Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Antonio Galloni's first reviews of Napa: 94 is the new 90

Napa Valley had been holding its breath for months, waiting to see if the steroid era of inflated ratings for muscle wines would end when Antonio Galloni took over as California critic for the Wine Advocate.

Galloni's first ratings came out last week. Those hoping for a change in philosophy got a few crumbs, notably ratings over 90 points for Cathy Corison. But much more is the same under Galloni than not.

Grade inflation: Some might focus on the fact that Galloni, unlike Parker, gave no 100s and no pure 99s, although five wines are scored "(97-99)" and three are scored "98+." (In addition to creating its own standards of quality, the Advocate continues to insist on its own math.)

But high grades are clearly still part of the Advocate's marketing strategy.

Galloni reviewed 1061 wines. I used the Advocate's search engine to determine that 815 of them -- 77% -- scored 90 points or higher; 699 wines scored 91 or better. And people mock wine competitions for giving "gentlemen's bronze" awards.

94 is the new 90: Galloni is less generous at the top of the chart than Parker was, but more generous to the middle class.

Two years ago, Parker reviewed "New releases from Northern California: Napa" (It's not fair to compare to last year's Parker ratings, because he called it "the best of Northern California"). Parker went crazy for the wines he liked, giving out 6 100s, 6 99s, a (99-100) and 5 (98-100)s.

BUT Parker's midpoint score was 91. He reviewed 970 wines, and 518 (53%) got at least 91.

The midpoint score for a Napa Valley wine from Galloni was 92; 53% scored at least 92, while 34% scored at least 93. A 95 from Napa Valley isn't all that special, as 123 wines -- more than one of every 9 wines -- scored at least that high.

The upshot: Galloni doesn't love the wines he loves as much as Parker, but he's more generous to more wines overall.

No low scores:  It's possible that this statement may not be true, as Galloni may not have published scores for wines he really hated. But the lowest score he published was a solitary 85 for Hourglass Blue Line Cabernet Franc 2009 ($140), which he seems to punish for lack of varietal character. Poor Hourglass: there were fourteen 86s, but only that one 85. Galloni must be a stickler for Cabernet Franc varietal character. Except ...

Cabernet Sauvignon rules: Kongsgaard The Judge Chardonnay is one of three wines to pull in a 98+, but it's an anomaly at the top of the sheet. Of the 123 wines scoring 95 or above, 113 are Cabernet Sauvignons or proprietary red blends. Two vintages of The Judge -- not exactly known for delicacy -- are the only white wines at 95 or above. So much for the hope that Galloni would exalt wines that go well with food.

Big wines: Praise for power is scattered throughout the tasting notes, sometimes where you least expect it. Like for Cathy Corison, who has become the media synonym for balance in Napa Valley, as if none of the other 400+ wineries there ever make balanced wines.

It's news that Corison got a 92 for her Napa Valley Cab and a 94 for her Kronos Vineyard Cab; her highest previous Advocate score was a (90-91) she got for the 1993 Cab. Sure, I think Corison's wines deserve 90+ scores, but I'm not the Advocate. I can't help thinking that Galloni knows what Corison means to many other wine writers and was making a statement.

But in describing the Kronos Vineyard Cab, Galloni writes that it "is made in a richer, riper style," which merits it two more points.

I could cite dozens of other examples of similar phrasing, but the irony of this one is just so delicious. "Richer, riper" is still in.

Oaky Sauvignon Blanc: Both the Advocate and Wine Spectator have a real blind spot about Sauvignon Blanc. Even though it's a delicious wine that's a lot more food friendly than its genetic descendant, Cabernet Sauvignon, it never scores big ratings, and rarely passes 90 in either publication unless it's tarted up with oak.

Galloni continues this tradition. His highest rating for any Sauvignon Blanc is 92 -- remember, that's a midpoint score for him -- and all three that reached that high were oaked.

David Abreu love: Parker always loved wines in which viticulturist David Abreu had a hand, but even under his regime, Abreu didn't dominate the ratings as he does for Galloni.

Abreu Vineyards receives 6 of the 9 highest scores. There are 12 Abreu wines, and none of them scores lower than 96+. Is this one winery that much better than any other winery in Napa Valley? Antonio Galloni thinks so.

