Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wine Advocate in Sonoma County: No scandal, so far

An important role of journalism is to publish facts and let the general public decide on their importance. Thus, under the watchful eyes of the Wine Advocate's large law firm, I'm going to put the following conversation on the public record.

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?
Sincerely yours,
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.

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
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.

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Steve Heimoff said...

This is a pretty sad attempt to stir up some controversy!

W. Blake Gray said...

Sorry to make you sad, Steve. Look on the bright side -- you can probably write your own post attacking this one, and that's one less topic you have to come up with!

Anonymous said...

Do you have to write a blog entry even when you have nothing to say?

W. Blake Gray said...

I'm sorry, but my policy is not to answer anonymous questions. Tell me who you are and I'll answer.

Lee said...

I thought is was a good story, and how clumsy of the local organization to try to use the tasting as a recruiting tool. In fact, that attempt (however innocuous) is a perfect example of the the EXACT reason why WA needs to be very careful when they use outside groups to "organize" tastings and other events for WA.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Lee. I worked in newspapers for years, and back when they had more space, they would run stories like this in the back to get them on the record; it was considered service journalism.

I'm glad that my standards for the blog have apparently become so high that my readers expect a front-page-worthy post every day. Sometimes you have to plug away at the other stuff.

W. Blake Gray said...

By the way, about anonymity: I just got a phone call, off the record, telling me that more people would have more to say if they weren't afraid of the potential for poor wine ratings down the line.

If this is the case, drop me an email, let's chat off the record.

Alder Yarrow said...


The same thing happened in Napa when he was there (i.e. the main tasting was coordinated by the Napa Valley Vintners Association). I hardly think this relates to, or rises to the level of, the current hubbub about Spain.

What you're dealing with here has nothing to do with the Wine Advocate, and everything to do with the politics of AVA marketing association.

When Galloni went to Napa, he both tasted at the big tasting, and made his way around to different wineries in the valley. I'm sure he'll be doing the same thing in Sonoma. In Napa there was a lot of grumbling about how it was very difficult to get your wine in front of Galloni if you weren't a NVV member, and some people even claimed it wasn't possible, and cried foul.

When you or I go on press tastings to different countries, the organizational bodies often put together large tastings of wines from different regions for us. Do you think they solicit wines from people who don't pay dues to their organizations? No way.

This situation is no different. NVV and SVA exist to promote the interests of their members, and insofar as it benefits their members, the broader AVA. As a critic with limited time, the best way to get a sense of the vintage is to try to organize a huge tasting like this, and the best people to help (because you certainly need help) are the biggest marketing association(s) in the region.

Bill McIver said...

W. Blake: For once I agree with Steve Heimoff: "This is a pretty sad attempt to stir up some controversy!" Bill

W. Blake Gray said...

Alder: I think we are in complete agreement. It's not the same as the Jay Miller/Spain story. But what is?

Bill: I'm sorry to make people sad! How about putting on Brian Wilson's "Smile" album? Or just thinking happy thoughts?

1winedude said...

I was contacted about this same scenario, and decided not to write about it just yet, coming to the same conclusions as noted by Alder in his comment.

I think the conversation around it is still important & interesting, though - namely, do the folks in the NVV or equivalent for their region have an advantage when it comes to getting their wines in front of influential critics/media?

Probably. But is that advantage unfair?

Probably no more unfair than someone paying first class airfare has for getting access to the airport lounge and easier/faster ways to get on/off the plane...

W. Blake Gray said...

Joe: The thing is, the Wine Advocate used to be the critical organization that went out of its way to find new discoveries, especially in California.

Galloni doesn't have to do that; he can review or not review anything he wants. But it is a change, and I think worth reporting.

Interesting analogy to first-class treatment at airports, but not accurate because you touch on something that hits a nerve for me: if the airlines want to give better treatment to higher-paying customers, that's great. But I don't understand why the TSA, a government agency, should also do so. We're not supposed to be a government of class distinctions.

John M. Kelly said...

Controversy? Humbug. In my opinion everybody is dancing around what is the real story here: marketing associations like SCVA are sliding more and more into irrelevancy, and are using supposed access to critics in an attempt to strong-arm membership. It's pathetic.

Randy said...

Who cares? These cats don't know much about anything re: real wine and real wine country... He's here to taste 14.9% alc Pinot Noirs with 70% new french oak aged for a mere 9 months... He'll be tasting the 2011's real soon.

