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Antonio Galloni Talks Wine Advocate Collectors Series, Wine Advocate Ethics

2011 April 1
by Mike

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.”

38 Responses leave one →
  1. September 11, 2013

    Really no matter if someone doesn’t know after that its up to other users that they will help, so here it takes place.

  2. Matt permalink
    July 2, 2013

    What the heck is wrong with a for profit wine tasting event? Most wine tasting events are either directly or indirectly for profit. The illusion that it might serve some philanthropic purpose is a mask to fool folks like you who don’t understand, like the art of wine making itself, it is an effort to turn a buck.

  3. simone permalink
    March 4, 2013

    Sorry for my english, he was born in Caracas from Italian(Sicily) origin family, and his parents has italian wine shop…
    from his life
    “Although Antonio had grown up in a family that appreciated good food and wine, suddenly those things were a vital part of everyday life. These years were the beginning of Antonio’s deep love for the wines of Burgundy and Piedmont. While in Italy, Antonio spent virtually every free moment in the cellars of Piedmont soaking up the culture of the magical hills around Asti and Alba.”

  4. Wilfred permalink
    March 3, 2013

    Interesting comments. As an aside, I’m not sure you are aware of this, but Antonio is from South America, not Italy.

  5. SIMONE permalink
    March 3, 2013

    Are you really thinking that a wall street manager, and sicilian too, wouldn’t think about future income?
    He just wants to elevate the Italian super Cru to create a bigger difference from the great value bottles, as you know in here prices never get too crazy, and waht i think he is tryng to do from his recent “actions”, is just to rise up the levels.
    I’m almost sure is got a big cellar of Barolo and supertuscan, but most important he is tryng to bring up to the world the south italian wines.
    It could be for 2 reasons to me, the first is that he got business behind(partecipation in wineyards, stock of bottles etc… just think if he discovers a great wine from a small producer, he just get undreds of bottles as investment, then just publish a lot about that wine, prices rise…) and this is the reason because i’m of sicilian origin too
    the second is the one i think more as i can read from his last works, the love for the tastes he grow up with, just think of leaving your country, your mother land, where the smells and the tastes are like nowhere else, and now just think if when you drink a glass of wine some of those notes come up from your mouth or nose straight to your soul, you can be as professional as you like, but i think that emotions give a big effort to the judgment….

  6. John S. permalink
    April 6, 2011

    This is so wrong. If he left a high-paying job for a full-time writing gig, that’s his call. He’s a big boy and should know the salary hit he’d be taking. For anybody to say “well, he needs to pick up the pay slack” is flat-out stupid. He’s altering the job to fit his needs (one might say “greed”). If he needs big pay, go back to Wall Street, simple as that. Word is that he likely pocketed close to $50,000 for this Festa and he’s apparently cooking up a whole bunch more events for the future. That isn’t what a critic should be doing. Period.

  7. April 6, 2011

    The core of this issue is that writers cannot live on writing alone. If Galloni has left a full-time Wall St.–presumably a decent income–position he will need to make money somehow. If it’s events, so be it. All the other publications do it and in the end its a win-win situation. The wineries win with the exposure of the event, the publication/organizer wins with the revenue and the consumer wins with the access to these wines. Good for Antonio for developing these events. As someone who has planned lots of events, I can attest to the fact that these events are incredibly time consuming and exhausting. He’ll deserve every penny earned. I wish him the best of luck.

  8. April 5, 2011

    As Mr. Parker’s home state of Maryland is on the eve of finally legalizing wine shipping, I was sad not to see Bob be more involved as our “advocate” before the liquor lobby in Annapolis. He had the law changed back in 1997 so TWA could lawfully receive wine delivered directly to their office, a right we fellow Marylanders have been dreaming about for decades, but was not willing to come testify on the issue. He did send a letter to our elected officials in 2010 and was gracious enough to talk with us about his potential involvement in the fight but demurred on anything more substantive than the letter because, according to him, he did not want to get involved in politics and did not feel he could do anything to combate the political muscle of the distributors. If there was anyone well-positioned to be our advocate, I could think of no one better than our hometown boy, Mr. Parker. The organization’s self-perceived independence allows it to be quirky and focus on its own priorities without regard to any larger social obligation.