Now here are a few random observations from the hours I spent sifting through Galloni's scores:

* Last week I reported on how Galloni is setting up tastings in Sonoma County, and I got some people over there fermenting with anger for reasons I still don't understand. I decided to take a look at whether the wines Galloni reviewed in Napa were exclusively members of Napa Valley Vintners.

They were not. In the A's alone, I found reviews of Abreu, Ad Vivum, Alante Vineyard, Altamura, Anderson's Conn Valley, Aston Estate and Au Sommet, none of which seem to be members of NVV. I suppose I could go through and check all 26 letters, but that would make Adam Lee happy, and then where would my essay-length angry comments come from?

* Galloni does at least notice obscure varieties. He gave Larkmead Tocai Friulano and Tofanelli Charbono 92 (mid-range, remember), and Grassi Ribolla Gialla 91. He didn't notice Massican Annia, a blend of Tocai Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Chardonnay that was one of the best wines I tasted from Napa Valley this year. But it's lean and minerally -- a sommelier wine -- and he might not have liked it anyway.

* Parker disliked Grgich Hills -- he never gave any wine a score higher than 91 -- and so does Galloni, doling out an 89, three 87s and an 86. In fact, the 89 Galloni gives the Yountville Selection Cabernet Sauvignon is the highest score a Grgich Hills Cab has ever had from the Advocate. I don't always love Grgich Hills' red wines, but the whites continue to taste excellent to me. But what do I know?

* The biggest disconnect between price and score is Amuse Bouche 2009 ($295), which gets just 89 points. Parker never loved this wine, as it never scored higher than 93, but I remember having it on Christmas one year (sorry, I forget the vintage) and thinking it was fantastic. I repeat, what do I know?

* I heard a rumor that Galloni might buy the Wine Advocate from Parker. It makes some sense; Galloni was an investment banker, he's young and enthusiastic, and Parker is in the right stage of life to cash out on the tremendous brand he's built. If so, this group of ratings seems to indicate that whatever you think of Parker's legacy, it is secure.

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Cabfrancophile said...

Out of curiosity, how does Galloni's score distribution compare to Parker's? The "94 is the new 90" statement implies that Galloni has inflated significantly. My impression was that Parker scored very high for regions like Napa that catered to his palate. (Not to mention Dr. Big Jay's scores seemingly started at 89.) I honestly have no sense as to whether this is more of the same or a big change, other than it appears that Galloni similarly feels there is a uniformly high level of wines produced in Napa.

Anonymous said...

"The upshot: If you see a wine that scored exactly 90 points from the Wine Advocate, it means Galloni considered it one of the bottom third of the wines in Napa Valley."

This isn't quite true. Rather, if you see a wine that scored 90 points from the Advocate, it means Galloni considered it one of the bottom third of the wines with PUBLISHED SCORES.

It's entirely possible that the Wine Advocate only chooses to published the scores of wines that it likes and recommends.

What we don't know is how many wines were scored and not published.

Tom Wark....

Mike Officer said...

The Wine Advocate's policy is, in general, to not publish scores below 85 points as they have a limited amount of print space and they'd rather focus on the best scoring wines. (Antonio may revisit this issue and at least list these wines so consumers will know whether or not a wine was even tasted.) And given the huge number of brands out there, I would imagine the Wine Advocate has chosen to focus on the producers of most interest to their readership, i.e., the highest quality producers. Hence, it is no surprise that the scores printed are all mostly over 90. It's pretty meaningless to try to draw conclusions about ALL wines in Napa based on the what they've chosen to publish.

guren said...

A typically interesting and thoughtful post, Blake. You wrote, "I can't help thinking that Galloni knows what Corison means to many other wine writers and was making a statement." By this statement, are you implying that Mr. Galloni either did not taste the Corison wines blind and/or manipulated the scores after the fact?


W. Blake Gray said...

Guren: As Parker did, Galloni tastes both blind and non-blind. I expect Corison's wines were in the latter category.

If you try to like something, you will generally succeed. It's human nature.

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: I haven't tried to draw any conclusions whatsoever about wines in Napa.

I have tried to draw conclusions about what Antonio Galloni thinks about wines in Napa.

SUAMW said...