What's Heimoff's problem? Got beat him to the punch? What Steve, not juicy enough for you Mr. NYC guy? For a guy who really loves making a stir w/ controversial topics, you feel the need to bag on this blog's attempt to have some fun. Wine Country DOES NOT need or want these cats here. Go Home and let us do our work. Heavy bottles with syrupy slop is in the mail. It's kinda funny, a few wine friends who submit to these guys CLOWN (all three major pub's) on the whole concept of lotto submissions but they secretly admit they just USE these reviews and reviewers to forward their winery agenda... Just know when your reviewers are not in the room, the joke is really on you.

Anonymous said...

It seems sad that California & Oregon can't have their own "boots on the ground" local reviewer(s) who know the local scenes and don't need handholding by these organizations..

SUAMW said...

So Tony Galloni is such a masterful wine wonk that he needs to peek at what scores Bobbo gave wines in the past to be able to make a decision?......

Anonymous said...

As mentioned by Alder, about the same with the following emails from the Napa Vintners:

"Greetings! We are currently accepting wine submissions from members only at this time. I am keeping a list of non-members interested in submitting wines. I would be glad to add your name to the list. We'll contact you one we have accepted the members' wines and provided Mr. Galloni will have enough time to taste additional wines."

This was followed up with a later message saying Galloni will not be tasting your wines and "Future Wine Advocate tastings and similar opportunities are first offered to NVV member wineries. If you would like to discuss membership in our organization and join us in our efforts to promote, protect and enhance the Napa Valley appellation and its wines, please let me know. Thank you."

I am fine with this but don't see how TWA is going to "discover" new wines this way.

SUAMW said...

What's sad is when a "boots on the ground" reviewer appears, these vintners still choose the Advocates/Enthusiasts/Spectators whose preferences and scoring systems they bemoan, but still roll over for....

SUAMW said...

I've been wondering, for a while now, just for WHOM The Wine Advocate is actually advocating?

Anonymous said...

It would seem that Galloni's requirement: "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."
Is blatantly and openly being ignored by these organizations.

W. Blake Gray said...

I have to point out that, looking at the comments from some people in the wine industry, some people are clearly interested in reading this post.

Three of the nation's leading wine bloggers have come here to tell me it wasn't worth writing.

But if I write a post that says, I had a glass of Chardonnay last night and liked it, nobody would tell me that isn't news worth reporting.

Makes me wonder what we think news is.

Anonymous said...

W. Blake I think your writing is always thought-provoking, insightful, and stays away from political agenda. No matter whose feathers you rustle.

Heimoff- your "schtick" is tiresome. You've lived high on the hog for years and now that everyone is fighting for a venue in which to publish their oh-so-important opinions (and considering print publications are dying left and right) you keep throwing jabs that aren't even RELEVANT. Your rush to defend Jay Miller is odd and worrisome at best. I've worked with him as a supplier/winery rep and the guy is no stranger to $800 lunches on someone else's time at the Oregon Grill.

Come on guys- you are WINE WRITERS, not curing cancer. Be thankful you have your wine writing affiliation/occupations. In terms of loving what you do, to borrow a current phrase, you are the 1%. Maybe wine writing doesn't pay as much as being CEO of a Texas Oil Corporation but you certainly can wake up and be joyful every day knowing you are doing something you truly are passionate about. Not many people can say that, especially in this awful economy and especially in the wine business when jobs are disappearing left and right and wineries are going belly up every day. It's LUXURY PRODUCT and as much as we all may disagree, is not a matter of life or death. You aren't helping people in 3rd world countries, or helping veterans with PTSD when they come back from combat. It's a rich man's industry so come clean.

Why knock each other about like this? Poor sportsmanship, pure and simple. Looking through the rest of these comments it's apparent that the wine writer/wine blogger/etc community does have something to say about this topic. You're always going to get some flack when you poke around the old guard.

The Jay Miller issue is shedding some light or inquiries into other possible pay-for-play scenarios (or suspicions of them) which is a good thing, it might help keep people honest and reveal that the cushy press trips, wine writer-only samples, etc. are a large part of the editorial/wine biz marketing machine in order to sell cases.

Why is it OK for mediocre self-styled "wine writers" -not calling anyone here one of those- I'm very well aware of Heimhoff's career and experience- and "consultants" to wax poetic about an 86 point Chardonnay on a blog (no doubt to ensure that future supplies of said Chardonnay continue to show up on one's doorstep, provided they live in a reciprocal shipping state) but not ok to point some fingers and ask some tough questions?

Lastly, I'm only posting as anonymous because I need to keep my job (in the wine biz no less) and don't feel like getting into this horribly immature pissing contest.

Anonymous said...

To clarify- I'm the "anonymous" who wrote the "pissing contest" comment. There are others posting as "anonymous" as well.

