Wine Diarist

Antonio Galloni Talks Wine Advocate Collectors Series, Wine Advocate Ethics

Last Saturday, Antonio Galloni of The Wine Advocate hosted an event in New York called La Festa del Barolo. It was held at Manhattan’s Del Posto restaurant and consisted of an afternoon tasting and a gala dinner. In addition to Galloni, 15 top winemakers from Italy’s Piedmont region took part. The Festa del Barolo marked the debut of what is being called the Wine Advocate Collectors Series—high-end tastings sponsored by The Wine Advocate and presided over by Galloni, who covers Italy, Champagne, Burgundy, and California for the bimonthly journal and is Robert Parker’s designated heir. The next installment in the Collectors Series will be on April 27th, when Galloni, joined by Tenuta dell’Ornellaia winemaker Axel Heinz, will lead a complete vertical of Masseto at another Manhattan restaurant, Eleven Madison Park.

Judging by the recaps that have been posted online, La Festa del Barolo, which was modeled after La Paulée de New York, was a big success. But the event also caused some head-scratching, for it seemed to mark a significant albeit unacknowledged change in policy at The Wine Advocate. While Parker has done public tastings on behalf of other organizations, The Wine Advocate has evidently never sponsored events of its own. Nor was La Festa del Barolo a philanthropic endeavor, although an auction to benefit victims of the Japan earthquake was added to the program belatedly. By all appearances, the Galloni tasting was a for-profit event; when you purchased a ticket, your payment was directed to a recently incorporated entity called All Grapes Media LLC, which is based in Westchester County, New York, where Galloni resides.

But the most surprising aspect of the tasting was the presence of the 15 winemakers, all of whose wines are reviewed by Galloni. This seemed a clear departure from Parker’s ethical guidelines, which have long been the industry standard in the eyes of other journalists, myself included. Parker has always said that wine critics must keep their distance from the trade in order to not compromise their independence. In his words, “It can be no other way.” In 2009, The Wine Advocate came under fire when it was learned that two of its reviewers, Jay Miller and Mark Squires, had taken press junkets, which contravened Parker’s edict against accepting “gratuitous hospitality.” In response, Parker amended his rules and said that Wine Advocate contributors would be held to a slightly more flexible standard when it came to travel and to interacting with member of the trade. However, nothing in his revised code of conduct could be read as opening the door to events such as La Festa del Barolo and the Masseto dinner.

Curious to find out more about the Collectors Series, I contacted Galloni earlier this week, and he was kind enough to spend two hours on the phone with me discussing these tastings and the concerns they have raised. Galloni, 40, became a wine critic in 2004, when he launched his own publication called the Piedmont Report. He was hired by Parker in 2006, and worked for The Wine Advocate while also holding down a job on Wall Street. In an interview last year, Parker said that he considered Galloni his likely successor. In February, he effectively made it official: he announced that Galloni was becoming a full-time critic and that in addition to Italy and Champagne, he was being given responsibility for California and Burgundy. I have never met Galloni; by all accounts, he is very smart and personable, and that’s certainly how he came across during our conversation.

photo credit: Elizabeth Leitzell

Galloni said he was happy to discuss the Collectors Series. “I want to be accessible,” he said, “and I believe in transparency.” He told me the Collectors Series was his idea and that the motivation was to create “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for my readers”; to call more attention to Italian wines; and to help extend The Wine Advocate brand. He said that he has done tastings on behalf of other groups, and has often felt that these events fell short in one way or another—that the stemware was inadequate, or the pours were too small. He believed that he could do better, that he could provide a “flawless experience” that would give people the chance to taste amazing wines and to mingle with acclaimed producers. “It is about bringing wine to people, and I want people to feel the same connection to these wines that I do,” he said.

The 15 wineries that participated in La Festa del Barolo were personally invited by Galloni and included some of Piedmont’s most celebrated names—Bruno Giacosa, Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Mascarello, Roberto Voerzio, and Giuseppe Rinaldi. Galloni said they were chosen on the basis of “long-term track records of excellence.” Each producer contributed one case of wine for the afternoon tasting and brought one or two magnums to the dinner. The wines were provided free of charge, and the winemakers paid for their own travel and lodging. One of the Champagnes served at the dinner, the 2002 Dom Pérignon, was also provided gratis (Galloni purchased the other Champagne that was poured, the 2002 Pierre Peters Cuvée Spéciale Les Chétillons).