The fact that he gives ranges and pluses underscores the meaninglessness of these ratings.
Not sure if these scores are continuations of previous years' scores for these producers (although I do have to note he gave higher scores to some Central Coast producers than Bobbo ever did).
But back to my thought:

The pluses and ranges indicate that there is no pre-set criteria for awarding points. If you have no criteria, you will have drift and inflation. PERIOD. It also shows that there is nothing else in these scores except a moment-in-time ranking of how much he preferred wine vis-a-vis others in the line up.
How truly meaingful is that that?
Is a 98 from one lineup equal to a 98 from a different line up?

WomenWine said...

Great story Blake. What I'm interested in knowing from you - after all the analysis - does it seem like there will be a Galloni style?

I'm wondering if there's any correlation between bigger wines and bigger scores or if the higher scores were given to wines that had pulled back on that style, lowered their alcohol, etc.

Sorry, didn't mean to give you more homework. Happy New Year.

Julie Brosterman

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Julie, it's a good question. I don't see any reason to believe Galloni is changing the style of wine favored by the Wine Advocate. Those seem like nice scores for Corison, but keep in mind that 92 is just a midpoint.

That said, "big" is a subjective term, but alcohol level is measurable. It would be interesting to see somebody compare alcohol levels to scores for Parker and Galloni. The problem is you'd have to get real alcohol levels somehow, not the ones reported on the label.

And then the question would be, who would care that much about the topic?

People don't like it when I comment that "that's a lot of work for no money." But, well ...

W. Blake Gray said...

After writing that comment, I just realized that Leo McCloskey is probably performing this exact research right now, and not for no money.

Mike Officer said...

Thanks for the reply Blake. I was mainly responding to:

"The upshot: If you see a wine that scored exactly 90 points from the Wine Advocate, it means Galloni considered it one of the bottom third of the wines in Napa Valley."

Could have sworn I read that in your blog but now I don't see it. Did something change? I see Tom Wark quoted it as well.

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: I decided to take it out, I could tell it was what everybody was going to focus on and that would undermine my main point.

It's still a point worth talking about, but needs its own forum.

Great thing about blog posts: They're not print, you can change them.

William Allen - Simple Hedonisms said...

yet more dissapointment on the Galloni transition....

Mike Officer said...

Wow! You changed your blog after I first commented and you don't even say so in your response to me, letting my comment hang out there like I have no reading comprehension? That strikes me as pretty unethical. I guess the rules of journalism don't apply to blogs.

Mike Dunne said...

"Galloni reviewed 1061 wines. I used the Advocate's search engine to determine that 815 of them -- 77% -- scored 90 points or higher; 699 wines scored 91 or better. And people mock wine competitions for giving "gentlemen's bronze" awards."

Great comparison, Blake. If a wine competition gave 77 percent of the wines entered either silver or gold medals - say wines on the 90-point to 100-point spectrum - it wouldn't be taken seriously. And at a wine competition, you are assured the wines are tasted blind, often with no knowledge of its price niche.

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: What is up with winemakers talking about the rules of journalism?

Unethical? To change my own blog? UnETHICAL?

Your horse is pretty darn high here, Mike, and I hope you don't break your neck getting off it.

Nick Stengel said...

The pricing of Bond Matriarch is inaccurate on the Advocate site, linking to a single magnum at $800 at a single store. In reality, Matriarch is the second wine of Bond and comes with a release price around $150 as opposed the single vineyard bottles around $275.

Todd - VT Wine Media said...

Kudos to Blake for doing the statisitical legwork, and it does make one wonder if the scorers are at all aware of their own patterns.
That said, since many of the wines are in a economic category that 99% of consumers will never approach, I specifically have to wonder what the actual impact of this role shift on the wine world will be. At what point are critics and those who have the disposable income just gazing at Galloni's navel? And what does that do for 'pedestrian' wine culture?

Anonymous said...

Andy here....

I do not care that critics, tasting bling (or non-blind), en masse without food generally score bigger wines higher. I suspect most of us would -- riper wines taste really good and oak has a wow factor. But, wines that exhibit these characteristics can be tiresome with dinner and sometimes do not age well-- this discrepency can only be reconciled by the consumer knowing what the purpose of the bottle of wine is.