Secondly, I meant "someone else's dime" not "time". (Though he does take his time!)

Happy discourse gents :)

Anonymous said...

The SCVA probably has a weak membership roster.

My guess is that most Sonoma wineries would prefer to be with an association with more narrow geographic parameters. For example, being a member of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley would be far more prestigious and relevant than part of the countywide SCVA.

From a marketing perspective, Sonoma wineries are better off touting their most specific AVA. That's different than what goes on in Napa.

(P.S. I'm not the same anonymous poster as those before me.)

Anonymous said...

Andy here...

These scenarios are exactly why I use the Wine Spectators rating system to help guide my purchasing decisions. Say what you will about the palates of the WS critics, or whether you think scores are important / useful, but at least the scores given are from single blind reviews (varietal / region but not cost or winery) and typically done in a central location. Now, over the years, I 've heard wink - wink - nudge - nudge comments about how this process is not really true but I've never seen a shred of credible evidence to back this up. So I'll put these accusations in the same spot as you put anonymous posts.

Ed Deitch said...

An observation about your piece from a journalistic perspective: it's all well and good that you queried the Wine Advocate about the potential for paying to play. However, if there's a story here, it seems to be what some see as an exclusionary policy by the SCVA with respect to this tasting, or at least an attempt to bring in a few more memberships. It would have been useful to query the association with a question or two, especially since Galloni told you that "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." I think this might have yielded an interesting and probably defensive response from the SCVA, potentially making your piece more of a story. Thanks.

W. Blake Gray said...

Ed: It's a fair point. I did contact the SCVA, and the only response I got was that I was pointed to a PDF document which I quoted here.

Now, maybe I could have dug deeper, made a bunch of phone calls, etc., and fleshed out the story with more quotes. That's what I do when somebody is paying me.

I think considering the payment I got to write this, and what you're paying to read it, I did a pretty good job. Do you disagree?

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


I will bite. I do disagree. Specifically,

1)I think the headline, specifically the "so far" part is deliberately leading and deceptive. I also think it violates the spirit of one of the Society of Professional Journalist's Code of Ethics to "make certain that headlines....do not misrepresent."
2) I think that your publishing of an anonymous phone call message that fits your point of view, but refusal to respond to anonymous questions that disagree with you, is self-serving and contradictory. Once again, the SPJ has it right when they say, "always question sources' motives before promising anonimity.
3) I think failing to mention that the Sonoma County Vintners Membership represents over half of the wineries in Sonoma makes it seem like they are a tiny group, when in fact they are probably the best way to reach a large group of wineries.
4) I think that implying that Winery Associations putting on a tasting for the media (Advocate or otherwise) is different or new isn't correct. ZAP did tasting for Robert Parker back in the mid-1990s. I know because Dianna and I sent sammples of our first wine to Parker duringthat time and he covered it. Many other groups do such tastings for the media and you attend some of these tastings. But you haven't reported those as being problematic.
5) I think you could have emailed me back when I emailed you (not a lot of additional work) to see how these tastings work. I managed to have Antonio Galloni taste our Central Coast wines earlier this year simply by emailing him. He visited other wineries during that trip...places like Mt. Eden and Rhys and Roar and Pisoni...not because they were part of an organization but because he thought the wines should be covered.

Those are the issues I have with the blog.

Thank you for the forum.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

SUAMW said...


You say: "Makes me wonder what we think news is."

tsk tsk tsk...

Perhaps the question is:

"What do people in industry want and expect from bloggers?":


Abstract: "emergence of blogs...has presented marketers with a new communication channel."

pg. 5: "blogs provide a unique *marketing tool* to promote wine through Internet"

pg. 16: "The identification by wine agents...of the most influential bloggers can be useful to target specific actions of direct marketing."

SUAMW said...

@Anonymous Curing Cancer: You miss the fact that consumers of one level of wine sophistication or another use ratings and reviews for purchasing decisions that contribute to Billions of dollars in annual sales (some of which ends up in your wallet). Critics should (but aren't) guided by the consumers best interest. Instead. They choose have these pissing contests.

@Anonymous Andy:

Unless the WS tasters are doing clinical trials of a novel pharmaceutical they are not doing single blind or double blind anything. These terms are not applicable by any stretch to wine evaluation.

Blake: You say: "That's what I do when somebody is paying me." I say: “You don’t want to use that phrase, dude.” You either stand for truth and apply the same quality standards and diligence to ALL of your writing, or people will be wondering how much you got paid for your individual paid articles.... (Just sayin'....)

Kathy said...

