business, and consolidation is bound to occur.

    IMHO, all these wine rating companies (besides Parker who charges a minimal fee) have a problem because they allow wine retailers to publish their reviews for free. I have stated this before, but I believe the power is shifting to wine retailers. They have the wines in stock, and in this day and age it is all about finding the best values, and the top wine retailers have no problem finding plenty of great wines. Best bottle of CA Cabernet I had last year was the 1999 St. Supery Dollarhide Ranch Limited Edition Cabernet. Spectator gave it 92 points. Release price was $70, and I paid $50 at K&L in late 2012. My point is that I bought a 92 point wine, that was perfectly aged for $20 less than the release price. These deals are everywhere, but I didn’t buy it because Spectator gave it a 92 point rating (drink through 2010). In fact, I just found out it was a 92 point wine. I just asked a sales guy at K&L for their best bottle of California Cabernet for under $50.

    As it relates to wine retailers, some of these merchants (K&L & JJ Buckley to name a few) provide detailed vintage reports for free. These reports are quite good, and I feel that wine drinkers are going to opt for a free report from their wine retailer than pay subscription fees. It is a safe bet, that these retailers are going to produce more of these reports in the future.

  11. Dave Erickson says:

    My question: Will Galloni and Tanzer harmonize their rankings? Stephen is far more stingy with points than Antonio.

  12. I’m with Bob… Oligopolies are ruling, most especially since we’ve gone so global. Inevitable, for better or worse.

  13. A subsequent news report on mergers and acquisitions . . .

    Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (November 26, 2014, Page B1ff):

    “Tie-Ups Often Weigh Down Buyers;
    Wall Street cheers mergers, but studies show acquirers usually perform worse than their rivals over time.”


    By Dean Starkman
    Times Staff Writer

    Wall Street’s big business — helping companies buy other companies — is hotter than it’s been in years.

    . . .

    Lost in the hubbub: a raft of studies showing that over time, most of the deals will not work out. The buyer, the apparent winner in the deal, will be worse off than before.

    “It’s a big risk. You’re willing to pay more for a company than anybody else in the world thought it was worth,” said Mark L. Sirower, author, lecturer and principal at Deloitte Consulting in New York. “You’ve got to do your homework.”

    Sirower, a specialist in mergers and acquisitions, is among a number of scholars to compile evidence over several decades showing that, on average, the buyer ends up performing worse financially than its rivals over time.

    Sirower . . . was studying bankruptcies as a graduate student at Columbia University in the early 1990s when he noticed that many of them had been preceded by a merger that had gone sour.

    His doctoral dissertation turned into a well-regarded book, “The Synergy Trap,” first published in 1997 and cited hundreds of times since.

    One study of 302 significant deals, for instance, found that “on average, acquirers underperformed their industry peers in providing returns to shareholders.” Earlier studies showed that as many as 60% of all deals turned out poorly for the buyer, with the damage ranging from the marginal to the disastrous.

    The data seem counterintuitive, given the hoopla that surrounds most deals. The initial publicity invariably is dominated by the combining firms themselves and their Wall Street matchmakers, which have had plenty of time to polish their sales jobs while deals are being secretly negotiated.

    It’s only later that historic flops crop up. . . .

    The culprit in bad mergers, he found, was price — specifically, the difference between the higher bid and the lower stock price, known as the premium.

    The higher the premium, the more likely the deal was to go sour because buyers had to find savings and increased revenue, known in corporate-speak as synergies, that no one else had seen to make up the difference. More often than not, the synergies were elusive, hence the trap.

    “Acquiring firms destroy shareholder value,” as Sirower bluntly put it in the book. “This is a plain fact.”

    To be sure, many deals do work out well for both seller and buyer — a key reason companies keep merging. And evidence suggests that sellers are so well paid that their gains offset the losses of the buyer, meaning, on some level, society is marginally better off, Sirower said.

  14. Galloni is a MIT MBA grad, schooled in Wall Street practices.

    His bio:

  15. Shane Moore says:

    Hi Steve:

    Long time reader – first time commenter:

    I have really nothing to contribute to the discussion regarding the Vinous / IWC merger beyond that I look forward to seeing what they publish in the future, and that I hope them all the best.