I did find interest with two comments you made -- first is "grade inflation". What does "90 pts" mean if everyone get this score? Even Suckling commented about this on his blog (http://www.jamessuckling.com/my-blog-when-good-ratings-just-arent-good-enough.html)... go figure. Given this data, I will still continue to not use the Advocate to help guide purchase decisions. Who the heck can know that those scores mean?

Second was your comments regarding wines that you liked that were not scored highly by critics..."...what do I know". You know plenty...in that if you like the wine, it matters not what parker or Galloni or Laube or anyone else thinks. In your position -- write your thoughts..heck even score it and then let the reader be their own judge (just as we should do for all of the critics). Just my $0.02 worth....

Thanks again for an interesting read

First is "gr

Charmion said...

I still wonder what a 95 point or 98 point Sauv. blanc tastes like, or a 98 point Pinot Meunier, Charbono, Valdigue, and so forth. If the grape does not command a great big ole inflated price, it cannot get more than 92. Right. Plus or minus a point or two. Or a + or - on the cusp. In the afternoon session. In the morning, scores are higher for the biggies and . . .

Oh what blather. How about Obama can raise taxes as high as the frikkin moon with my blessing on anybody who pays $100 or more per bottle just from WA or WS reviews. Give or take a $5 spot. Tax to be collected at the point of sale.

W. Blake Gray said...

Charmion: The problem with punitive taxes on high-end products is that they just don't raise much money. But it would be interesting to see what would happen if we had an additional luxury tax on all products over, say, $300. I can't see it ever passing; people would scream about the increased cost for necessities like furniture and refrigerators.

But it would be interesting that the entire Hermes catalog would start generating more tax revenue.

A little topic drift, and a fantasy anyway. You can't raise taxes on anything or anyone in America these days, no matter what we need the money for.

Anonymous said...

If anyone truly thinks that Galloni likes Saxum, Aubreu, Harlan, Kongsgaard, SQN, etc. they need their head examined. He drinks Champagne in his free time and grew up in love with Barolo. He not only likes but he L-O-V-E-S high acid (make that SUPER high acid), tannin, grip, structure, and low Ph.

Either he is:

1) Waiting to change the direction of the Advocate slowly.

2) He is waiting until he owns the Advocate 100% to make again a slow change in the direction of the publication away from bomb style wines.

3) Or he is the BIGGEST sell-out ever in wine writing. At least Parker liked the plonk he gave 100 points to. Galloni on the other hand may be able to laugh to the bank but can he look himself in the mirror and what comes of it when his son eventually asks, "Dad, why don't you ever drink your favorite CA wines when we celebrate special occasions together?"

Larry P said...

Blake: are you really, seriously, shocked that one of your readers would be offended, after calling out an unsupportable statement in your blog, you edit out the statement without notice, then deny its existence? Forget about "rules of ethics." Can you honestly say you have absolutely, positively, no idea why someone would take offense with that?

W. Blake Gray said...

Larry P: I often wonder what some readers want from this blog.

I edited out something, but didn't deny its existence; I said it's worthy of its own discussion. And maybe I'll write a post on that soon, but I am a little tired of writing about the Wine Advocate, though not as tired as I am of readers lecturing me about what my blog should or shouldn't be, as if they have some hand in producing or financing it.

But I digress. No, I don't understand why, when somebody disagrees with a statement, they would then take offense when that statement is edited out.

Sometimes I think people read things to enjoy being offended. Frank Bruni got a great quote from a server about how she believes some people go to restaurants "for the experience of being disappointed." I think that applies to some readers of blogs also.

It's a free blog. You don't have to read it or like it or agree with it. And clearly you don't have to write sycophantic comments to me here; you are free to criticize me. I think I have a good track record of responding positively to constructive criticism. But I'll get back to what I started this response with: I often wonder what some readers expect from this blog.

Kent Benson said...

If there is a bias against Sauvignon Blanc at Spectator or Advocate, I suspect it is a bias against wines that don’t improve with age, not the grape itself. Advocate explicitly states that 10 points are reserved for “the overall quality level or potential for further evolution and improvement—aging.” To my knowledge, Spectator hasn’t disclosed exactly how their points are allotted, if allotted at all. If James Suckling is any indication, their analysis is little more than, “I’m 94 points on that.”