You don't know all the facts. First, as this topic relates to the Napa Vintners, last year was the first year they organized a tasting for Robert Parker. MANY wineries got their wines in front of Parker who never had that opportunity before. This year, they organized a tasting for Galloni - same deal. Galloni also visited many wineries and winemakers during his trip. The Vintners tasting was merely just one of his many stops.

Your story would only be interesting if Wine Advocate refused to taste wines unless the winery was a member of the Association, which is not the case.

I am certain this is also the case with Sonoma.

I'm sorry but I rarely read your blog anymore because I think you're tending to lean toward sensationalism rather than responsible journalism.

Anonymous said...

Andy here again

In response to SUAMW -- as I am a physician, please pardon my use of medical jargon...occupational hazard. Thw WS rating as described represents a fair level of "blinding" in that the reviewer only knows the varietal and region (which, to me seems fair). They do not know the Vintner, vineyard, cost and are certainly not tasting the wines with the owner sitting right there (unless specifically noted). This certainly removes a lot of potential bias in the process -- leaving predominately whether or not you and the reviewer have similar palate preferences.

To Adam -- you make good points but I have a question for you when you said: "I managed to have Antonio Galloni taste our Central Coast wines earlier this year simply by emailing him. He visited other wineries during that trip...places like Mt. Eden and Rhys and Roar and Pisoni...not because they were part of an organization but because he thought the wines should be covered". Were your wines rated for the WA based upon these reviews?

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


Yes, my wines were written up in the WA based on that tasting. As were the other wines that I mentioned.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines & Novy Family Winery

SUAMW said...

Andy. Funny thing. I'm a physician as well. The description you provide does not in any way fit experimental design as far as blinding goes. The test subject cannot be both blind and not blind. The test subject cannot be both administrator and subject. There is nothing blind about an experienced (presumably) and truly knowledgeable (again, a long presumptive stretch)taster/subject knowing the varieTY and AVA being presented. You'll also agree that double blind tasting/testing would require the subjects and the administrators not knowing a thing about the wines presented. Double blinding is done to ensure the accuracy and validity of the measure of an intervention's effect and the only *effect* we can measure here is inebriation.
But more pernicious than the misapplication of terminology (and more of a pet peeve pf mine than journalists using the word "Schizophrenic" when they mean "pardoxical", "self-conradictory" or even "quixotic" - and not dissociative disorder) is the absolute lack of standards and criteria for awarding points. You can call is single, double, quadruple or picoblind or super-duper-winey-guessing if there is no predetermined criteria (such as you might use in interpreting a V/Q study, diagnosing a connective tissue disease or differentiating Bipolar I from Bipolar II.)
Of course, this would require skill, study, codification of typicity and pissing off those producers of high-oak, heavy bottle, $100-and-up wines (and THEN what would we write in those glossy pages besides prattle and blather?....)
Wouldnd't that be nice? Then, you wouldn't have to align your tastes with some schmuck who by luck or circumstance fell into a cushy gig - all based on one of the most aggressively propagated untruths about wine and human sensation and cognition...

Before I start channeling John Lennon, I'll go check in on my wines.

Anonymous said...

You hit the nail on the head SUAMW. "They choose to have these pissing contests". I have no problem with responsible journalism of any kind. I was a journalist at a very highly-respected, still in print, 30+ year old publication before PR/Marketing. It doesn't make shady tactics under the guise of "journalism" right. Billions of dollars are spent in this industry; yes. After 12+ years in the wine business I earn $30k/year and work for an independent wine-related organization that does not put any money in my pocket as a result of wineries earning/being granted high OR low scores.RE: tJay Miller/Advocate, I do not believe the problem lies in vintner's organizations or prof/trade commissions that require payment for membership. Those organizations (such as Wines of Chile, Wines of Argentina, Napa Winegrowers Association, etc.) are marketing organizations designed to centralize the promotion and marketing and public relations for specific wine regions or varietals (e.g. PS I Love You, ZAP) to promote them to consumers, trade and critics. Some wineries are too small or otherwise unable to hire full-time marketing departments. They put on trade tastings, events, network with media, connect wineries looking for importers to distributors and importers, help with customs clearance...all sorts of things. The aim of those trade bodies is NOT to fleece every winery or enforce a pay to play scenario.

Anonymous said...