    Adam Borden
    President, Marylanders for Better Beer & Wine Laws

  9. April 5, 2011

    Bill, I agree with all of your points, and I too feel the hypocrisy flowing out of Parker and TWA, not to mention the condescension. My point was mainly that rather than bemoaning these flaws that are apparent to most who are paying attention, for me personally, I find myself better off taking from TWA (and all other sources for that matter) what I find useful (Rhone and Rhone Rangers, Languedoc, Bordeaux, Italy, and, newly, thanks to Squires, Portugal) and ignoring the rest for the most part.

    I also try to remind myself of the flaws inherent in analysis by any well-known reviewer who is provided access by producers. I want a reviewer who can taste from barrel and pre-release but I have to understand that such access comes at a price. I think imagining a paradigmatic possibility of a true “independence” is counterproductive (not that I am suggesting that is what you are doing, but for many it seems to be the ultimate theoretical goal).

  10. Bill M. permalink
    April 5, 2011

    Al,

    Just to be clear, I’m not getting dewy eyed from nostalgia for a Wine Advocate past that may or may not have existed. I could care less if they want to host lavish dinners or whatnot, but what I, and I think a lot of other folks, don’t like is the way they still keep touting their independence and their focus on consumer advocacy when their actions say otherwise. It’s this hypocrisy that I think soured a lot of people on TWA, and ironically, has ended up hurting the brand, instead of extending it as Mr. Galloni hopes to do.

    It’s also actually funny you mention that TWA is “too big and important now” because if anything, their influence seems only to wane with each passing year. The emergence of regional specialists like Meadows, the “democratization” of wine criticism through the many voices on the internet, and the decline in the credibility of Parker’s own nose (thanks to the misadventures with Australian fruit bombs, missing the mark on Burgundy, etc.) have shrunk its sphere of influence considerably. I think they actually could have staked a bigger claim in the wine world had they either a) really pursued a fiercely independent “Consumer Reports” approach to wine criticism that people really could trust or b) focused their energies/staff on the regions where they still have a great deal of credibility (i.e. Bordeaux, the Rhone, California). Heck, Mr. Galloni could have stayed as a Piedmont specialist and carved out a big niche for himself, but now as the Parker heir-apparent, he’s spread too thin.

    Regardless, I wish Galloni the best of luck as he takes on this larger portfolio.

    Bill

  11. mauss permalink
    April 4, 2011

    The point inside the post by Lindsay Ronga is also a key point, and getting no answer to the strong comment by Parker himself on mark Squires.
    It is more than obvious that any Producer will dream to be invited to such an event since, for them, even if it is not the case, they will think that, at least, this will comfort their position inside the critic’s comments.
    As example, many french producers register to various events organized by wine reviews only to be sure that these wine magazines will speak, at least “neutral” about their wines.
    And a potential problem is that the quantity of very good Domaines is not unlimited and, one day, or you invite always the same (and they guarantee subscribers for the event since they are “big names”) or you invite some which have lower scores in your review : not an easy task.
    One way or an other, whatever integrity of the writer, be sure many wine lovers will find in this kind of event a possible conflict of interest.
    In that sense, the original policy established by Parker himself on TWA was, IMO, the minimum standard to be applied.
    Sorry for my very bad english.

  12. Lindsay Ronga permalink
    April 4, 2011

    While I respect Mr Galloni’s attempt to keep costs down for the paying guests, there is an obvious conflict of interest here. Many producers would jump at the chance to donate wine at an event like this to get in front of Mr Galloni. As he said, he wants to be “transparent” and I believe the best way to do that would to A. not have proceeds go into your own pocket, B. not choose wineries whose wines you’ve reviewed. Going forward, to have these events, I’d suggest a charity or making it free for guests if everything is being donated. That’s transparency. This all being said I do respect Mr Galloni as a critic – I just hate to see lines being crossed (more than once).