As a result of this aging-potential component, it is structurally impossible for a Sauvignon Blanc to score much above 94 points. I’ve always thought aging potential should be a separate discussion and that any scoring should be with regard to how the wine tastes now, since no one can definitively say how it will taste in the future.

W. Blake Gray said...

Kent: These are two fascinating points, worth separate discussions: sad to see them so late on this comment page.

First: The Advocate critics really believe these wines that have been getting 100 points will improve with age? There's a disconnect between the Advocate's scoring system and what we seem to know about ageability. I know that you're right, but it would be interesting to attend a tasting of Parker with some of his highest-scoring wines from, say, 1997, alongside some wines that didn't score so well but that were made in a more traditional, less ripe way.

Second: I couldn't agree with you more that aging potential *should* be a separate score. Think of all the great wines that would suddenly look more attractive on store shelves if they were critically scored without regard for their aging potential.

W. Blake Gray said...

Larry P: May I also add that I am somewhat ashamed of my own crankiness? I really don't understand why people write the things that they write sometimes, but I do realize that readers expect that media veterans -- and I qualify there -- will stand there and take the slings and arrows. There have been times when I've just decided not to read the comments. But I like interacting with people.

I said this before, there's something I share with Robert Parker, who shut down his website to non-member comments. I wish I shared his business acumen and influence and Rolodex and tasting stamina and wine cellar, but instead I fear I only share his sensitivity to criticism.

Brian M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian M. said...

Galloni is unlikely to do wholesale changes at the Advocate for one reason: the vast majority of wine consumers prefer non-food-friendly, ripe & oaky wines and you can bet that a good portion of Advocate subscribers prefer the same wines. If high scores drift to more balanced, food-friendly wines, readers will notice and lose trust for what had been a good barometer for wines that they would like.

In other news, I lament the fact that Corison's wines will probably be more expensive in the near future.

Cabfrancophile said...

Interesting late-added comments on scoring with respect to aging. It's definitely the case that lightly structured wines that drink best young and won't improve have a score ceiling in the WA/WS system. The amusing part, though, is that though the aging requirement is implicit, mature wines apparently are not subject to this. If Parker scores a young Cab 100 and it matures well, then it will still be scored 100 despite loss of aging capacity.

I agree 100% that there is a strong and misguided bias towards wines that age as if aging is the end in and of itself amongst pro drinkers. Now, non-wine drinkers (incorrectly, IMO) disparage young tannic or acidic wines because they are often astringent, but can't see the aging upside. Pro wine tasters (incorrectly, IMO) disparage lightly structured wines because they have little aging upside, but can't see the attraction to youthfully balanced and vibrant wines. Isn't the whole idea for wine to be enjoyable when consumed, whenever that may be? Unfortunately, I don't see either side budging on this. In particular, the pro wine tasters would undermine wine as a status symbol if their definition of excellence was less exclusionary. The mystique of aging is an important part of the snob appeal.

Anonymous said...

The Matriarch is $85 on release, not $400.

W. Blake Gray said...

Does anyone know where I can verify the Bond Matriarch release price? I just printed what the Advocate printed, and Bond's website doesn't list a price. I HATE that. Price matters!

Mark Henderson said...

Hi Blake,

A quick look at Wine Searcher shows the aforementioned magnum of '08 and three prices for the 2007 vintage in retail stores ranging from US$149 to $176 (excluding sales tax).


guren said...

According to the November Wine Spectator (page 70), the 2008 Matriarch is $95.


W. Blake Gray said...

All right, thanks guys, I changed it. Now I'll see if somebody calls me unethical for correcting a fact error. Sigh.

Chris Smith said...

I've been reading the comments on this blog as well as those on Dr. Vino's regarding this same issue and it appears that you see the failings in the 100-point system. Yet you use that same system to rate wines. I'm sure you get asked this a lot but why do you continue to use the 100 point system when you see everything that is wrong with it?

W. Blake Gray said...

Chris: I don't actually think there's anything wrong with the 100-point system. I don't think it's the best system -- I think 5 stars better represents the fluctuating, personal nature of criticizing anything, including wine. But this is a niggle, not a resistance.

As for why I use the 100-point scale when I think 5 stars are better: I'm trying not to be Betamax. Consumers like having ratings, and I like having readers.

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