I formerly worked with suppliers from South America. Jay Miller relied ENTIRELY upon Wines of Argentina and Wines of Chile to plan and execute his tastings, visits, itinerary, hotel rooms. I represented suppliers who were both members of those organizations, and other small, family-owned ones who were not. Wof A and Wof C did a great job in getting their member wineries in front of Miller, but of course were not paid to and did not have the resources to include non-member wineries. It was only through "friends of a friend" that my non-member Argentine wineries were tasted. And yes, the trade organizations charged the member wineries per submission and limited the amount of wines they could present. So it was not the fault of Wines of Argentina (or its member wineries) that those were the wines that got in front of Miller. He made the bat call, and showed up. I believe it was incredibly irresponsible journalism (I'm basing this on Parker's steadfast insistence that his and the WA's reviews are unadulterated, not compromised by advertising, etc) that Miller was able to call his own shots to arrange these visits and tastings without any editorial guidelines or restrictions from Parker. Perhaps Parker was too lenient, perhaps Miller was too green. However Miller knew better and chose the path of least resistance than the one Parker carved back in the 70's. So to that end, Miller is to blame for sloppy research. I also think we live in a very different world than when Parker was an idealistic young lad, wandering through vineyards in Bordeaux. The category of "super critic" had not been created yet; winemakers and wineries were simply farmers; they produced wine, an agricultural product. Now wine is a very sophisticated and slick billion dollar industry. It may not be possible to be a reviewer at the WA the way Parker was able to when he started. Wineries have PR and marketing departments, they have handlers. It's like when Ruth Reichl's and Gael Green's picture was posted in every kitchen in Manhattan to tip off the staff that a reviewer was in the house....there's no winery in the world who doesn't know what WA, WS, WE, W&S, etc. are anymore. Those days are gone. The trade organizations have a right to charge for membership; wineries also have a right not to be required to belong to them. But I will tell you that when he tasted wines from South America you had a snowball's chance in hell of getting your wines in front of him unless you were a member of WoA or WoC. A lot of the blame lies with Miller- in the entire fact that he left question marks and murky areas during his tenure.

Mike Dunne said...

Contrary to the tone of many of the comments here, Blake is entirely correct in breaking this story, even if a blog posting isn't expected to measure up to traditional journalistic standards. He's taken the first step in a story that should continue to unfold. If one of his intents was to stimulate debate, cultivate contacts and provoke others to step up with other perspectives, he certainly succeeded. First and foremost, however, Antonio Galloni needs to make clear how rigorously he will live up to the Wine Advocate's goal of "maximum inclusion." He could, for example, stipulate that 20 percent or 15 percent or 30 percent of the wines to be proposed by the SCVA be from non-member wineries. I'm tempted to suggest that the higher the percentage the better, largely because of Adam Lee's comment that the SCVA represents "over half of the wineries in Sonoma." That number seems low; why not more than 70 percent or 80 percent? This could explain why SCVA apparently is trying to leverage the Galloni visit to increase membership. Another suggestion: Since Galloni is to be in Sonoma County in early January why don't the directors of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition on the grounds of the Citrus Fair in Cloverdale the first week of the new year invite him to sit on a panel? Granted, not all the wines will be from Sonoma County, but he would be exposed to a broad representation of American wines, he could become acquainted with other members of the wine community equally as enthusiastic about discovering notable wines, and he could demonstrate his facility at judging wines presented in a truly blind context. Finally, I'm perplexed that so many commentators appear irritated by Steve Heimoff's opening comment; surely he jests.

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: The phone call wasn't anonymous. I have known the caller for many years. I am just giving that person anonymity here. That's very different from a poster I can't identify.

I expected you to post your comments from your email to me here. Why haven't you done so? Is it more fun for you to poke at me? Since you're all high and mighty on the journalism cause here, why don't you contribute to the subject at hand?

You want me to report on ZAP tastings for Parker in the '90s? How much are you going to pay me to do this? I'm sorry, Adam, but you are asking too much of a free blog. I don't see you giving away your product to consumers.

I have a donation box on the side of this blog. Put $500 in it and I'll do a more enhanced version of this story, following the leads you suggest. Otherwise, go make wine.

Kathy: You can change from "rarely read my blog" to "never" and I won't make any less money. You people demand a lot without paying anything for it. Try that at Starbucks.

SUAMW, Mike and Andy: Thanks, you get it.

SUAMW said...

Thanks Blake. When I do get it, I take Cipro.

SUAMW said...

Lemme try that again:

"Thanks, Blake. I don't always get it, but when I do I take Cipro".

Charlie Olken said...


I think you are onto something here.

I blog about it on Thursday and come down on your side.

Neither you nor I mentioned that much of Galloni's time will be spent tasting at favored wineries with the labels showing and winemaker and owner telling him about the wine.

Oh, and did I mention that my comments about our sometimes frank relationship were at least somewhat tongue in cheek and need to be take that way by the reading public lest they think we spend our time hurling empty bottles over the fence at each other.


Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...

