I pursued a purported scandal. A Sonoma County reader told me that he was being asked to pay the Sonoma County Vintners Association to have his wine tasted by the Wine Advocate, and it reminded me of the ongoing Spain/Jay Miller situation. But it appears to be entirely different.
At worst, the Wine Advocate might not taste wines from new Sonoma County wineries this year, instead preferring to let Antonio Galloni give his own evaluation of wines Robert Parker rated in the past. Galloni says even that is not true; I'm going to run his email below.
The deal is this: The Sonoma County Vintners Association is helping to arrange tastings for Galloni in his first official Wine Advocate visit. The same as Pedro Campo in Spain, the SCVA appears to be trying to throw its weight around, and may be overstating its influence on Galloni.
Here's a notice the SCVA posted (the italics are mine):
"Dear Sonoma County Vintner:
Sonoma County Vintners is pleased to be coordinating a tasting of Sonoma County wines for Antonio Galloni ... in early January 2012.
Their policy for reviewing wines this year is as follows: "Since this is Antonio's first trip to Sonoma, he plans to concentrate on wines that have been regularly reviewed in the Wine Advocate, to maintain a sense of continuity in the transition from the reviews of Robert Parker to those from Antonio. That doesn't mean he won't taste any wines that would be considered new to The Wine Advocate, but that those more well-known wines will take precedence."
Evaluating wines from previously reviewed wineries will take a good portion of Mr. Galloni's time, but he is willing to consider adding wines to his schedule to cover as much as possible during his visit. SCV member wineries are invited to propose the following Sonoma County wines for Mr. Galloni's consideration: 2010 Chardonnay and 2009 Pinot Noir
Please note that these are the only new wines that will be accepted for this tasting."
Now that kind of sucks, if you make Zinfandel or Syrah, but it doesn't come close to being a scandal. The vintner told me he was asked to join the SCVA, with $1000 annual dues, to have his wine tasted. That also kind of sucks, but it's not the same as demanding payment for rating.
However, as part of due diligence, I sent an email to the Wine Advocate with the provocative subject line "Pay to play in Sonoma County." Why? Because I've been asking the Wine Advocate questions for more than 6 years but I never get an answer. I was tired of typing out long emails opening with pleasantries for no reason, and figured that subject line would ensure they'd at least look at the email.
My email read:
Hi, I'm working on a story about the Wine Advocate's practices of tasting in Sonoma County.
A vintner contacted me and told me that Antonio Galloni will only taste wines from members of the Sonoma County Vintners Association. The same vintner was told by the Association that dues for the Association are $1000 per year.
Does the Wine Advocate or Antonio Galloni receive any of this money?
W. Blake Gray
Here's a real sign of change at the Advocate: The following day, I got the following response, also cced to the Advocate's attorney Robert Haas -- a subtle reminder of Robert Parker's recent threat to sue bloggers. Once again, the italics are mine.
There's clearly a discrepancy between what Galloni is telling me, regarding whether a winery needs to be a member of the SCVA to get its wine tasted, and what the SCVA is telling vintners. I sent a followup question about this to Galloni, but it was not answered. So the SCVA might be trying to use its position in organizing the tasting to encourage wineries to join. If so, that's on the SCVA, but apparently not on Galloni. Yet it still barely inspires a yawn.Dear Mr. Gray,Thank you for your email.I will be spending eight days in Sonoma in early January. As part of that trip, the Sonoma County Vintners Association is setting up two days of centralized tastings. A third day of tastings is being set up by the West Coast Sonoma Vintners. From time to time I work with several regional organizations that assist in setting up centralized tastings. All of these associations have strict instructions that membership in their organization is not a requirement for me to taste a given producer's wines. Before a tasting I receive a list of the proposed wines and I chose what I will taste, independent of which wineries are and aren't part of the association that is organizing that tasting.The Napa Valley Vintners and the Consorzios of Brunello di Montalcino and Barolo-Barbaresco are some of the groups I have worked with this year. A quick email or phone call to any of these groups is all you will need to verify the Wine Advocate's longstanding policy of maximum inclusion. You could also take a look at any of the articles on these regions and cross-reference which producers are and aren't members of their respective regional associations.The Wine Advocate does not, and never has, collected any fees whatsoever from these centralized tastings. I do not receive any compensation from these associations. Moreover, we pay all of our own expenses. These are all facts you should be able to verify with ease.The rest of my schedule in Sonoma consists of additional centralized tastings and winery visits that I have personally scheduled. The only criteria that matters for inclusion in the Wine Advocate is quality. I am ultimately responsible for making those decisions for the regions I cover. Please feel free to reach out with any additional questions.Kind regards,Antonio Galloni
Cozen O'Connor, employer of the cced Mr. Haas, has 575 attorneys (according to its website) to my zero. But that's not why I'm not pursuing this story further at this time.
I don't see any reason to doubt Galloni. Let's just wait for the results of his visit; then we'll see if there is any variation from what he described. For now, at least the facts are out there for your consideration.
Here's how I ended my email response to Galloni:
PS: I want to take this opportunity to wish you the best of fortune in your assignment of rating the wines of California.I really mean that. Can't wait to see the numbers: Will Parker's favorite enormous Chardonnays still bring in the big points? Or will Galloni become the most important critic in America by leading the balance backlash? That's the real story, and we'll have to wait for it.