    Great piece, Mike. I’m new to your blog; I’ll be back.

    Lindsay

  13. April 4, 2011

    I don’t know. I don’t think Parker has been the ex-lawyer in his Maryland shack for quite some time. He does many, if not most, of his most significant tastings non-blind (as to producer at least) and on-site and in the company of the producers. I don’t doubt his conscious incorruptibility, but I do believe that the situation presented where he’s fawned over, bottles and barrel samples selected and presented, etc. has to have an obvious, but unquantifiable, effect. I’m not sure at this stage it’s avoidable and, for better or worse, that’s where TWA is at in its life-cycle. I think Galloni (whose reviews I greatly enjoy and appreciate and rely on) is basically reflecting what has become the reality.

    There are quite a number of up-and-coming reviewers who are probably far more independent than Parker and his colleagues simply because they are far less known and influential. If real independence is what you’re seeking out then I think TWA is no longer a great source for that. It has just become too big and important. It happens, and I think we’re all better off recognizing it and adjusting our expectations accordingly rather than demanding a level of apparent independence at TWA that will not really reflect reality.

  14. mauss permalink
    April 4, 2011

    If it is quite easy to understand many of the comments written here and the potential problems that may arise to this new “policy”, please allow me to say that the question of “blind” tasting clearly established for many years in TWA, and apparently not a very strict rule, is, by far, a more important problem.

  15. April 4, 2011

    Thanks for all the comments. Antonio obviously enjoys a lot of goodwill and credibility, and as I said in my post, he came across as very intelligent and personable. But it’s also clear that people feel strongly that the Wine Advocate can’t have it both ways: it can’t flout its own ethical guidelines yet continue to trumpet its independence, its incorruptibility, etc. As Bill points out, this latest controversy isn’t an isolated incident; it comes on the heels of several other controversies that have raised concerns about the Wine Advocate’s trustworthiness. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    Mike

  16. April 3, 2011

    This is stunning. I fully believe that Mr. Galloni is a decent guy, and further, I believe he thinks he’s immune to bias, as he proclaims. That’s nice.

    But you can’t make a profit on an event in which the quality of the wines at the dinner — the wines that you review! — directly affects your ability to attract people to pay for the dinner.

    The easy thing to do – the only thing to do – is to make sure you’re not making a profit. What an awful standard to set. I hope Mr. Galloni acknowledges this; again, he seems like an upstanding guy who made a mistake, not a nefarious rule breaker. His brand can remain strong if he changes course on this one.

  17. Lars permalink
    April 3, 2011

    After reading the heading, I thought this was an April Fool’s joke…

  18. Wilfred permalink
    April 3, 2011

    The key issue, it seems to me, isn’t really Antonio or his integrity (I don’t think that has ever been in doubt). Rather, it is The Wine Advocate’s duplicity. On the one hand, Bob crows about his high moral principles (as Mike quotes, “It can be no other way”) while on the other hand, making any and every exception that suits him, his own policies notwithstanding.

    This is brought home to me in a recent exchange on his board with Eric LeVine in which he told Eric that the primary reason he did not wish to partner with CellarTracker is that he was determined to maintain his fierce independence. In the context, his comment was not just a reference to administrative independence, it was his long stated policy of independence from all in the trade–somehow, he extended that to CT. When I read this, I thought to myself “Yes, independent, I suppose that includes your organizing, advertising on your website, hosting and profiting from wine dinners with producers.”

    I’m sorry Antonio has gotten in the middle of this. To me, its not really about him. Its about the policies Parker established and that he drags out at every opportunity to announce his superiority. Except when it doesn’t suit him.