So, let's see if I have this correct:

Antonio Galloni is coming to Sonoma County, the most far-flung and varietally diverse wine county in California. So he approaches the largest and most-geographically diverse Winery marketing organization in the county about putting on a tasting for him. They contact Member Wineries first and these tastings largely fill up the two days that Antonio has to taste. People are upset because this isn't what they believe to be the "maximum inclusion" Antonio mentioned in his email.

But wait, Antonio isn't just tasting Sonoma County Vintner's Association wines. He is also tasting wines from the West Sonoma Coast Vintners -- yet another AVA Winery Marketing Group (fee required to join....nobody mentioning them. We just joined as an Associate Member, btw). So that's more inclusive, right?

But wait there's even more. Charlie, in his post below, mentions that Antonio, on his own is going to visit other "favored" wineries....so apparently you don't have to be a member of either Winery Marketing group for Antonio to taste with you. That's more inclusive, right?

But wait, there's even more. In my only experience with Antonio, I read that he was visiting the Central Coast. I emailed him asking him if he was interested in tasting our Central Coast wines. He wrote back, said that he was, asked me about tasting other wines from the SLH, which he did, and also wanted to visit the vineyards and learn about the farming so he could have a better understanding of the wines. So it seems that email might also be a way to get him to taste your wines.

And this is what we are complaining about? I can tell you that most wine writers don't go to that inclusive and comprehensive on their first visit to a region.

If there's are stories here, in my opinion they are:

1) The Sonoma County Vintners Association (and apparently their Napa Valley counterpart) are using the services they offer to promote membership in their orgranization. There's a shock...bragging about what your organization does to get people to join. They've arranged tastings for many other wine writers before (and bragged about it), they put on tastings around the country and invite the trade and media and customers (and brag about it), they use the power of a larger group to get better rates from insurance companies, etc. and brag about it. All to get increased membership. I thought that is what a Wine Advocacy group is suppsed to do.

2) We are now reaching a point where we are holding up wine writers to ridiculous standards. You want to talk about blind tasting -- I am game (and am a fan, and would prefer that all writers - including Antonio - tasted our wines blind). You want to talk about pay for reviews, great...that's wrong. But to take someone to task for not being inclusive enough, despite the efforts detailed above....that's ridiculous in my opinion. Mike...when you went to the Wine Artisans of Santa Lucia Highlands Tasting in Sacramento -- did you think that wineries were paying to have you taste the wines? Did you ask them to include non-member wineries in the tasting? Of course not...that's ridiculous.

3) Wineries need to get out and market their wines. They need to join organizations because it does help get your wine in front of the press. They need to do things to promote themselves (post on wine boards, comment on blogs such as this one, etc) and also increase the quality of their wines and that will help wine writers to take note of them. And they need to write, email, call wine writers directly if they want them to taste their wines. It all takes time and effort but it works, if that is what you want to do.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


Seriously? I sent you a private email because you wrote that it sucks if you make Syrah or Zinfandel, showing you that the Sonoma County Vintners Association asked members for more wines that just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (that was the entire first paragraph of the email). I figured that you might want to make your blog accurate, especially a blog that begins with "An importannt role of journalism is to publish fact and let the general public decide on their importance." I just didn't think posting it was a polite way to point that out, so I emailed it to you.

Little did I realize that I needed to make a financial contribution for you to be factual or to follow journalistic standards in a blog post self-described as "service journalism."

But you are right about one thing, I don't give away my product for free (ironically, that's true with the exception of wine writers....I send them free samples). And I if you start charging for a newsletter, online blog, etc. I will be among the first to subscribe. Seriously.

But I won't pay $500 for you to do a more in-depth story for me as you offered. Nor will I pay $1000 for you to do a story on my winery, and I won't pay $2000 for positive reviews of my wine. So rest assured your next misleading headline can read , "Siduri Wines Won't Pay for Reviews, not yet."

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Jasmine Smith said...

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Anonymous said...

Andy here...

Blake -- This is the best blog I've read in a awhile. There is no need for you to qualify the reporting based upon how much you got paid (or lack thereof).

Adam -- when your wine reviews were published in the WA, were official scores given or were official scores based upon blind tastings on a later day?

SUAMW -- I am assuming your are a psychiatrist? I am a surgeon so it is not suprising we might have different views!! And I do not even think cipro will change that....In any case, I will stand by mt comment that WS reviewers are blinded to factors than can inappropriately influence perception of quality (like the winemaker is a nice person, or this is a lovely estate, or this wine is expensive, or this winery pays alot in advertsing etc). Is organolpetics a hard science? Of course not, at least in the sense of wine tasting ... there are too many variables to be able to have a controlled epxeriement. I do not expect scientific precision from wine reviewers. What I DO expect (and what I think Blake was driving at) is for wine reviewers to provide reviews that describe their perception of the wines taste and overall quality based only upon how it tastes and be (reasonably) consistent when they decribe what they taste. Whether or not you use this information to purchase wine wholly depends on whether your palate agrees with the reviewers-- and that is a completely different story.