By Galloni’s estimate, it would have cost some $50,000 to have picked up the tab for all the wines and the travel. He said he could have charged more for tickets, but this was his first attempt at such an event and he didn’t want to make it “really expensive”: he thought it was important to keep the price under $1000 (the afternoon tasting was $300, the dinner $700; for $900, guests could attend both). He said he had the option of seeking corporate sponsorship or advertising, but felt that this had the potential to create conflicts of interest. The most palatable option, in his view, was to have the winemakers donate the wines and cover their own expenses. And according to Galloni, the producers were “thrilled” that this was all that was asked of them. He said that at other events, wineries often have to pay to play—they are required to fork over hefty fees if they wish to participate. (Ornellaia is supplying free of charge all the bottles for the Masseto event; tickets are $1195 per person.)

Galloni confirmed that All Grapes Media is his company and that La Festa del Barolo was a for-profit event. With around 100 people at the afternoon session and some 150 at the dinner, it ended up turning a profit. He didn’t say how much; he said only that the $50,000 raised during the charity auction was “substantially more.” He said that All Grapes Media was responsible for all the expenses and received all the proceeds. Asked if The Wine Advocate profited from the event, he replied that “it benefits the entire business, in that it builds brand visibility.” He told me money was not a factor in his decision to hold the Barolo tasting and that if the bottom line had been his primary concern, he wouldn’t have paid $5000 out of his own pocket to get better lighting for the venue. Plus, there are easier ways to generate cash flow: he said he had just turned down an invitation to do several speaking engagements in Asia that would have earned him double what La Festa del Barolo brought in, and for a lot less work.

I asked if Parker had approved of La Festa del Barolo and the Collectors Series. “Yeah, sure,” he said, later explaining that Parker was not the micromanaging type and that he “hires the best people and lets them do their thing.” I pointed out that hosting a for-profit tasting with producers whose wines are reviewed by The Wine Advocate seemed at odds with Parker’s ethical guidelines. Galloni said he made clear to the wineries that participation or non-participation in the Barolo event would have no bearing on their ratings (he invited 18 producers in total; one said no and two had scheduling conflicts). He also said that during the dinner, he sat at a table that did not have a winemaker present because he did not want to be seen as favoring one over the others. I suggested that wineries that were left out might feel aggrieved. Wouldn’t, say, Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger be a little irked that Dom Pérignon was poured?  Galloni said that for this very reason, he plans to change the wines at each event. For instance, Champagne Salon will be the aperitif at the Masseto tasting, and Taittinger will be served on another occasion.

Galloni acknowledged that the controversy involving Miller and Squires has brought heightened scrutiny to The Wine Advocate. “I’m not naïve—I recognize that some of my colleagues haven’t behaved in the most forthright manner,” he told me. But he went to say that there is a “tendency to always presume the worst” about The Wine Advocate and that he didn’t believe La Festa del Barolo deviated from Parker’s code of conduct. He said that he scrupulously adheres to those standards and would like to see them made even more stringent. “Keeping the trade at arm’s length is very important,” he said. “You can come over to my house on a Sunday afternoon, and you are not going to find my kids playing with some importer’s kids.” He said Wine Advocate subscribers have no reason to fear that his reviews will be compromised by events such as La Festa del Barolo or the Masseto tasting: “I want to sleep at night knowing that what I wrote is what I believe; I want to know that I can stand behind everything I write for the next 30 years.”

Galloni said he hopes to make La Festa del Barolo an annual event, perhaps even turn it into a weekend-long celebration. He is open to making changes in how it is structured; if, for instance, people would rather that he cover all the expenses and are willing to pay more to attend, he would consider it. But he also indicated that he is not wedded to doing the Collectors Series; if it casts doubt on The Wine Advocate’s trustworthiness, he would have to think about whether to proceed. “We have a business and are trying to figure out areas for growth,” he said. “Change is sometimes uncomfortable for people. This seemed like a good idea, but maybe it wasn’t. I’m not interested in destroying long-term value. But so far, people have responded very positively.”