  19. Bill M. permalink
    April 2, 2011

    Hi Lewis,

    Thanks, and just to clarify, I was more dinging Squires for his heavy-handed management of the boards and for this particularly terrible set of e-mails from him to Mike:

    http://www.drvino.com/2009/04/15/the-xd-files-an-exchange-not-seen-on-erobertparkercom/

    Sorry if I didn’t make that clear. I didn’t mean to lump his Israel junket in with all of Miller’s shenanigans, but I can see how it might have sounded that way when I wrote it.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  20. Lewis Dawson permalink
    April 2, 2011

    I agree with Bill. I do regret that Mark Squires’ name was swept up with Jay Miller’s lapses, as Squires’ error was of little or no consequence. Other than that, thank you Bill, very well done.

    Lewis Dawson

  21. Bill permalink
    April 2, 2011

    Mike,

    Great recap, and it’s nice of Mr. Galloni to take the time to address your questions. However, in taking great pains to explain precisely how events like this Festa del Barolo will in no way corrupt his judgment (itself a very debatable assertion…just see any of the myriad psych studies on the effects of gift-giving on the receiver), he’s missing the larger point: these efforts to “extend the Wine Advocate brand” are actually further eroding it. The very heart of this “brand,” and what made Parker the most influential critic for so long, is a sense of incorruptibility and independence about the WA’s operations. And no matter how well they set groundrules, donate proceeds, rotate producers, etc., they’re still receiving free bottles from producers whom they’re also having participate in an event that makes them money, and it’s that perception of closeness to the industry that matters here.

    I think for me and many others, what once made the Wine Advocate the principal authority for wine criticism was the sense that the publication was set apart from the trade. The mystique of the unaffected country lawyer, sitting in his cramped home in the Maryland woods surrounded by snoring dogs while tasting and scribbling (as famously portrayed in the “Million Dollar Nose” article), all the while keeping the industry firmly at arms length, is at the very heart of the Wine Advocate’s credibility, authority, and “brand.” It was this no-frills, consumer-first approach that was at the heart of its appeal.

    The last few years have seen a breakdown of this core element of the brand: the weekend at Bern’s, the junkets with producers overseas, chopper flights in Spain, etc. The image of independence from the trade has vanished, and with it, the WA’s aura of integrity. Instead of responding to this breakdown in credibility by taking firmer measures to distance WA critics from the trade, Parker and co. have responded defensively and doubled down: shutting down dissent in the bulletin boards, retaining and vigorously defending discredited staff like Squires and Miller, and now hosting a series of for-profit events with producers. No matter how noble Mr. Galloni’s intentions or how steely his personal ethics may be, a banquet at Del Posto with Barolo big-wigs is a stark contrast to the days of the lone man in his “baggy shirts and summer shorts” spitting wine in his rustic home.

    So, instead of extending the brand, they’re killing it. And frankly, I don’t think all this would bother everyone so much, if they would just drop that statement of ethics and stop touting their unimpeachable integrity. It’s the politicians who lecture everyone on family values but then cheat on their wives that get everyone angry, not the cads who make no pretense of sainthood.

    Bill

  22. mauss permalink
    April 2, 2011

    You can keep a high caliber ethic position as Parker’s one only when you have create enough income for your way of life with subscriptions to your writings.
    Parker (maybe Clive Coates too) belongs to the very, very rare category in this respect. He does not need any free bottles, any airline tickets, any hotel accomodations since he is rich enough to pay easily for his own costs.
    But Parker is also intelligent and he knows that this specific situation is not a standard one, especially nowdays. I fully understand then that he gives for Galloni (I know him personnaly) a “free ride” in this very sensitive field : how to enjoy help from producers and still keep your integrity.
    Antonio Galloni has the faith in his standards of ethics about wine. He knows that if, one day, any collusion is established between a score and a benefit, this will hurt him definitively. But, again, he is not moved by the potential fear, but he is definitively moved by his faith in his integrity of judgment.

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