Kathy said...

The reason you are irresponsible is people believe what you write. Look at the posts of those who think "you are on to something".

No winery here has ever been denied a rating or been denied a tasting from WA or anyone else because they don't belong to an association. In Napa, only one tasting was arranged by the Napa Vintners Association and Galloni was here many days. I think their tasting was not only a great service to their members, but it was also to Galloni. It's just not physically possible to go to every winery. He can cover more wines through a tasting such as this. That's what everyone wants, isn't it?

The associations aren't using a tasting with Galloni to recruit members. I can't speak for Sonoma, but there's so much more Napa Vintners does during this year - this tasting is only the tip of the iceberg. Wineries join and participate on every level, including serving on committees that plan ALL activities, including the tasting.

Remember, having WA taste your wine in a large tasting setting such as this doesn't guarantee they will write. So no winery is going to join just to have their wine be one of 500 tasted that day. That's just a stupid assertion.

The Sonoma association works the same way folks. This "story" is blatantly misleading and you're falling for it.

Blake - I don't understand your comment about not being paid. Are you or are you not doing this blog of your own free will?

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: Forgive me. Instead of doing the story for a publication that was paying me yesterday, I should have dropped everything to respond to your email and rewritten this post. Clearly I have made an error in judgment.

But what gives you the idea that this post is "not factual"? It quotes directly from statements sent to me by the SCVA and Galloni. If it's not factual, blame them.

Kathy: Yes, I have free will, and so do you. If you don't like my blog, don't read it. I don't need you.

But if you were a professional writer, you would be wary of writing a statement such as "No winery has ever ..." And I didn't make the "assertion" you claim I did.

What I have done here is report a story and put something on the record. It's not meant to be a sweeping overall look at the situation. It is what it is, and I'm not going to apologize to you for not doing more. I work here for me and for people who want to read me.

So why don't you make us both happy and go read some other blog you consider better?

Mike Dunne said...

Adam, I'm not suggesting that the Sonoma County Vintners Association or any other trade group shouldn't be promoting the interests of its members. I understand that that is how they work. What I'm curious about is how serious the Wine Advocate is about promoting "maximum inclusion." By asking the SCVA to include non-member wineries, Antonio Galloni seems to be looking for a reasonable shortcut to discovering wines that don't have the high profile that membership in the SCVA provides. Whether the SCVA is going to go along with his request apparently remains to be seen. Let's clarify my attendance at the tasting of Santa Lucia Highlands wines. Your comment could be interpreted to suggest I was paid to attend. I wasn't, nor did I expect to be. Did I understand that only member wines would be poured? Of course. Did I urge the group to pour non-member wines? No. I looked upon the tasting as an opportunity to get a glimpse of what generally was happening in the appellation, in anticipation of visiting the region in person, as well as finding candidate wines for my column. Also, I wanted to support a trade group that made the effort to actually visit and hold a tasting in Sacramento; few do. You may be correct that most wine writers don't go to the lengths that Galloni goes to in preparing to visit a region, but most wine writers also don't wear the ring that so many vintners are so eager to kiss.

W. Blake Gray said...

Just realized I share something other than Maryland roots with Robert Parker: When the comment board at erobertparker.com was open to the public, he used to take umbrage occasionally at people who would go there for free to snipe at him.

And there's the fact that I now own 2 Ravens t-shirts ...

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...

Well, I think your post isn't factual in that the original email invited SCVA member wineries to submit more than Pinot and Chardonnay. Which is what I pointed out in my email to you two days ago (not yesterday).

I think it isn't factual in that you wrote, "A vintner contacted me and told me that Antonio Galloni will only taste wines from members of the Sonoma County Vintners Association" when that clearly isn't correct, despite what you were told.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

Robert C. said...

I 'll tell you what the scandal is: that people give such weight to this guys, or anyone's, opinion at all. I know how it all works with the scoring system and how it sells wine, blah-blah-blah. But why is Tony's palate better than anyone elses? Why does his opinion matter so much? Just hope he doesn't have a bad tasting day due to a cold, acid reflux, or stroke, not that I wish those things on anyone. Or that the room temp is correct, or that the music that is being played is appropriate (if any at all), or the light is at the right lumens and or color, or any other miriad of other things that can affect ones palate. If not then some people are gonna me a bit angry that they did not get the number they wanted. Hey, here's an idea! How about you ignore the critics opinion and base the quality of your wines based on sales, length of wine-club memberships and your customers opinions in general? They buy your product and they should be the people you should be worried about. Remember what George Burns said about critics.