    My comment concerns the “important critics” of the future – regarding your question “How will wine criticism and recommending work in the next decade and beyond?”

    IMHO I am not personally convinced that it will be something such as the “sheer number of blogs,” nor the idea that “Humans want “authorities” to tell them what to buy” which will be the driving forces of wine reviews 10 years down the track.

    Many Millennials (myself included) rely primarily on a peer review system to help us find places to eat, where to go, and what to drink. Yelp is a prime example. With the rapidly expanding world of social media this trend should continue to get more and more prevalent.

    It’s a continuously smaller world; and most curious wine drinkers aren’t far removed from a person(s) connected to either the wine sales or production industries. They’ve drank wine with these friends and peers, and will trust their opinions first.

    Steve: I searched for you on Delectable I and couldn’t find you.? If you haven’t heard this is probably the start of the next revolution in wine criticism (I am in no way paid by these guys and actually work for the same company as you.)

    Follow me @ usernamer Shane Mohr and many your other peers at their own names.

    Your coworker and future Delectable follower,
    Shane Moore

  16. Substitute “food and wine reviews” for movie reviews . . .

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Calendar” Section
    (March 9, 2010, Page D8):

    “Critics’ Ranks Thin Out”


    By Patrick Goldstein
    “The Big Picture” Column

    . . . Virtually every survey has shown that younger audiences have zero interest in critics. They take their cues for what movies to see from their peers, making decisions based on the buzz they’ve heard on Facebook, Twitter or some other form of social networking.

    . . .

  17. And see this article on the historical origin of film rating systems . . . which likewise can be applied to food and wine:

    From The Wall Street Journal “Main News” Section
    (January 23, 2009, Page A12):

    “Let’s Rate the Ranking Systems of Film Reviews;
    The Stars, Grades and Thumbs Applied to Movies Suffer From Lackluster Performance, Low Production Values”


    [See accompanying exhibit]

    By Carl Bialik
    “The Numbers Guy” Column

  18. Hello Friends
    Being a wine critic is a young persons game, and for that matter so is wine importing! Traveling from continent to continent, in the cold and wet of winter after a few decades gets old!
    To do a great job you must be on the road non stop to do it well! I think all the hard work Steve Tanzer has done, has earned him a bit less stress and road time. I was there with him on his early trips in Burgundy, he works hard,
    his days were long and very demanding! I wish he and Antonio great success in finding the ultimate balance– best of luck …BK

  19. Bob Henry says:

    Dear “Mr. K.”:

    Here is a “fly on the wall” take on another wine critic’s grinding road trips in the name of “field research.”

    Los Angeles Times media critic-turned-wine writer David Shaw shadowed Robert Parker on his annual trip to Napa circa 1998.

    Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (February 23, 1999, Page A1ff):

    “He Sips and Spits — and the World Listens;
    Wine writer Robert Parker may be the planet’s most powerful critic.
    His controversial views influence the industry and its sales globally,
    and have helped increase consumers’ knowledge.”
    (Series: First of Two Articles)


    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

    On a chilly early fall morning in the Napa Valley, the Most Powerful Man in the World of Wine–unseasonably attired in a short-sleeved shirt and shorts–stands next to his white rental car in the parking lot at the Meadowood Resort. There’s a boyish half-smile on his lips and a small, inch-thick notebook in his left hand. At 51, his Rabelaisian love of food — and 25 years of drinking two bottles of wine a day — HAVE ADDED 80 POUNDS TO HIS 6-FOOT, 1-INCH FRAME. HE NOW WEIGHTS 265 POUNDS, AND HIS WALK IS BEGINNING TO RESEMBLE A WADDLE — a reasonably fast waddle, to be sure, but a waddle nonetheless.

    [Bob’s aside: The waddle being a early manifestation of Parker’s health issues. Subsequent excerpt:

    “How much wine does he actually drink–not just taste, drink?

    ” ‘I used to drink about two bottles a day’ he says, ‘but when I hit my mid-40s, I figured it was wise to cut back to a little more than one a day.’

    “How is his health?

    ” ‘I’VE GOT GOUT. All that rich food, no doubt. Apart from that, it’s excellent. Twice a year I get my liver examined and my blood tested and I have a top nose and throat guy check my tongue and mouth and lips.’ “]

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