Mike Officer said...

Not sure I could do a better job than Adam in pointing out how ridiculous this story is. Reminds me of a recent hatchet piece on Rep. Mike Thompson. A writer (I use the term loosely) for the NY times tried to create a scandal claiming Mike Thompson, who owns a small vineyard in Lake County, was helping to pass favorable legislation for the wine industry. Hmmm… His district includes Lake, Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma Counties. Imagine, an elected official actually trying to work for his constituents! And so it is with the SCVA. They are simply providing a service to their members.

Ignoring the cheap shots at the Wine Advocate, the blatant attempt to sensationalize this non-story by mentioning the Campo/Miller affair, and using a provocative, misleading title, the issue (for most) seems to be: Is the SCVA using this tasting as a way to recruit new members? I highly doubt they are but if so, so what? No one is forcing a vintner to join. Want your wine tasted but don’t want to join? Great, then find some other way to put your wine in front of him. Don’t want to make the effort? Then you have no right to complain.

Blake, you say that having marketing organizations arrange tastings for the Wine Advocate is a change worth reporting. Yet it’s been going on for probably close to two decades. With the explosion of brands in the last 15 years or so, there’s simply no way to have the breadth of coverage subscribers demand without enlisting the help of these kinds of organizations. Frankly, I’m amazed at the number of CA wines that are covered, especially considering it’s always been a single person reviewing them.

Sorry Blake. I’ve enjoyed some of your articles in the past but not this one. If you want to present facts (you open saying you do), I’d suggest doing some fact checking before hitting the “publish” button.

SUAMW said...

@ Andy: Nuclear Medicine with a background in and applications to Neuroscience.

Blake and I had an experience together that would counter the idea that one cannot expect "scientific precision from wine reviewers". The person leading the seminar had the gall to tell some participants that they were..... wrong (gasp!).

Had you been present, you might have a different take on the myth of subjectivity of wine evaluation.

BTW, you do know how they refer to surgeons in England? ;)

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: These ARE facts. I'm quoting directly from what the SCVA and Galloni sent me.

I'm sorry you didn't like this post. Comparing it to the hatchet job on Mike Thompson ... ouch! You know how to hurt a guy.

Patrick said...

Blake, hang in there. Don't listen to these attackers. You are only letting some sunlight into a normally closed-off set of facts.

Mike Officer said...

Sorry Blake. Didn't mean to imply your article was a hatchet job like the Thompson story. Nevertheless, I really can't figure out why you published this piece. I think it's pretty clear that Antonio has done nothing wrong in asking the SCVA to set up a tasting of some of Sonoma County’s wines to supplement his visits and other tastings. (By the way, he’s scheduled to try my wines and I am not a member of any trade/marketing organization.) Yet, given your choice of title and swipes at the Wine Advocate (rather than focusing on the SCVA), it comes across as if you’re taunting the Wine Advocate team. And for what, especially if the Wine Advocate’s “large law firm” is really watching you? Perhaps you were just looking for some excitement.

Happy holidays.

Anonymous said...

This article was fairly priced, unless one can put a price on time, that is. Then it looks expensive.

Julie Ann Kodmur said...

Blake is a modern-day Diogenes, shining his lantern on a very important issue---let's commend him for that instead of getting negative!

W. Blake Gray said...

Mike: I published this piece because I really believe in service journalism, in getting facts on the record.

I didn't expect it to stir up the pot quite like this.

Quite simply, if the story changes in the next six months, any other journalist can point back at this story and say, "this is what Galloni and the SCVA said then." If I don't publish it, these facts remain hidden from public view.

Anyway, thanks for being polite, that counts for a lot. Disagreements happen but that's not a reason for the wine world to turn into the House of Representatives.

SUAMW said...

@Julie Ann Kodmur:


Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


FYI,Diogenes made a virtue of poverty, didn't complain about it.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Diogenes told Alexander the Great to "get out of my sunlight." I think in the 21st century he wouldn't have a problem telling people to go read somebody else's blog. And Adam, I'll leave it up to you to interpret how Diogenes might have responded to being told he must do an unpaid job a certain way for somebody who came solely to criticize him.

Happy Christmas!

SUAMW said...

Ah..... Just in time for Festivus.... The airing of grievances....
And now for my feat of strength: lifting this here coffee cup to my mouth.... It's warm... A miracle!